Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sunday 1 April 2018 - Easter

Theme: New life in Christ / Christ is Risen: He is Risen Indeed / Death overcome

Sentence: 'You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.' (Mark 16:6)


Jesus Christ our Saviour,
you have delivered us
from death and sin.
You have brought with the dawn
a new beginning and an empty tomb;
grant us strength and humility
to enter into the new life granted us by the Father
through the same power of the Spirit to raise you from the dead.


Acts 10:34-43 (=Old Testament reading),
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11, 
Mark 16:1-8 [John 20:1-18 is an alternative]


Acts 10:34-43 (=Old Testament reading) 

This is a masterly summary of the gospel which repays careful study beyond the specific attention it gives to the resurrection. Here we might be especially interested in verse 40, which makes a distinction between God raising Jesus from the dead and allowing him to appear. 

But verse 41 is also important as it nails an often observed fact about the appearances, that they were appearances to those who already knew Jesus (a famous exception being Saul/Paul) and not to the unbelieving public at large.

The distinction in verse 40 means that the act of raising Jesus from the dead is a specific action by God, a consequence of which are appearances of the risen Jesus. Contrary to some ways of explaining the resurrection, the resurrection of Christ did not consist solely of a set of appearances to people, a not unknown occurrence after death in which grieving people experience the presence of a loved one. Jesus was raised from the dead by God and the evidence is the empty tomb testified by the four gospels. That the risen Jesus then appeared to the disciples is evidence that God permitted the One (whom he raised from the dead to be exalted to his right hand) to appear for a limited time to his followers.

That is, the resurrection was first an action by God. Jesus died and was buried but "on the third day" something happened to his body which can described only in terms of being "raised." The four gospels unitedly attest to the logical consequence of being raised from the dead: the tomb was emptied of Jesus' body. The theme of a bodily raising of Jesus continues in the second part of verse 40 as Peter describes eating and drinking with Jesus "after he rose from the dead."

It is important to note the word used in verse 41 to describe the people to whom Jesus appeared: "witnesses." Jesus did not appear, so to speak, to comfort distraught followers, or as a kind of divine party trick. He appeared so that those who experienced him as their risen Lord and Saviour might testify to him. So Peter continues in verse 42, "He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead." 

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

These verses capture a number of aspects of our celebration on Palm Sunday: giving thanks (1), Jesus entering Jerusalem through one of the gates in its walls (19-20), the shouts of acclamation the crowd made on that day (26) and the use of 'branches' in the 'festal procession' on that day (27b).

But note also that this psalm mentions a keynote image for all early Christian understanding of Jesus Christ: the rejected stone who becomes the chief cornerstone (22). On the cross Israel (and the wider world created by God through the Son) rejects Jesus the Christ but three days later the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone of God's new people, those called into being (ekklesia) by Jesus the risen Lord and Saviour.

Then there is the greeting which forms part of our NZPB liturgy: 'This is the day that the Lord has made ...' (24). We can confess that this and every day, each and every "today" is "the day that the Lord has made" because every day since Easter is the day of Christ's resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

No other account of the resurrection gives so many details of resurrection appearances. 

Paul begins this passage by saying that he wishes to remind his readers of the 'good news' (1-3). For Paul the good news is telling the news which is good, the news that (a) Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures (3); (b) that he was buried and he was raised again on the third day (4); (c) that he appeared to multiple witnesses to the resurrection (5-12).

Whereas Mark (see below) emphasises the emptiness of the tomb, Paul omits mention of the empty tomb and makes much of the many witnesses to the appearances of the risen Jesus, not least because he is concerned that the (sometimes disrespectful) Corinthians note that he too is one of these important witnesses. 

Some critics makes a lot of Paul's omission of reference to the empty tomb, alleging that Paul contradicts the gospels on this point. But it is a big step to move from the absence of mention to the absence of event: the sequence 'died ... buried ... raised' is completely consistent with the tomb being empty since 'raised' in Jewish understanding was the raising of the body of the deceased.

The extent and variation in the witnesses is important, including the reference to an appearance of the risen Jesus to 500 witnesses at one time: this suggests that we are NOT talking about grief stricken individuals having post-death impressions of encounters with their deceased loved ones (a relatively common phenomenon).

Mark 16:1-8

Let's be honest with ourselves as the Christian community as we read this resurrection narrative. It has several difficulties, especially in comparison to the other narratives.

