Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
Pastor Paul Carlson
March 15, 2015
Prayer: God of truth and grace, may the light of Christ shine upon us, making us truly alive. Amen.
When I was in college at CU Boulder a very long time ago, I was in a jazz group. We played, the five of us, up the mountain in Georgetown on the weekends in a restaurant and lounge. I was 19 or twenty at the time, with hair. I was just learning to play jazz and that was how I started, on the job and getting paid to play with other good jazz players, music students in school with me. Now the point I am making is that we would play at night at this restaurant and lounge, with the lights turned down, the candles on the tables, and so forth. We stayed at a motel overnight, since it was a two-night gig, and in the morning we would crawl out of bed and the chef would throw a breakfast together for us as part of our pay. The place looked a lot better at night. In the morning the lights were on, it was daylight and you could see how kind of dingy it was, how dusty it was, how it needed a vacuum and a clean wash rag. The light exposed it. It wasn’t awful. It was just what it really was and not what it appeared to be in the evening.
Today’s story about snakes and the cross is about how the light of God in Christ exposes us and thereby heals us. Whether it is poisonous snakes on a pole or Jesus on the cross, the story is that by looking directly at the hard truth, you can be healed. There really was no hope or healing for the restaurant, but there is hope for us.
It isn’t, then, that we see Jesus so much as we see ourselves exposed. That is a constant paradox in our faith tradition, for to see God is to see ourselves, our own lives and relationships in a new light.
The recent racist incident on a bus carrying members of an elite fraternity is an example of what can happen to us. Here is a privileged group of young men, people with all the advantages of a quality education, learning, travel, who end up chanting a disgusting racial diatribe as if they had no education or moral upbringing at all. That is a moment of life without the light of truth or grace, that is, until someone with a camera threw some light their way.
The cross is a mirror, or camera, of truth. It shows me as I am. The good and the bad, altogether. It doesn’t say I am all bad or all good. It normalizes my sense of self.
I think, from my experience, that we would prefer to be told how good and attractive we are. What John’s gospel suggests is that what we need is the simple truth, a light, the light of compassionate and forgiving grace, that sees our pain, shining upon us, exposing us for who we are, and embracing us at the same time. It isn’t healing to say to someone, “You are wonderful in all ways.” That isn’t true of anyone. That has no power to heal because it lacks the truth. On the other hand, it doesn’t heal to say to someone, “You really don’t have any redeeming qualities at all that I can see.” That also is going to be untrue. We all have things that are true and good about us. What is healing is truth and grace combined. That is part of the gospel of John’s message: Jesus the Risen Christ, the Word from the beginning of creation made flesh, brings both truth and grace.
The letter to the churches in Ephesus, an ancient ruin of a city now in modern Turkey, says that God loved us while we were still dead in our sins, or perhaps it means, “while our sins still deadened us.” I find that encouraging, especially if we think that our sense of righteousness sets us apart somehow. Now there is a new reality that we can live into. “We are what God has made us-alive in Christ for good works.”
The message finally is not about judgment or punishment, nor is it about my or your sense of righteousness, about being morally better than someone else, of seeing myself as a terribly sinful person or an exceedingly wonderful and good person. These are all, frankly, lies. We are what God has made us, alive in Christ. It’s about being alive for good works, works of love. Period. The ancient church writer Irenaeus, not always my favorite, was truthful when he wrote, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Not perfect. Not necessarily outstanding. Just alive in Christ, who brings both truth and grace, in case anyone should get a big head. This takes so much nonsense out of human relationships, so much posturing and judgement.
We need to remember this about our own spiritual journey and how we view ourselves and others. As a community, it is important for us to have a realistic sense of ourselves, not overly negative or overly positive. Incidentally, that is why the review process includes both affirmations and recommendations. Either one alone would be untrue. Neither one alone is able to help us move forward.
The Christian story carries a great truth. Jesus is the one who bears that truth in Christian experience. We are healed through his light of truth and grace, which marks our way, revealing who we are. It is not a light we need to fear. It is a healing light. It makes us fully alive in Christ for good works of love and compassion for others. We can welcome it and live into it. Amen.