Deacon Cornell's Homily


Numbers 21:4b-9
Philippians 2:6-11
John 3:13-17


September 13-14, 2008 Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Cycle A

So who is the John 3:16 guy anyway? He seems to be well known to a lot of fans in a lot of different sports, since they wear his tee-shirt, and hold up banners with his name and number on them. And his fans always seem to have really good seats, you know, behind home plate, or in the end zone, or right behind the basket.

Of course, the people we see displaying John 3:16 are people who realize that this single verse in chapter 3 of John's Gospel is a perfect summary of what Christianity is all about. "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life."

Paul said it in a slightly different way last week in that passage from Romans chapter 13 that is our parish scripture passage of the month. All the laws and beatitudes are summed up in the single commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Because God is love, and God's plan for salvation is to love this world into paradise, to love the people we encounter in life is to participate fully in God's plan.

This past week at one of the Bible groups I belong to we were discussing the parish scripture of the month and one of the things we had to clarify early on is what do we mean by the word love in the context of the command to love your neighbor. We quickly decided that it didn't mean an emotional response, and that it did not mean something as vague as "loving everyone". The love that John 3:16 and Romans 13:9, and for that matter, that wonderful early hymn we heard from Philippians 2 that was our second reading, is an act of the will. It is deciding in each particular situation we encounter in our lives in a way that brings about the highest good for the other person.

As with any decision, we need to know what the situation really is before we can hope to make a good decision. Acting out of love is no different. It is amazing that people seem to approach matters of faith based on what they feel is right. My daughter in law Mariel is a dosimetrist, which means she calculates radiation dosages for cancer patient. She creates the programs that control the beam of electrons or protons that focus on the tumor and kill it without damaging surrounding tissue. I am sure every one of her patients is glad that she doesn't come into work some days and say, "I feel like this is what I should do for this case." No, what she does is to take into account everything that is known about this case: the size and type of tumor, where is is located, how much flesh or bone or muscle is in front of it, what other regimens the patient is going through, and on and on. Only when all those elements are taken into account, can the formulas produce the exact size, shape, and strength of radiation to help this patient.

Our first reading from the Book of Numbers reminds us that what someone feels, including ourselves, is not always the best indication of what is good for that person or for us. The Israelites had been freed from slavery, but the cost of that freedom was not what they wanted at that moment. The physical hardship of their journey from slavery to freedom seemed worse than the creature comforts of their slavery. God's response is not to give them what they wanted but to act out of what was in their best interest. I am sure they took that about as well as a two year old takes your refusal to hand over that knife that they want so badly to play with. The bronze serpent, like the cross, is a reminder that we need to acknowledge the truth about what is good and what is not, if we are to be able to follow that one commandment to love one another.

When you stop and think about the truth today's readings reveal about who God is, it is pretty hard to understand how the prevailing understanding of God and Christianity, both from the outside and inside, is that of a punishing judge who imposes restrictions on us and then is quick to punish us for any slip ups. Collectively we are like the grumbling Israelites in the desert, or the frustrated two year old who didn't get his way. The cross challenges us to acknowledge the truth about God so succinctly expressed by the Rolling Stones: you can't always get what you want, but if you try some time, you might find, you get what you need. And then as disciples we are to turn around and do the same to one another and to the world.

God not only gives love; God is love. Love that always gives what we need no matter how loudly we whine about what we want. The cross is a gift from a God who did not hesitate to empy himself of all the glory of being God to become human, to live fully as a human, and to die as a human, because that was what was best for us. Baptism dedicates us to fulfilling that plan of God to bring salvation to the world, not to punish it or let it perish, by loving as God loves. We are anointed as priest, prophet, and king. Those roles are the specifics of how we carry out this plan: learning and sharing who God is and what the truth is; speaking that truth even when it is inconvenient; and caring for the total well being of those we encounter, but especially the poor, the orphans, the aliens, without regard to our wants.

The truth is that doing this is exactly how to achieve what we need. As that hymn from Philippians expresses so beautifully, because Christ emptied himself and was faithful to God's plan for salvation, God raised him on high and gave him the name above every name. This wonderful truth is speaking about us, the body of Christ. The son of God, Jesus, Christ's head had no need to raised on high. Jesus is God. It is the body of Christ that is in need of being raised, and the cross tells us how we go about that. We need to apply this truth, this single commandment, to every decision we make in life: in our families, in our political life, in our business or school life, and it should be obvious, in our faith life.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.

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