Gospel Reflections for Lent: Year B Sunday 4
This Sunday we stay with John. Our Gospel extract is part of the encounter in Jerusalem between Jesus and Nicodemus, an important Jewish leader, who approaches Jesus by night in search of the truth. Initially their conversation revolves around entry into the Kingdom and new birth through water and spirit. Jesus then develops his thought in a different direction, and the dialogue becomes discourse.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. (3:14-21)
The first image which is placed before us is that of the Son of Man being lifted up. This verb, which is used of the Servant in Isaiah 52:13, has two meanings. It can indicate to lift up physically, like Moses lifting aloft the bronze serpent in the desert incident as a source of healing and salvation for those bitten by the fiery serpents (Num 21:8-9). It can therefore apply to Jesus' crucifixion, his being lifted up on the cross. The verb also means to exalt, to glorify; and so it can be used of the resurrection/ascension, the return of Jesus to the Father's side. Whereas in the other New Testament traditions the cross is the low point, the nadir moment, which is then dramatically reversed by the resurrection, for John the cross is the high point, the supreme moment of revelation and life-giving. The same verb covers both aspects of this mystery. It occurs again in 8:28 and 12:32. The three occurrences are John's equivalent to the three passion predictions of the Synoptic tradition.
There follows the most celebrated expression of the Fourth Gospel, which sums up the whole Christian message of salvation. It is the Gospel, the Good or Gladdening News in a nutshell: God so loved the world... Behind everything stands the love of God, God's free initiative and gift. John's literary style is interesting here. To articulate the consequence of God's love, he uses parallelism. For God gives/sends His Son, His only Son. That giving/sending is for the benefit of the whole wide world. The purpose of that giving/sending is expressed twice in antithetical terms, negatively and positively. It is that believers should not perish, or be destroyed or be judged (condemned); rather that they should have eternal life, be saved.
Throughout his Gospel, rather than adopt the terms kingdom or salvation, John prefers eternal life, which he uses seventeen times. This is not to be understood mainly as everlasting life, a kind of life which starts only when normal earthly life ends in death. It is a qualitatively different kind of life, the life which pertains to the above, the heavenly realm; it is the life of God. It does therefore have an everlasting dimension. But the Fourth Evangelist stresses that eternal life is not a future dream only; it is a present reality. Already, now, believers come to share the life of the beyond. And death cannot snuff out this quality of life. It continues through death and reaches fulfilment beyond the grave. The Prologue states that to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God. We become God's children, we are caught up in God's life, through baptism, through birth by water and Spirit, as Jesus has explained earlier in the dialogue with Nicodemus.
Later in the Gospel narrative, when referring to himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus states that the purpose for which he has come into the world is to give us this life, life in all its fullness. John insists, as we have seen, that we share that life already. It is not only the subject of promise and hope, a thing of the future, linked with last day resurrection and judgement (everlasting life, like eternal rest). It is a present fact. It is the life of the beyond, of the age to come, participated in now. There is in the Fourth Gospel a strong emphasis on this now; scholars call it realised eschatology. With regard to both eternal life/resurrection and judgement, John sometimes speaks about the future too, with reference to the last days. But he tends to lay greater emphasis on realised eschatology - life and judgement as present realities.
As the discourse continues, Jesus introduces the symbolism of light and darkness. He indicates that the veil of darkness covers both good and bad people. When the light comes, it exposes the true character of each. The identity of the wicked becomes manifest in that they prefer to remain in the dark so as not to be detected. Those people who are good and genuine welcome the light and emerge from the shadows into the open. The presence of the light brings both liberation and judgement. A decision has to be made, a choice between the light which Jesus brings, offering life and salvation, and the darkness of unbelief, rejection and sin, which leads to judgement, which is the dark, reverse side of God's eschatological act of love and redemption. The key criterion is belief in Jesus. Judgement is not the act of the Father or Jesus, nor is it a future event at the end. For John, we judge ourselves now in the present, by our response to Jesus, the light. The Evangelist is not simply generalising here; the tenses suggest that he is referring to historical choices in the ministry of Jesus and the life of the Church. But the coming of the light remains a perpetual challenge to subsequent generations.
The season of Lent enables us to prepare for the celebration of the lifting up of Jesus, the liturgical re-presentation of his death and resurrection. This is the triumph of light over darkness. In Lent we are invited to look at the darkness in our own lives and hearts, and ask the Lord to dissipate that darkness with his light. There are, we know, areas of our being, dimensions of our selfhood, aspects of our living, which the light has not yet penetrated. There is a shadow side of our personality, a darkness which seeks to overcome the light. There may even be pockets of darkness which we prefer to defend and perpetuate. Despite the enlightenment which comes our way, we may still fail to learn and understand. We can make wrong judgements, be narrow and closed in our attitudes. We can take wrong turnings on our journey, walking uncertainly in the shadows. We can still be blind, at least sometimes and in some areas of life. And there is much darkness in our wider world: lies and deception; oppression, violence and injustice; greed, hatred and prejudice. There are elements of darkness in our church and in our communities. We long for the explosion of light which is Easter.
The uplifting of Jesus is the supreme revelation of God's love. Lent is above all else a time in which we are encouraged to ponder that love. It is the love which brought me into existence and which sustains me in being. It is a love which sent Jesus into our world as one of us, to share our human experience. It is a love which through him has drawn us into the life of God, so that we are always in the heart of God, wherever we are and whatever we are doing. There is another dimension to every aspect of our existence. Unfortunately, we can easily lose sight of this, and live life on the surface. Lent can be an exciting time of discovery, a discovery which can transform our lives.
Television the other evening brought pictures of the coral reef which is being destroyed by the increase of acid in the seas caused by excessive carbon dioxide. This is part of the wider scene of global warming with which we are becoming familiar. Yet all this is the world which God so loves, the world which God embraced when the Word became flesh, the place where that Word pitched his tent. Perhaps Lent this year is a wake-up call to us to take environmental issues much more seriously as an aspect of our response to God's love.
Fr Michael Winstanley SDB 17/3/2009