1. Theses verses do not actually tell us of an encounter with the risen Jesus. They predict an encounter to come, and that in Galilee, despite each of the other gospels clearly relaying to their readers that Jesus was encountered in Jerusalem (with Matthew and John but not Luke telling us of Galilean appearances).

2. Most Bibles print a set of verses, 9-20 for this chapter with notes which make clear that these extra verses are likely a later addition to Mark's original manuscript. In turn that highlights the abrupt ending of Mark if it ends at verse 8. (In Greek the abruptness is underlined by the last word being 'gar' = 'for'. In the flow of the narrative the abruptness is experienced as we are left with the women experiencing fear and trembling and no joy). 

3. Much speculation and debate has ensued between scholars as to whether verse 8 is the original ending of the gospel or is the result of some misfortune to the original manuscript (such as a last piece being torn off). 

For instance scholars labour to tell us how 16:1-8 is a plausible ending to the gospel and a credible account of the resurrection while others see this ending as inadequate and unsatisfying and propose that the original was longer. 

Incidentally, to return to 16:9-20, the very least we can say about these additional verses is that they represent a very ancient dissatisfaction with the ending of the gospel at 16:8.

4. The last part of verse 8 seems quite odd: 'and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.' They must have said something to someone because we know their story!

But the verses are the verses we have. What can we say about them that makes sense of them?

First, we can favourably compare what we are told with what the other three gospels say: the tomb was discovered to be empty of Jesus and an angel or angel-like witness(es) were present to inform the women what had happened.

Secondly, Mark attests to the resurrection of Jesus in no uncertain terms: 'He has been raised; he is not here' (6).

Thirdly, the 'terror and amazement' which 'seize' the women (8) is in keeping with a theme in Mark, that the wonderful deeds done by Jesus inspire awe and fear among the disciples and crowds which follow him. Mark's ending may be abrupt and unexpected but it is not odd on his own narrative terms.

Fourthly, Mark beautifully captures the shock of the occasion by telling us something which he knew was only true for a short time: that the women were shocked into silence (8). But Mark knows and his first readers know that this was a momentary silence. Their tongues were soon loosened ... otherwise there would be no gospel to write! Indeed, Mark expects that they will talk because they are told to do so in verse 7!

What I am about to say is arguable (and scholars do argue about these matters). But Mark the story-teller is stronger in these verses than Mark the historian. As a story-teller he wants to tell us that the story ends where it began (Galilee, 7), that Peter is forgiven by Jesus for denying him (this is the implication of the reference to Peter in v. 7), and that the primary evidence of the resurrection was the concrete, physical emptiness of the tomb (1-8). Appearances for Mark (7) are secondary signs of the resurrection (so he postpones them, by implication, to a future point in Galilee). 

Mark the historian (I suggest) would offer something more in keeping with 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, noting that in the Corinthian account Cephas (i.e. Peter) is the first to receive an appearance of the risen Jesus. Alternatively, we could note that the compiler(s) of the so-called longer ending of Mark (16:9-20) suggest that Mark the historian would have/should have offered something which merges aspects of Luke's and John's accounts together.

What is our 'take home' message from these enigmatic and controversial verses?

1. Jesus was raised from the dead. His tomb was and remains empty of his body. 'He has been raised; he is not here' (6).

2. The magnitude of the resurrection as an event of God acting in power to intervene in the world should lead to awe, the kind of awe we have when we are shocked into silence.

3. The importance of the resurrection as a wonderful event displaying the awesome power of God should lead to telling others about it.

4. A strong theme in Mark's gospel is that the miracles Jesus performs are evidence that he was God's Son, the Christ or Anointed One. Now, in his last verses, Mark tells us of one more miracle. A miracle performed on and not by Jesus. It is the greatest miracle of all: Jesus is not overcome by death. Death could not hold him down. We, readers of Mark's testimony to Jesus, should set all reservations aside and commit ourselves to Jesus.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sunday 25 March 2018 - Palm Sunday

Theme: Jesus enters Jerusalem / Hosanna! / Jesus the peaceful king

Sentence: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! (Matthew 21:9)


Jesus, when you rode into Jerusalem
the people waved palms
with shouts of acclamation.
Grant that when the shouting dies
we may still walk beside you even to a cross. Amen.

Readings: I find the Lectionary confusing for this day. That is because - in my understanding - some church traditions provide for celebrating 'Palm Sunday' as well as 'Passion Sunday' and thus our lectionary, following the RCL, provides readings for a 'Liturgy of the Palms' (without OT, Epistle) and for a 'Liturgy of the Passion' (with readings, including a very long gospel reading, focused on telling the whole story of Christ's suffering in the last days of his life). The reality, in my experience, is that many Anglican parishes celebrate Palm Sunday on Palm Sunday and thus look forward to working with readings focused on Palm Sunday.

