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MARCH 22, 2009: FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

Readings: 

II Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
Ephesians 2:4-10
John 3:14-21

During the 2006 baseball World Series, a local St. Louis sportscaster interviewed Andy Van Slyke, the Detroit Tigers first base coach. He asked a logical question. “Andy, after having been a star for so many years with the Cardinals, don’t you feel guilty coming back here as part of the ‘enemy’s’ team?” Van Slyke responded with a smile. “Not really. Since I stopped being a Catholic a few years ago I haven’t felt much guilt about anything.”

The former third baseman would enjoy today’s readings from the Christian Scriptures. Both John and Paul present us with a guiltless faith. Paul succinctly states his belief in our Ephesians pericope. “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ - by grace you have been saved.”

All our sacred authors are committed to changing their readers’ behavior patterns. But, as any parent can testify, there are different ways to accomplish this. Some will constantly point out how bad their children are, reminding them of the consequences of being such evil persons. Others will stress their children’s basic goodness, pointing out how their occasional bad behavior runs counter to their generous, loving personality. Which method best accomplishes behavior modification?

Our II Chronicles author, following classic Deuteronomic theology, sides with the former. He begins by reminding his community why the horrible 50 year Babylonian Exile happened. “In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting Yahweh’s temple. . . . They mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of Yahweh against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.”

Only after “the land retrieved its lost Sabbaths” would Yahweh repent and move Cyrus to permit the Chosen People to return to the Promised Land. According to this view of God/human relations, when people change their behavior toward God, God changes God’s behavior toward them.

It’s against this theology of guilt that we must understand the reform Jesus of Nazareth preached. As we heard above, Paul was amazed that Jesus preached grace - a free gift of life which kicked in even before people completed the “penance” imposed on them to remove their guilt. For Jesus, there’s no mandated period of guilt-removing penance; there’s simply an invitation to people still mired in their guilt to do a 180 and accept the life God constantly offers. No matter who we think we are, or how guilty we judge ourselves, Cod’s love never changes. God always sees our basic, loving goodness, no matter how blind we are to it.

This concept seems to be one of the driving forces behind John’s creation of his well-known Jesus/Nicodemus encounter. “The Son of Man (must) be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.... For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might he saved through him.” For John, faith isn’t very complicated. We’re only expected to accept “the light” God sends into our dark, guilt-filled world.

Many of us find it “unchristian” to accept Paul’s statement, “For by grace you have been saved through faith and this is not from you; it is the gift of God’ it is not from works, so no one may boast.” Those reared on Catechism spirituality instead of Christian biblical spirituality may need to hear more baseball interviews than Sunday sermons. Though we hate to admit it, some retired baseball players might grasp the heart of Christianity better than some of our preachers.