See the texts, artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.)
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
Lecionário comum revisado (português)
The people's complaining brought death in the form of serpents. God offered healing from the serpents' bite for all who would look upon a bronze serpent Moses fashioned and lifted on a pole.
Psalm Response: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 (UMH 830).
A psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from a deadly condition understood to be caused by human sin. Tone 1 in E-flat major would be most appropriate for the upbeat theme of this psalm.
Paul proclaims the power of God's salvation, delivering us from "the ruler of the power in the air" and "the passions of our flesh," which were killing us. God extends this salvation to humans through grace — not through our earning it in any way. God's salvation not only breaks the chains of the powers that bind us, but empowers us to live lives full of good works. We become a reflection of the "immeasurable riches of God's grace" that God desires to lavish upon all who will receive them.
Jesus offers what may be for many of us an unfamiliar narrative, Moses lifting up the serpent, as analogy for how God's free gift of eternal life works for all who will "believe into" him (i.e., live as disciples of Jesus).
Easter is only three weeks away. Holy Week begins in two weeks with Palm Sunday, and concludes with the Great Three Days. The church in Lent continues on the way to the “birthing room” with those to be baptized. The community of faith continues to repent and believe the gospel with outward acts of compassion and justice and personal acts of devotion and prayer.
The gospel this week shows us our need for repentance and God’s offer of new life as we repent and “believe into” (put our whole trust in and follow) Jesus Christ.
See “Planning Lent and Easter Season for Worship and Discipleship (Year B)” for an overview of the biblical themes for each Sunday of this season.
This Sunday, March 15, is designated as is the date for collecting the One Great Hour of Sharing special offering. Among United Methodists, this offering is the primary way we underwrite the administrative support needed to run The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Support for this offering fits well with the baptismal covenant verb we underscore this day: “Join.” Because we join our gifts in local congregations with the gifts of many other churches from across the entire United Methodist connection that UMCOR can continue to do what it does and for all donations to UMCOR projects to go directly to the cause for which they are given rather than being used to underwrite administrative costs.
April 2 Maundy Thursday
April 3 Good Friday
April 4 Holy Saturday/Easter Vigil
April 5 Easter Sunday/Easter Season Begins
April 19 Native American Ministries Sunday (DM Resources) and
Festival of God's Creation
April 25 World Malaria Day
Atmospherics: "Believe INTO, and Join"
This week’s baptismal covenant focus is on the words “in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races.” While the word “join” does not appear there, the idea certainly does. Just as we “put our whole trust” in Christ’s grace (last week), so also, when we “believe into” Christ (John 3:16), we are joined with his body, the church.
The gospel reading from John 3 offers what may be an unfamiliar analogy for how God saves us, one so unfamiliar we may be tempted simply to skip over it or treat it only in passing. Moses lifting up a serpent in the wilderness? What is that even about? Happily, the Old Testament reading from Numbers 21 gives us the backstory.
And that backstory is crucial to understanding not only verse 14, but the whole thrust of the argument Jesus is making to Nicodemus about how God delivers us from the power of sin and death and brings us new life.
In the story from Numbers, the complaining, bitterness, and negativity of the people had gone viral, in a bad way. God intervened with snakes. The Hebrew word translated snakes (seraphim) could refer to something more than just a plethora of vipers. It could also refer to winged snake-like creatures that were known for their supernaturally destructive powers against those who attacked one they were set to defend (such as the cherubim set at the entrance to the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3:24). Whatever they were, many of the people were bitten, poisoned, and dying. Some came to Moses, seeking relief. Those who came acknowledged their complicity in bringing this about and begged Moses to plead with God to remove the snakes.
Moses pled, but God did not remove the snakes. Nor did the snakes stop biting the people.
Instead, God offered a way to render the snake bites harmless.
Moses was to make a bronze snake, put it on a pole, and tell folks that when they were bitten, if they would look to the snake on the pole, they would be healed.
As people looked to the bronze serpent for deliverance, they were acknowledging that they were responsible for bringing the poisonous serpents upon themselves. And in such acknowledgement, they showed their shift in allegiance from themselves as individuals or smaller family groups back to God, Moses, and the whole of the people. By looking to the bronze serpent, they were joining anew the people from whom their bitter complaining had alienated them.
Put another way, God was opening up a way to make deliverance more viral than bitterness and complaining had become.
In a similar way, when Jesus would be lifted up on the crucifix, he would bring salvation to all who acknowledge complicity in the violence that came upon him and then "believe into" him (John 3:15-16).
