Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Both our second reading, (Ephesians 2:4-10) and our gospel, (John 3:14-21), are emphatic reminders of God’s love for us, insisting that love is of his nature, his own being, not an attribute, but his essence. Indeed, the interpretation of John 3 is not that God felt an enormously strong emotion towards his creation, saving it despite its wickedness, but rather that because of his own nature – love, God gave his Son as our redeemer. To be true to himself, he could not do otherwise. Salvation in Christ then becomes a sharing of divine nature with us, and, true to his own nature, God has always made a positive option for his creation. All this puts the old questions about God ‘punishing’ wickedness in humanity into a quite different perspective.
Our first reading, (2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23), comes from a time, possibly between 400-200 BC when temple authorities and officials of the court were writing up the history of their people. Clearly they wanted to keep them on the straight and narrow by endorsing very ancient views of God or the gods of the pagans in which deities were prone to strike down those who were believed to have transgressed in some way or other. Storm gods sent fire and hail to damage crops or struck them with illness and we see this in both pagan and Hebrew deity very early on, as in the case of David choosing which punishment he would endure in retaliation for his census of the fighting power of Israel. However, whilst the quite late writings of Chronicles perpetuate this view, this was not necessarily so even earlier. We know that the prophet Jeremiah, prophet of the 6th century BC understood full well that the disasters inflicted upon his nation by the Babylonian conquest of Nebuchadnezzar were the result of his own monarch’s disastrously ill judged foreign policy. Jeremiah of course came to grief precisely because he pointed this out and argued for appeasement with the Babylonians. The Book of Job, too, is an exploration of this whole question of whether or not God punishes people. The real difficulty is of course that human nature likes to explain things through blaming others or indeed gods, when things go wrong. We see Jesus engaged in battling against those, including his own followers, who like Job’s ‘friends’, believed illness or affliction to be punishment from God for some earlier fault. We just cannot get our heads round the idea of a God so outgoing and loving that he will do anything to draw us to himself or, put another way, into the love that He is, even to the extent of sacrificing his own Son for us, not out of necessity, but simply out of gift, grace, his desire for us to share his life. The other side of the coin, as Paul explores in Romans, is ‘if God loves and forgives us so much, why don’t I just go on sinning regardless; after all, he’ll still love me!’ He recognises of course that such behaviour is a totally inadequate response to divine grace and that we are called to live God-like lives and can of course only do so through His grace. Indeed, fallen as we are, there is no way in which we can aspire to God other than via his grace; the leading of His Spirit which infuses the Christian soul who willingly co-operates with God.
Fundamentally however, this is not primarily about ‘being good’, certainly not with any sense of clocking up Brownie-points to salvation, but about being done-to, en-graced by God. As our reading from Ephesians makes clear, “It is through grace that you have been saved – and raised up with him…. given a place with him in heaven, in Christ Jesus”. Like Christ, we are, even now, in baptism already co-raised; co-enthroned with the Lord. It was to bring home this staggering news, this wholly new vision of humanity that Paul wrote this truly amazing letter to the Christians of Ephesus and it is worth reading the whole of it to appreciate just what Paul was saying.
In earlier times, Christ’s, messiah’s, saviours of Israel could be found even among foreigners, as 2 Chronicles recognised with Cyrus the Persian whose policy was to return enslaved Babylonian prisoners back to their own homelands as grateful and loyal vassals. Israelin its long history had seen many messiah-Christs’s come and go, among them would-be liberators of its people, usually with lamentable want of success and many of whom met a sticky end. The whole point about the difference with Jesus lies precisely in the fact that he did not promise such material benefits for his people and never attempted to do so. Jesus’ miracles are signs to the coming Kingdomof Godon earth and his entire purpose is to bring us to the Father. “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” The action, the initiative is wholly God’s. For us independent individualists this can be a very hard thing to grasp. We like to hang onto a blame-culture for it gives us a degree of control over the situation whereas the acceptance of God’s grace as a gift is a recognition of something totally out of our control. We like to think of our relationship with God as one where some equality or at least bargaining power is included. Our readings for this Sunday in Lent press home the reality that we come to God wholly unequal and are made sharers in the divine nature. God is entirely free to do whatever he wishes with his creation; blot it out on a whim; or make it divine. Following the parameters he set for himself he has chosen to make us like himself. The opportunity, the invitation to us is that here and now we live like God. “The man who lives by the truth comes out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God.”