Below I retain the psalm and gospel reading from the first RCL column of the lectionary, the epistle from the second column, and the OT reading from the two year cycle in NZPB (p. 581).

Zechariah 9:9-10
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 11:1-11


Zechariah 9:9-10

Zechariah amazingly looks ahead to a day when Zion's king will come to Jerusalem 'humble and riding on a donkey.' This king will be one who 'command(s) peace to the nations'. But if he has foreseen with great detail the events of the first Palm Sunday it also is true that the way those events are recounted in the gospels are shaped by the gospel writers' knowledge of this text.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

These verses capture a number of aspects of our celebration on Palm Sunday: giving thanks (1), Jesus entering Jerusalem through one of the gates in its walls (19-20), the shouts of acclamation the crowd made on that day (26) and the use of 'branches' in the 'festal procession' on that day (27b).

But note also that this psalm mentions a keynote image for all early Christian understanding of Jesus Christ: the rejected stone who becomes the chief cornerstone (22).

Then there is the greeting which forms part of our NZPB liturgy: 'This is the day that the Lord has made ...' (24).

Philippians 2:5-11

These verses have catalysed a stream of academic articles and monographs because in these verses we find some of the most profound and also subtle christology (study of who Christ is) in the whole of the New Testament. In this comment I move past those christological issues and simply focus on the reason why we choose this reading in relation to Palm Sunday.

Our general understanding of the event in which Jesus rides into Jerusalem with acclamation as king is that he is a kind of 'anti-king': his ride is on a colt or young horse, a sign of peace and humility, rather than on a magnificent mature steed of the kind a victorious-in-battle king would ride in a triumphal procession on return to his royal city.

So this reading in which Jesus is described as the one who empties himself of divine privilege and power in order to become one of us, before being exalted to the highest place, fits well as a theological background to the specific display of humility (with exaltation) we see on Palm Sunday.

In both epistle (see 2:1-4) and in the gospel reading the question of the example of Jesus and what that means for us as we live our lives is our question as we apply these readings to our lives.

Mark 11:1-11

Comments above have a bearing on this reading and our understanding of it!

The sequence of events told in this story are familiar to us, perhaps from a lifetime of celebrating Palm Sunday.
- Jesus draws near to Jerusalem (1),
- disciples are sent ahead to fetch a colt (not a donkey, interestingly, according to Mark, verses 1b-7a),
- Jesus mounts the colt and rides it towards Jerusalem (7b, 11a),
- the crowd - their interest piqued by the exchange with the disciples when they picked up the colt - offer homage to Jesus as he rides,
- that homage includes:
-- spreading their cloaks on the ground or 'leafy branches that they had cut in the fields' (8),
-- shouting in acclamation words drawn from Psalm 118 (9-10).

Note, however, a detail which we may have gotten wrong as we celebrate according to our customs rather than according to the strict detail of Scripture: none of the gospel writers tell us that the palm branches were waved as part of the shouts of acclamation.

Luke does not mention the branches at all. Matthew following Mark describes the branches as being laid on the road on which Jesus travelled. John is the only one to explicitly mention 'palm trees' and he does not describe what happens to the branches except that they were taken out to meet Jesus. (Nevertheless I think it fine to have a procession and to wave branches!)

If Jesus comes as an 'anti-king' (see comments on Philippians 2:5-11) then he nevertheless comes as a kind of king and thus this event is a political event. 'Political' because the event effects the order and organisation of the polis or city of Jerusalem. It begins a sequence of events in this week of Jesus' life which draw attention to him from authorities already inclined to concern about his impact on the people of Israel. Mark ends his story with Jesus going into the temple and looking around it. The next political event will be the protest in the temple the next day.

In other words, Jesus who has been teaching through word and deed that the kingdom of God is near now arrives in Jerusalem in a manner which draws attention to himself as the king of the kingdom. A different kind of king (to, say, Herod or Caesar) but then the kingdom of God as taught by Jesus is a different kind of kingdom to Herod's 'kingdom' (which is a limited rule, permitted by the mightier authority of Rome).

For us as preachers this week we have the familiar challenge of preaching on the familiar and the novel challenge of preaching the gospel on Sunday 25 March 2018, which is a completely new day in the ongoing story of Jesus and our world. What is going on today to which this story speaks?