“Believe into” is a critical term in John’s gospel. This phrase is often translated “believe in.” That has led many interpreters over the centuries to read this text as if it were saying “Whoever gives assent to the idea that Jesus is the Son of God who died for our sins and rose the third day” will instantly receive eternal life into their “celestial account.”
But the Greek construction does not allow that interpretation. The Greek does not say “believe in” (using a preposition followed by the dative case, denoting primarily intellectual assent) but rather “believe into” (using a different preposition followed by the accusative case, denoting “handing oneself entirely over” to the other). The former allows for a view of salvation by faith alone that requires not even the slightest attempt to follow Jesus. The latter is no less an exercise of faith. It is absolute trust and submission to Jesus as Lord.
Thus John 3:16 is not referring primarily to believing things about the life, execution, and resurrection of Jesus, but rather to following him in his way. Eternal life is thus not a “thing” we get when we give assent to the right theology, but rather the reality in which we, disciples and members together in the body of Christ, live as we follow the one who is Way, Truth, and Life. This is not to say that “right belief” is unimportant. It is rather to say that this text—and indeed the gospels and the letters of Paul-- call us to something more, to life in and through following Jesus.
For too long, fairly or not, John 3:16 has been associated with escapism, with fire insurance (believe X and get your “get out of hell free” card), or worse. Today is an opportunity to reclaim it for what it is—a gracious, mercy-filled, and serious call to discipleship to Jesus as individuals bound together in his body, the church.
Which brings us to Ephesians. Ephesians 2 begins with a bold,but also hopeful statement. “You (plural!) were dead.” What made them dead? The fact that they were “walking in” (a synonym for “being a disciple of”) trespasses and sins following the patterns being set by the powers that be. Worse, he says, “We were all, by nature, children of uncontrollable passion.” They had been disciples of this world’s powers, passion’s offspring.
A word about the phrase “passion’s offspring.” This has often been translated “children of wrath” and then associated with a theology that says that God was out to destroy us in God’s anger because we were so bad. That’s not what the Greek or the cultural understanding of the phrase at the time would have meant. The Greek word typically translated “wrath” here as “Orge.” “Orge” refers to a primal force, beyond our or any person’s control, that moves us to act according to its own passions and often chaotic anger. It is like Freud’s “Id” on steroids. It pictures a reality of being thrown around by potentially vicious and dangerous forces, and that there is nothing we or anyone can do about it. That’s not being alive. That’s being dead or even “undead”—like zombies moving under someone else’s control.
They and we all, Paul says, had been like this, past tense.
“You were dead.”
“But God” (verse 4)…
But God has acted, even for our dead/undead and hopelessly overrun selves, offering us real life, not a different version of “zombie undeadness,” in Jesus Christ. God does not do this because we did anything to fix ourselves. God is simply this gracious, this loving, this merciful toward us. Deliverance comes, as in John 3 and Numbers, as we see our state, acknowledge we’re embedded in it and cannot fix it, and trust God’s provision through Jesus and give ourselves over to follow him. This is not “pulling ourselves up;” it is surrender. It is “believing into.”
And it is surrender not only to Christ, but with each other in his body. It is not only our own lives, individually, that become characterized by this surrender to Christ, but the whole body of Christ however it gathers.
Like John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8-9 has often been interpreted in a way that (a) bifurcates God’s salvation from whether or how we follow Jesus and (b) focuses on individualized salvation. Reading verses 8-9 with verse 10 corrects the first distortion. God’s saving love for us is sheer grace, sheer mercy. We did nothing to earn it. It’s a given. We are God’s workmanship, and God loves us, period. We become God’s new workmanship in Jesus Christ, as we enter into Jesus who enables us not only to do but to come to walk in doing the good works. Entering into Jesus refers to baptism and to following his way with others. Before we were set free to “walk in good works” (2:10), before our discipleship to Jesus, we were “walking in trespasses and sins,” disciples and children of “wrath.” Now we walk in good works as disciples to Jesus.
Paying attention to all the plural and corporate references in these verses helps to correct the second distortion. As John Wesley reminds, “there is no religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness” (Preface to Poetical Works). Joined with Christ in baptism, we are also joined with one another in communities intended to watch over one another in love that we may, together, work out our salvation with fear and trembling.
Our being the body of Christ together isn’t just about our being together or having convivial fellowship in this life. It’s about our being that body that continues to participate in and embody God’s mission in the world, a mission that involves persons of every nation, age and race.
Back to top.
