“For God So Loved the World”: Homily for the Sunday Before the Exaltation of the Cross in the Orthodox Church

                If you go to a football game, you’ll see fans hold up signs, waving towels, and wearing the colors of their team.  And you might even see someone holding up a sign with a Bible verse, a sign that says, “John 3:16.”  That’s because this verse is such a clear summary of the very heart of our faith.  “ For God so loved the world…”
            Some of us memorized this verse of the Bible as children in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School.  Perhaps we’ve heard it so often that we can’t understand how anyone wouldn’t get it, how anyone wouldn’t understand that the Father loves us so much that He sent the Son to bring us into His eternal life.   We often forget that this verse was first spoken by the Lord to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a teacher of the Jewish law, who had absolutely no idea what the Christ was talking about.
            When He spoke of being born again, Nicodemus was confused, for he understood only physical birth; and obviously that happens only once.  But Christ was speaking of a new life in Him, a rebirth through water (meaning baptism) and the Holy Spirit whereby we enter into the eternal life of God.  Nicodemus was shocked because he believed that people were made right with God simply by obeying His laws.  And at some level, he must have known from experience that that kind of religion doesn’t give you a new life.  It may make you more law-abiding or moral, but it doesn’t change who you are; and it certainly doesn’t seem like a re-birth into a new existence.
            So the Savior gave Nicodemus a practical example from the Old Testament that might get the point across.  Moses once lifted up a bronze serpent on a rod to cure the Israelites from poisonous snake bites.  Through this act by Moses, the giver of the law, the Jewish people were spared from death on a particular day.  But when Jesus Christ is lifted up on the cross, He gives eternal life to those who believe in Him.  For our Lord is not merely a prophet or the giver of the law, He is the One Who came down from heaven, the only-begotten Son of the Father.  Out of love for us, He went to the cross, not to condemn us, but to give us new life, to make it possible for us to be born again in the joy and blessing of life eternal.   The Son of God condemns no one but Himself, enduring the full consequences of all human sin and corruption to the point of death, burial, and descent to Hades; and then He arose victorious, bringing us into the salvation of the kingdom of God.
            Well, this was too much for Nicodemus to understand fully.  He had probably never heard such things in his life.  But by the end of the gospel of John, we read that Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea prepare the Lord’s body for burial after His crucifixion. He became Saint Nicodemus and is believed to have given his own life for Christ, following Him in the way of the cross as a martyr.
            Why would Nicodemus have done that?  He had a respectable position among his own people as a Pharisee.  He surely had what was thought of as a good life in that time and place.  But perhaps he sensed in Jesus Christ something completely new, not simply another set of laws to obey, another wise rabbi to follow, or another way to become prominent in society.  Instead, in Him he found God; and not a distant, remote deity waiting to condemn those who didn’t measure up.   He found a God Who took the condemnation upon Himself; a Father Who would offer His own Son to death; a Lord Who would be slaughtered as a Passover lamb.  Who could force or require such sacrifices from the Almighty?  Obviously, no one could.  But out of a divine love more selfless and humble and forgiving that we can possibly conceive, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have brought us into their divine, eternal, everlasting life.  We are born again in our Lord Who has conquered sin and death on our behalf.
            Nicodemus is a lot like the Apostle Paul, for like him he didn’t understand at first the way of Jesus Christ.  But also like Nicodemus, he changed completely and then became an unparalleled evangelist and missionary and the author of so much of the New Testament.  Also a Pharisee, Paul knew the Old Testament law inside and out; he knew its limitations and weaknesses; he knew the temptation to self-righteousness that legalism brings.  But in Christ Jesus, Paul experienced something completely different from the law; he experienced what he called “a new creation.”  For our Lord is the new Adam in which all that has gone wrong with human beings and the world since the fall of our first parents has been set right.  He has taken the condemnation of the old Adam—of sin, death, and corruption—upon Himself with His cross.  He has brought us all up from the pit of hades to the heights of heaven. 
            A legal code cannot do that, but the God-Man Jesus Christ can and did.  So Paul learned, as had Nicodemus, to boast in nothing except the cross of Christ; in other words, the unfathomable love of the Father Who gave His only-begotten Son, the great Mystery of the Eternal Word of God who became a Passover Lamb, became the basis of a new life for these former Pharisees, a new life that was worth dying for as martyrs.
            Some people reject Christianity because they think that our faith is too judgmental, that we focus too much on the wrath of God; perhaps they may have known Christians who looked down on others self-righteously or hypocritically; or perhaps they have known people who turned the good news of salvation into just another form of legalism.  But when we remember the fundamental truths of our faith that became life-changing for Nicodemus and Paul, we see that such interpretations of Christianity are terrible distortions.  Judgment, condemnation, legalism, and wrath, these are dimensions of life that we all know far too well.   But Christ did not come to judge, condemn, or punish with wrath or to burden us with new regulations; instead, He came to save, bless, and heal.  Look at Him when He is lifted up on the cross.  We do not see a God eager to distribute hell, fire, and brimstone to others; instead, we see Him selflessly bearing the full brunt of all the evil of the universe for our sake. 
            And anyone who is a new creation in Him, who has been re-born into the life of the Kingdom through His cross and resurrection, has no basis whatsoever for the self-righteous judgment of anyone else.  For it is not our morality, social respectability, legal observance, or political options that have made us partakers of the Divine Nature; instead, it is the mercy of the God-Man Who went to the cross for us.  Paul was as zealous a Pharisee as ever lived, but his eyes opened to the truth that his only righteousness, his only hope, was in the crucified and risen Lord in whom he had become part of a new creation.
            Our calling, then, is to live out this new life that Christ has brought to the world.  The same sacrificial, humble, forgiving love that is our salvation must become evident in our lives, must become characteristic of who we are.  For to be born again through Christ is not merely a feeling or a one-time event; instead, it is the reality of sharing in His life, of participating in His salvation, of living as His faithful disciples each day.   It is the joy of being part of a new creation, the New Adam, the Body of Christ. It is the joy of life everlasting, of the salvation of God, which the cross of Christ has brought into the world.
            “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”  

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