There is no shortage of political events in our world to which this biblical political event speaks. That is, no shortage of attempts of human kingdoms to assert power and authority to which the different kingdom of God speaks:
- Russian aggression in Britain, Syria and elsewhere, underwritten by suppression of freedom at home and abroad;
- Chinese expansion through trade, underwritten by suppression of freedom at home, including suppression of freedom of religion;
- the bizarre presidency of Trump in the USA, seemingly more committed to the kingdom of Trump's ego than to the kingdom of Americans;
- North Korean threats and posturing, underwritten by brutal suppression of enemies of its president, with even blood relatives being executed at home and, it is alleged, abroad;
- and our lovely home country does so many things so well,  but we are somewhat coy about criticising foreign powers which abuse their power!

Try to keep within the allotted time limit for the day :)

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sunday 18 March 2018 - Lent 5 (Passion Sunday)

Theme: Suffering (Passion) of Jesus / New Covenant / Death and Glory

Sentence: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)


Almighty and eternal God,
you have made of one blood all the nations of the earth
and will that they live together
in peace and harmony;
so order the course of this world
that all peoples may be brought together
under Christ's most gentle rule;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-12
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33


The 'passion' in Passion Sunday is not the 'passion' of a phrase such as 'I have a passion for growing the church'. That passion equals enthusiastic commitment. 'Passion' in Passion Sunday refers to the suffering of Jesus. In Johannine language from our gospel reading, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified [through suffering]"(v. 23).

Jeremiah 31:31-34

In one way the Bible is the Story of Several Covenants. Jeremiah, prophesying around 600 years before Christ, relays the words of the Lord. The covenant made with Moses has been broken through the disobedience of Israel (marked by her division into two kingdoms, by the exile of the northern kingdom in 721 BC and of the southern kingdom in 597 BC). In fact there is now no nation to whom that covenant of the past now applies. A new covenant is coming.

With this new covenant comes a new power to obey the covenant: 'I will write it on their hearts' (33).

This new covenant has but one blessing promised: a relationship between God and God's people. There is no reference to a promised land or to material blessings in terms of prosperity. The way is being paved for the kingdom of God which Jesus will proclaim, a kingdom not confined to Palestine, a kingdom in which God rules people and a kingdom in which the presence of God is in the lives of people and not in buildings such as a temple.

Psalm 51:1-12

Initially this psalm is a confession of sin (ascribed in the superscription to David, confessing after his adultery with Bathsheba). But when we ask why we are reciting it on this day, that is, which other reading does this psalm connect to, we make our way to verse 9 where David asks God to 'Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.'

With this verse we are right in the heart of Jeremiah's prophecy (see above)!

Hebrews 5:5-10

On Passion Sunday, as we reflect on Jesus embracing the fact that he will suffer and die, this reading partly connects with the gospel reading through talk of the glory of Christ (5) and partly through commenting on Jesus' "reverent submission" to the path that led to suffering and death (7-10).

The writer to the Hebrews makes the case that Jesus as "Son" (and therefore perfect in all ways except one) became perfect - "having been made perfect" (9) - in all ways because only by sharing in our humanity could the Son "learn obedience through what he suffered" (8).

As the perfect (or, we might say, perfectly perfect) Son, Jesus could become "the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (9).

John 12:20-33

As the "hour" (23) of Jesus' death draws closer, John recounts to us an episode which chronologically occurs after the "Palm Sunday" entry to Jerusalem (see 12:12-15). We read this passage a week before Palm Sunday because it captures the mind of Jesus as it reflects on the suffering which shortly he will experience.

The first few verses, however, tell us of a moving encounter between Philip and "some Greeks" (20). We can only speculate at possible prior connections, noting that "Philip" is a Greek name, but it would be reasonable to surmise that "Greeks" here means "Greek-speaking Jews". These Greeks seek what all disciple love to seek, an encounter with Jesus: "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." (21)

Frustratingly for us as readers, we do not actually get to read about them seeing Jesus. Philip tells Andrew and together they go to tell Jesus (22) but we are not told that they saw Jesus in person. Instead, Jesus takes the occasion to speak about what is about to happen to him (23-33).

What Jesus says here is a mixture of Johannine themes (hour, glory, servant/Jesus/Father, judgment, ruler of this world, lifted up) and Synoptic Gospels' paradox (verse 25).

Three matters stand out:

1. Jesus may be saying to the Greeks who wish to "see him",
- "What you see should not be me the person with some fame which you have heard of, but me the one whom God is drawing forward to embrace death for the sake of eternal life (25, 32)."
- "When I have been crucified I will 'draw all people to myself', not only Jews and Greeks gathered here for this festival (32)."

2. Jesus understands his death to be the key to glory (i.e. honouring and blessing the enhanced reputation of God, 23, 28), the necessary pathway to "much fruit" (24, 32) and the decisive step in judging the "ruler of this world" (31).

3. Jesus teaches that his followers are called to the same destiny as himself: his death (e.g. 23-24) will be imitated by his followers who must be willing to lose their life and to follow him as servants wherever he goes (25-26).

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Sunday 11 March 2018 - Lent 4

Theme: Belief in the Son / Eternal life / Wholeness / Two Ways to Live

Sentence: So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3: 14-15).


God love,
May we through the Spirit's power and wisdom,
grasp the extent of your love for the world,
open our eyes to the richness of your mercy,
and offer from our hearts, thanksgiving for the death and resurrection of your Son,
which makes new life possible. Amen.


Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21


The Old Testament and Gospel readings this week are very tightly bound together because the Numbers reading provides the direct biblical background to the concept of the Son of Man being 'lifted up'.

Numbers 21:4-9

From a scientific perspective this story is, well, nuts: if you have snakebite problems, looking at a bronze serpent held in the air will not (ordinarily) solve your problem. But the story is not about the science of snakebites but about the actions of God and of God's people. The people grumble (4-5) and the Lord responds with a mini-plague of 'poisonous serpents' (6). People die (as we might expect, scientifically speaking) and this provokes the people to repent of their grumbling (7). Moses prays and the Lord answers in an (unscientific) way (7-8).

What the passage invites us to consider is why God answers Moses' prayer in the way he does. Why does God who sent the snakes not send them away? Why does God command Moses to make a bronze image of a serpent, attach it to a pole and ask those subsequently bitten by snakes to look at the bronze image in order to live? (We can even make the question harder by asking why God requires of his people a remedy for snakebite which Egyptians also used).

One possibility is that God is demonstrating sovereign power over the situation, including the use of irony. God sends the snakes and God remedies their threat. The remedy involves God taking up an Egyptian custom (a custom from the land Israel wishes to return to) and transforming it into God's own remedy. It is as though God says to Israel, "You want to go back to Egypt? Let's go back metaphorically to Egypt for a remedy for your punishment. But that is as far as it goes. Geographically, there is no going back. I will get you to the Promised Land."

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

This psalm recalls the story in Numbers, set in the larger story of God's calling Israel out of Egypt and guiding them to the promised land.

Ephesians 2:1-10

We could take this passage as a commentary on the gospel passage!

What kind and scope of love for the world does God have (cf. John 3:16 in our gospel reading)? Well, it is spelled out in extraordinary life giving detail here, especially from verse 4 onwards.

We can, of course, also read the passage on its own merits. In the context of Lent we do this looking for understanding for why Jesus died on the cross for our sakes.

Paul lays it out:
1-2: 'You were dead through the trespasses and sins ...'
3: '... we were by nature children of wrath ...'
4-5: 'But (which could be 'BUT') God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ ...'
(Although the cross is not mentioned in this passage, we understand the death of Christ on the cross to be crucial to our being made alive by working backwards to 1:7; we also understand his death to be implied by the talk in Ephesians 1, and here, on the resurrection of Jesus and the power which raised him to be the power at work in us).
In other words God reaches out to humanity which is destined for death and enables us instead to be 'made alive'. All this is God's doing: 'by grace you have been saved' (5, 8).
6-7: it is not just that God 'saves us' (in the sense of making us new, making us at one with God), Paul says here that we are 'raised up with him and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.' Much could be said here about (a) hope (b) heaven (c) the future becoming present reality but I would like to emphasise (d) that the great transformation through salvation is that we are identified with Christ and become 'in Christ', a union between ourselves and Christ and because of that, receive every blessing from God (see also 1:3).
8-9: Understanding everything so far we easily comprehend that nothing (repeat, nothing) we do can secure this transformation, can gain us favour from God, so it is 'by grace you have been saved through faith.'
And, Paul goes further, lest any misunderstanding should arise, even the faith by which we open ourselves to God's gracious action, this faith 'is not your own doing; it is the gift of God'.
10: What now? Do we sit around waiting to physically die to enjoy the fullness of life in Christ in the heavenly places? Not at all. There is work to be done, but it is God's work which is to be done.

John 3:14-21

A kind of preamble which could be skipped: Our gospel readings through these Lenten weeks are an interesting mix of forecast and interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection, centred on Jesus' own words. The epistles are clearly centred on interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection through hindsight rather than foresight. What we read in the gospels, in passages such as this one, are less clearly foresight rather than hindsight because the way they come to us involves a writing down which takes place as late as, if not later than the epistles. Inevitably the Christian interpretation of Jesus' death and resurrection influences the way Jesus' own words are written down for the gospel writers' present and future audiences. In the particular case of John 3:14-21 there is a challenge - avoided here(!) - of working out where Jesus stops speaking and the Fourth Evangelist begins his interpretation of what Jesus has been saying: at the end of verse 15? 16? 21? Here we take the passage as words which, whether spoken by Jesus or the gospel writer or both, contribute to our understanding of Jesus' death and resurrection.

Main Comment: Verse 14-15 really needs (at least) verse 13 to make sense of why Moses and the serpent (from our Old Testament reading) appear after Jesus has been talking to Nicodemus about other matters. The conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-13) has been about where Jesus comes from and how Jesus can do and teach what he has been doing. Verse 13 is then a kind of summary: the one who does these things is the one who has experience of heaven, the Son of Man (i.e. Jesus himself) and that Man has descended from heaven. So the language of descent (also ascent, first part of 13) opens the way for Jesus to talk about the destiny of the descended Son of Man: he will be 'lifted up' (14).

Thus in verse 14 Jesus uses the switch from language of 'ascent' to language of being 'lifted up' to talk about the event of the cross which will differentiate his talk of ascent to heaven from that of other mystics. The usual mystical talk (e.g. within Jewish apocalyptic literature of the time) was of a significant heavenly figure being a guide to the seeker of divine mysteries who leads the seeker towards the highest heaven. But Jesus is not that guide in that sense. What will lead people to God, that is, what will 'save' them (see verses 16- 17) is the lifting up of Jesus (i.e. his death high on a cross).

By invoking the story of Moses and the lifted up serpent in the wilderness (Numbers 21:4-9) - the story of Israelites becoming ill through snakebite and being healed by gazing at the lifted up serpent - Jesus is actually looking ahead to when he, like Moses' serpent, will be 'lifted up' in such a manner that people will be healed (saved) as a result. He is talking about his death on the cross.

(Additionally, we might also note the subtle implication of taking up this story from Numbers: the serpent or snake that people most need healing from is the one who tempted humanity into sin in the first place, Genesis 3. When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, and then lifted up from the grave through resurrection, he will heal the great wound shared by all humanity).

In v 15 then (and v. 16, 18), 'eternal life' is possible for those who believe because Jesus becomes the Mosaic serpent to whom people may look in order to be healed. (From this perspective, 'eternal life' is 'wholeness of life' or 'life healed of brokenness.')

Verses 16-21 is therefore a speech (by Jesus) or a sermon (by John the Evangelist) on the significance of the choice facing the world because of the event of the cross (and resurrection). Choosing to 'believe in him' leads to eternal life and choosing not to believe leads to the opposite ('perish', 16; 'condemn', 17, 18; 'judgment', 19).

Verse 16 nails down the place of God as, well, God in relation to the world: God loves the world which by implication means 'loves the world enough to do something about the problems of the world - people preferring darkness to light, doing evil deeds (19-20).' In that love God 'gave his only Son', language that is redolent of Genesis 22 where Abraham is willing to give up his only son for sacrifice, but with the difference that there is no talk of sacrifice here, and 'the Son' in the context of this gospel is the One who is one with the Father. In effect God so loves the world that God (Father-and-Son) gave up himself so that the world might be saved.

Thus all talk about the decisive and eternally significant choice facing the world, light versus darkness, belief in the Son versus evil deeds, is framed by the phrase 'For God so loved the world.' As we reckon with the strong language of 'perish' and 'condemn' in succeeding verses, the starting point is God's love which reaches out through the gift of God's Son to draw all people to himself.

The reality is that the situation of the world is bleak: 'people loved darkness' (19); 'all who do evil hate the light' (20). The coming of Jesus, paradoxically, as a gift of love which brings light, makes no difference to most in the world who 'do not come to the light' (20).

A couple of tricky questions lurk in the passage!

One is that verses 18-21 raise but do not answer the question 'why' believers manage to escape from the usual preference of people to choose darkness over light.

Two is that there is a shift from 'belief in the Son' (15) being key to the door to eternal life to 'deeds' being seen in the light of God (21).