…the Lamb of God will remove the sin of the world by lifting it up with him when he is lifted up on the cross. His lifting up will be his exaltation to heaven; the lifting up of the sin of the world will be its removal from the world. — Richard Bauckham, Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Theology (Kindle Locations 3116-3117). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
The story is told that Archbishop Desmond Tutu was once asked by the BBC to identify the defining moment in his life. He spoke of the day when he and his mother were walking down the street. Desmond Tutu was nine years old. A tall white man dressed in a black suit came towards them.
This was back in the days of apartheid in South Africa. When a black person and a white person met while walking on a footpath, the black person was expected to step into the gutter to allow the white person to pass and nod their head as a gesture of respect. But this day, before the young Tutu and his mother could step off the pavement the white man stepped off and, as they passed, he tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to her.
The white man was Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican priest who was implacably opposed to the apartheid policy. This small act of his changed Tutu’s life. When his mother told him that Trevor Huddleston had stepped off the footpath because he was a ‘man of God’, Tutu found his calling. ‘When she told me that he was an Anglican priest I decided there and then that I wanted to be an Anglican priest too. And what is more, I wanted to be a man of God,’ said Tutu.
We’ve spoken a bit about the descending way lately. The wisdom of the world is that we should strive to get more, hoard more, have more… Yet Jesus says that if we follow him we must take the the descending way, taking the place of a child, or a servant. We must embrace humility, and seek the good of others.
The story of Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu is an echo of what Jesus did. It shows us that we too can be part of changing minds and hearts by following the example of Jesus in small and very achievable ways.
All it took to win the young Desmond’s heart was a privileged white man to step off the kerb and tip his hat. All it took was for Trevor Huddleston was to see that black people in the apartheid system had the dignity of being children of God. All it took was something that is within the capabilities of any one of us.
Let’s turn to today’s very familiar passage, John 3. Here, we see the depths to which Jesus will plunge to rescue us. Not just to step off the kerb, but to go to death on a cross.
For God so loved the world…
It starts with love. I guess it did for Trevor Huddleston too. He didn’t step off the kerb out of fear of little Desmond and his mum. He did it out of a determination to see them as children of God, just as he was. He treated them as his equals. Even as people better than him.
The story of salvation starts with love, and it ends with love too. The love of God embraces us fully and absolutely. God’s love will never let us go.
God loves us as we are, rebels, failures, sinners. God doesn’t wait for us to pick ourselves us, or to pull our socks up before we know God loves us. It is there for us, like the father of the prodigal son was there when his son limped home, dirty, bedraggled, and smelly.
Or as the Apostle Paul puts it (Ephesians 2.4–5),
God’s mercy is so abundant, and his love for us is so great, that while we were spiritually dead in our disobedience he brought us to life with Christ. It is by God’s grace that you have been saved.
Thank God that God loves us.
And this love is like nothing on earth.
God loves us so much that he is prepared to give himself for us.
For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son…
And not just give. To let him die. And not just die—to die the death of one who is accursed.
The Old Testament has that strange story in which the Israelites are bitten by snakes, and it is only when a snake is lifted on a pole that people are saved from death. If they look at the snake, they live.
Whatever we may make of that story, John uses it to illustrate something of Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus becomes something low and despised on the cross, like a snake.
God is so determined to love us to the uttermost that he accepts death on a cross as the consequence of being light and love and life in a world of sin and darkness and death.
Jesus is not only like the serpent who was lifted up in the wilderness; he is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1.29)
For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
What is eternal life?
If you have eternal life, you are sharing in the life of God. You are sharing in the love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is life and love that never ends.
But surprisingly, that’s not the best thing about it.
The best thing is that it starts here and now.
Let me give you just one characteristic of what eternal life now looks like. Someone living eternal life today lives without anxiety because they do not give in to anxiety. They live secure in the knowledge that Christ has gone before them and is with them.
Someone who is living eternal life today lives without anxiety because like St Paul, they have learnt to be content with whatever they have. (Philippians 4.11)
Someone living eternal life today lives without anxiety because, in hope, they trust the future to God. When the pray the prayer that Jesus taught us, they trust in these words:
Your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Someone who is living eternal life today lives without anxiety because they do not ‘possess’ eternal life like a thing. If it were a ‘thing’, they could lose it. But we ‘have’ eternal life just as we ‘have’ the sun: just as we are bathed in the sun’s life-giving light and warmth, so we are immersed in the eternal life which comes to us in the Spirit, from God our Father, through Jesus the Son.
I see eternal life in Trevor Huddleston, and in Desmond Tutu, just as I have seen it in people I have known personally. I see it in the face of anyone who will live in the light, who will let the light and life and love of God shine through them.
Let us pray that eternal life will shine through you and me this week. You don’t have to do anything great; something as small as stepping aside to show respect to another can change a life.