Sermon Earth Sunday April 18 2021 I John 3:16-18 Rev. Betsy Hogan
It was almost exactly at this Sunday morning moment, one year plus one day ago, that we learned via Twitter that there was a gunman at large in Nova Scotia, possibly traveling toward Dartmouth from Colchester County.
It wouldn't be for many hours that we'd find out how many people he'd murdered. But we had no difficulty, from the very beginning, understanding that there was nothing redemptive about those deaths. Nothing "saving", nothing good.
It's certainly possible, considering the family groupings of the victims, that attempts were made to shield others or take bullets on their behalf –
But we had no difficulty, from the very beginning, understanding those murders as having been perpetrated, intentionally, as a vile manifestation of power, in the shape of the capacity to kill.
The murderer fed his need for that power, built up the capacity to manifest it, and then unleashed it. There was nothing redemptive about those deaths. We know that. They were simply perpetrated. They happened.
In the weeks, in the months, in the years after the first Easter, after Jesus' crucifixion and death – and even despite his rising – the disciples understood his murder in the same way.
That it was not, in and of itself, redemptive. "Saving". That it had simply been perpetrated with intent as a vile manifestation of power – in Jesus' case not the power of one person but the power of the Roman state –
And that what was redemptive was the resurrection. Essentially God laughing in the face of that so-called power. Like, torture, murder, death is the best the world can do? Those are nothing to God's power to restore, lift up, resurrect into newness of life.
It was only later, and actually quite a bit later, that Christian theologians began to rethink Jesus' death on the cross as in and of itself, redemptive. Carrying within itself "saving power" or "redeeming power".
As opposed to simply being a murder perpetrated over which God triumphed, and so now we know that death doesn't have the last word.
And essentially what happened isn't really that complicated. All the early Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile, had been steeped in an understanding of Godness that assumed at its heart that for humans to be "made right" with God, to get on God's "good side" as it were, a sacrifice had to be offered.
Totally standard, unsurprising, obvious part of their theology: their understanding of what God is like.
The "gods" of Greece and Rome, for sure, but equally the Judeo-Christian God. Recall Mary and Joseph bringing turtledoves to the Temple. The Passover lamb, the pigeons, the goats.
The necessity for a sacrifice to be made to God, in order for humans to be made right with God, to be reconciled to God, it was an inescapable piece of any Godness they could imagine.
And so over time, Jesus' crucifixion and death began to be understood as that sacrifice. Demanded by God in return for our 'redemption', our 'salvation', our reconciliation with God as a human family -- as a payment that would pay off the debt of all our sins.
Jesus' death as itself redemptive. In which he offers himself as the ultimate sacrifice, bearing the burden of all our sins, and chooses to lay down his life and die on the cross for us as the payment God requires.
It's called "Sacrificial Christology". And the degree to which it permeated Christian thought in the first few centuries, and is still at the heart of Christian expression is pretty much made obvious by how familiar I suspect that most if not all of the phrases I just used to describe it probably sound to many of our ears.
That said... it's not, to put it gently, an understanding of God, or Jesus, or Jesus' crucifixion, that I personally find meaningful. I cannot believe that God 'required' Jesus' torture and death as some sort of quid pro quo for continuing to put up with us, and my conviction that God's love was made fully manifest in Jesus does not depend in any way on his having to have willingly chosen to die on the cross.
It's quite solid without it. It really is. With that death just having been perpetrated on him as a violent manifestation of state power. And the resurrection as its redemption.
But the reason I bring it up is that I think that the weight of all the centuries before us -- the weight of looking at the gospels and passages like the one Anne just read for us with the hovering of Sacrifical Christology all around us –
Has kind of messed with our capacity to hear a quite straight-forward message in these words as simply as they're meant.
"Greater love has no one but this," is how Jesus put it, "than to lay down their life for their friends." By the time John is writing these words, they've already become heavy with sort of predictive and descriptive meaning. They're already laden with being words ABOUT Jesus instead of words OF Jesus.
Which I'm not saying they're not also totally appropriately words ABOUT Jesus – not in the least. But before they were that, they were words OF Jesus.
And all they were, really, was just part and parcel of the whole way he was teaching us to live. Not for ourselves alone, never for ourselves alone, but always in relation to others.
Always aware of others – their well-being, their safety, their needs. As though these were no different from our own. As though the other person's well-being, safety, needs are as important as our own. Or even, if they're vulnerable, MORE IMPORTANT than our own.
Such that, if their well-being, their safety, their needs, their LIFE, is threatened in some way, we – if we're basically okay -- we'll put ourselves second. Lay down our own needs, such as they might be, in service of securing the all-too fragile well-being of the other person. So their well-being can be as real as they deserve. As everyone deserves.
If you have two coats, Jesus said, give one of them to someone who doesn't have any. Because if you love your neighbour as yourself, you want them to be as warm when it's cold as you'd want to be yourself.
So as words OF Jesus, "love means that you lay down your life for others" isn't about seeking out opportunities for martyrdom, on a cross or otherwise. It's just a way of living. It's an orientation toward life that feels responsible all the time for our neighbours, for other's well-being, for the common good.
An orientation toward life that understands and accepts without question that sometimes faithfulness and love mean we make sacrifices because that helps other people. We become sacrificial. We CHOOSE to become sacrificial, as Jesus taught. We become people who hand over one of our metaphorical coats. For the common good. For the well-being of all.
It's at the heart of the faithfulness that manifests in Love Your Neighbour. Our Christian faith is implicitly sacrificial. Not because of what theologians said ABOUT Jesus and his death on the cross, but because of what Jesus himself said. About how to live.
And that's important. It's important for us to recognize readiness to sacrifice for the common good as one of the imperatives of following Jesus' way of love.
Because this is the moment when that readiness gets tested. This is the moment when sacrifice gets required. Individually, from some of us, but also generally.
It isn't easy and it won't be smooth sailing to reorient an economy based largely on resource extraction, and specifically on fossil fuels -- but it has to be done.
It isn't easy and it won't be smooth sailing to reorient consumption away from what's cheap and disposable, especially when we've allowed so much wealth to be hoarded by some, that it's all others can afford – but it has to be done.
The earth can't survive our pollution and our garbage. There's an island of plastic garbage the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean. Every year, more and more refugees from the global south are moving north, either because of hunger and drought or because of the political unrest and violence that hunger and drought produce. The earth is dying and people are hurting because of our pollution and our garbage.
Which is saying something. Because frankly, the earth God created is remarkably resilient. And frankly, we've had the knowledge and the technology necessary to allow us to leave the oil in the ground for decades.
But the reorientation will call upon us to make sacrifices. It's why it hasn't happened. Those of us who've benefited from the way things are, we like our affluence and our extras. We like our convenient disposables and cheap imports. And just imagining the upheaval of purposefully replacing our current energy infrastructure on which all of us currently depend and some much more than others – it's fearsome.
We'll be called upon to make sacrifices -- to sacrifice our extras, our convenience, the swiftness with which we replace things, the amounts we think we're entitled to.
But it has to happen. The good news, for us, is that for us we can ground ourselves in the faithfulness we try to live by – the faithfulness that's inherently sacrificial, lay down my needs in service of the common good – in order to do it.
It's love of neighbour writ large. Greater love has no one but this. It's participating in resurrection. We can be sacrificial. It's redemptive. When so much is simply grievous, simply painful, simply heart-breaking, it's redemptive. Amen.