In Your Planning Team
We have passed the midpoint of Lent as of today, and so have also passed the midpoint of the baptismal covenant. Previous vows in the covenant have focused primarily on our relationship with other powers and with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Today we shift to two weeks of focus within those vows on what it means for us, having been joined to Christ in baptism, also to be joined with one another in his body, the church. This week we focus in worship and formational groups on the fact of that joining and the diversity of the body (of every nation, age and race) with which we are joined. Next week, we will focus on the work of this body as Christ’s representatives (ambassadors) in the world.
Nicodemus, who is identified in John 3:1 as coming “from the Pharisees,” was being invited by Jesus to declare himself part and parcel of a new people, his disciples. All of us, of every nation, age and race, who were dead and trapped by passion’s power (Ephesians 2) have been invited to become alive and set free to walk in good works—and to experience this ongoing work of liberation (sanctifying grace) with each other’s help and support.
These two texts could point to two distinct foci for worship today, and you could pursue either or both as the core for planning today. One focus is about leaving behind one kind of people as part of becoming part of a new and much more diverse one. The other is about actively participating with this people to watch over one another in love toward growth in sanctifying grace and perfection in love in this life.
You know on your team which of these two foci, or both, might be most helpful for your congregation, and especially those preparing for baptism or first profession of faith (confirmation) at this time. As you consider this, keep in mind what kinds of testimonies people in your worshiping community can give when asked, and find ways to incorporate those testimonies about becoming part of a new people or being made alive from death or set free from passion’s power in the service you plan. Discuss, pray, and choose what works best for you.
Meanwhile, whichever you choose, the imagery of the seraphim in Numbers 21 might inspire worship space and graphic design for this service. As noted above, the seraphim in Numbers may refer to a "fiery serpent," a winged snake, perhaps in the form of a flame. The winged snake was an Egyptian symbol for a goddess of the underworld, so the imagery for its first audience is evocative of being caught again the in very snares and slavery from which they had been delivered (Numbers). It is also evocative of being or becoming snared by the very wrath or passion that had led to spiritual death in the first place (Ephesians).
The imagery of snakes is important in some parts of US culture again, and it is ripe for Christian reclaiming. Winged snakes are part of dragon lore, which is significant in Wiccan and other neopagan "seeker" communities today. Serpents in “mainstream Western” cultures may be symbols of unalloyed evil. For many ancient Near Eastern cultures, including Palestinian/Hebrew culture and Greek culture, they were much more nuanced, having potential for either good (healing, protection, wisdom—as in the symbol for the American Medical Association) or evil (disease, death).
Whichever single focus or foci you choose for worship, your formation groups will likely need to help folks deal with both of them. This is another week for the formation groups to help persons consider what it means to “put their whole trust in Christ’s grace,” or, as John puts it, “believe into Jesus.” It’s also a time to help candidates get some grip on what it means to become an integral part of the whole body of Christ, and the diverse members of that body in your congregation in particular. And it is a week to help folks take stock on where they are “passion’s offspring,” still acting as much or more based on drives beyond their control than learning to embrace the freedom the Spirit brings (sanctifying grace) to “walk in good works.”
If you have youth preparing for confirmation or people of any age who will be baptized at Easter, continue to list their names in the bulletin and gather around them with prayer as a part of this and each succeeding Sunday's worship. Growing, caring relationships with candidates for baptism and confirmation will lead to a full rather than empty ritual on Easter. Such relationships will also go a long way toward closing the "back door" in months and years to come!
For more on this kind of intensive attention to candidates for baptism or confirmation, see Come to the Waters, by Daniel Benedict, especially pages 102, 106-107, and 117-119. Consider using one of the prayers for "examination of conscience" suggested there.
- Greeting: BOW 326 (Ephesians)
- Greeting: BOW 424 (One Great Hour of Sharing)
- Opening Prayer BOW 251 (John)
- Prayer of Confession: BOW 480 (Numbers, Ephesians)
- Prayer: UMH 456, "For Courage to Do Justice" (One Great Hour)
- Prayer: BOW 334 (2nd item, Numbers, Psalm, Ephesians)
- Prayer: BOW 336 (John)
- Prayer: BOW 500, "For Blessing, Mercy, & Courage" (Psalm)
- Poem: UMH 58, "Glory to God, and Praise and Love" (Ephesians)
- Poem: UMH 342, "Where Shall My Wondering Soul Begin" (Ephesians)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam. Remember that we have vibrant and growing, and (in Laos) sometimes also persecuted, United Methodist congregations and missionary partnerships in these countries.
- Prayer of Thanksgiving: BOW 551 (2n item, Psalm, Ephesians)
- Great Thanksgiving: (Communion) BOW 60-61, 62-63
- Blessing: BOW 563 (Ephesians, John)
- See BOW 424 for additional suggestions.