Fourth Sunday in Lent, rcl yr b, 2021
St. John’s in between
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
Each Sunday in Lent we’ve been guided more and more deeply into the mystery that is God in Christ, and Christ crucified. On the first Sunday we heard of Jesus being driven into the wilderness. He came out of that wilderness after forty days, and almost immediately begins to tell the disciples what was about to happen. The announcement that day was that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” But that quickly gives way to another announcement: that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.”
Then we come to the third Sunday in Lent when we hear again, this time from John’s Gospel, Jesus telling the people in the temple market: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” clarifying that he was not speaking of a temple made with hands, but that “he was speaking of the temple of his body.” And here today, on the fourth Sunday of Lent, that “the Son of Man” would “be lifted up,” that is, lifted up on the cross, as John’s Gospel will make increasingly clear.
And though the lectionary jumps from Mark, to John, and then back again to Mark by the time we get to the Liturgy of the Palms and Passion Sunday, the liturgical passage through Lent is experienced much like reading one of the Gospels straight through. All the stories we find in the gospels, stories of healing, or of miracles, or of Jesus’s teaching, are all studded with these reminders of where we are headed in Holy Week: to Golgotha, the place of the skull, the mount upon which Jesus will be crucified: reminded that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed”; reminded the temple that is Jesus’s body would be destroyed; reminded that the Son of Man will be lifted up on the cross of Calvary.
I’m sure some of you are saying, or thinking to yourselves, “Yes but Preston, you’re missing the most important bit! Sure “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” but that ends with Jesus saying that “after three days” the Son of Man will “rise again”! And sure, the temple that is Jesus’s body would be destroyed, but that temple will be raised up again after three days!”
Indeed! Without a doubt. It’s only that the Gospels themselves spend between a quarter to a third of their length devoted to the passion, the passion we are coming very close to hearing in a few short weeks, the passion which the gospels prepare us to hear, the passion which we are being prepared to hear each Sunday in Lent. Giving us good reason to resist the temptation to gloss over quickly the passion we are being prepared for: that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed,” that the temple that is Jesus’s body will be destroyed, and that the Son of Man will be lifted up on Calvary’s cross.
This road to Golgotha is one that we share with Jesus liturgically, as we pass through Lent and on our way to Passion Sunday and Good Friday. This liturgical road to Golgotha, though, is one that runs together with the road we walk as Christian disciples. It’s something I spoke of two weeks ago, when we heard Jesus speak of his road to the the cross—that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.” And that as Jesus describes his road, he also speaks of “any [who would] want to become [his] followers.” We walk, as his followers, the same road, according to Jesus—in his words, we would deny ourselves, and take up our crosses, as we follow him.
Sometimes this following of Jesus does include real choices in our lives, where we are active participants in our discipleship, responding to the beckoning of God, choosing one thing over another in order to faithfully follow Jesus. Sometimes following Jesus is a matter of choosing to do this, and not that. But there’s something deeper going on here as Jesus speaks of his road to Calvary, and the road where we too pick up our cross—a unity of purpose that goes well beyond our own intentions, and well beyond our own decisions.
Paul calls it grace—a grace that goes far beyond God’s pardon, or God’s forgiveness of our faults and sins. It’s the grace of the deepest sort of reconciliation, a reconciliation that can only be called unity with God, where we meet together with Jesus in one shared body.
Today, our Psalm takes its own detour into the depths of pain, speaking of a foolish and rebellious people, afflicted and drawing near to death’s door, crying to the Lord in their trouble—and yes, delivering them from their distress, but also delivering them from distress.
Remember that Jesus, too, had Psalms on his lips when he was on the cross, the same Psalms that we pray, recite, and sing. The same Psalms that give voice to suffering and pain—especially Psalms like Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest.”
St. Augustine wrote extensively on the Psalms, and the significance of the fact that we say and sing and pray the same Psalms that Jesus sung and prayed; and that Jesus sung and prayed the same Psalms that we sing and pray. We are, in the shared words of the Psalms, with him on the cross, and he with us in our suffering.
Which leads, for Augustine—especially through the church’s recitation of the Psalms that Jesus himself spoke—to a deep and abiding unity between Jesus and his people. Jesus, in a mystical kind of way, suffers as we suffer, and we suffer as Jesus suffers, united as we are in one body with him, the body of Christ that is the church praying the Psalms. As the body of Christ praying the Psalms, we come into unity with Jesus, a unity in which Jesus gives voice to our suffering; while the Son of God who prays the Psalms of suffering with us purifies our own expressions of pain, hallowing them, transforming them, according to the power only he has—the power to save, the power to pardon and reconcile, the power to heal, the power to give life.
Perhaps now we can come round to at least a glimpse of the life spoken of in our readings: that “after three days [Jesus would] rise again,” and that the temple that is Jesus’s body would be rebuilt after three days.
(Though we should say that John doesn’t like to make a strong distinction between the cross of death and the resurrection to life; for John explicitly, and the other gospels implicitly, the cross upon which the Son of Man is lifted up is the cross of life, and where our redemption is wrought by his self-offering: that “the Son of Man [must] be lifted up [on the cross] that whoever believes in him may have eternal life,” as we read in John’s Gospel today.)
Because it’s there, on the cross, where we find our unity with Jesus— through the shared words of the Psalms of suffering, but a unity that is transformative in ways beyond our own possibilities; because it is a unity with the Jesus who also saves and heals and gives life.
It’s this sort of graceful unity that Paul is getting at in our reading from Ephesians: “But God […] made us alive together with Christ […] and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
Did you catch that? If we are made one with Christ in his passion, we are not left bereft because we have been made one with him also in his resurrection and his ascension. If we are made one with him in suffering, “God [also] made us alive together with Christ […] and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
Unity with him in his passion is to be made alive with him also on the third day; raised up with him, and then seated with him, (because we have been made one with him) in the heavenly place in Christ Jesus.”
It is still not, for Paul, something that reaches its completion in the here-and-now. We are, indeed, made alive in Christ right now. The light of Jesus has already come into the world, driving away the darkness, as John puts it. Or the way Paul puts it, we are already seated with Jesus in the heavenly places (because Jesus is already now seated in the heavenly places). Or the way Mark puts it: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.”
But it is a kingdom finds its completion in the ages to come, “so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Or in the way John puts it, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” And so we tarry away, we work away, and often we suffer away …learning to love the way Jesus loves, by way of the cross, which is the way of life.
But let’s remember that it’s a cross we share with Jesus in our discipleship that is far more than choosing to do the right thing, choosing this way, over some other way. No, the Son of Man is lifted up on the cross, with us, in order that he can accomplish, for us, by grace, the life of which he speaks—that we would be “made […] alive together with Christ […],” that we would be “raised […] up with him,” that we would be “seated […] with him,” that we would find ourselves, even now, “in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—AMEN.
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons