Now as I was reflecting on the three lessons today -- the Gospel lesson perhaps most of all, but all three lessons -- I was reminded of the encyclical letter that Pope Francis published, with the first one he wrote as his own encyclical letter at the beginning of his time as being bishop of Rome, and it's called "The Joy of the Gospel."
Fourth Sunday of Lent
And in it, the spirit of joyfulness really comes through this letter, just as I think all of us have been impressed with the spirit of joyfulness that seems to just be around Francis all the time. He's almost in a glow of joyfulness when you see him among the crowds of people, and he's reaching out and embracing this one or that one, and it's just marvelous.
And so he's trying to get across to us in this encyclical letter what is the heart of the Gospel, the core of the proclamation of the good news. And what it comes down to Francis really makes clear: the heart of the Gospel, the heart of the message, the core of it is that God loves us. God loves us without limit, without condition. God has brought us into being out of love. God watches over us every moment, every instant of our existence, out of love. And God is drawing us into the fullness of God's life out of love. That's the core message of the Gospel.
I think some of us, in our understanding of God and of our relationship to God, for too long have experienced God, and even been afraid of God, as a judge who will condemn us to hell; everlasting punishment. ... Our understanding is [that] we have to earn God's forgiveness. We even go so far as to suggest that God sent Jesus so Jesus could be a sacrifice -- pay back the price of the sins of humankind. Buy back, redeem us; buy back.
That's a cruel understanding, our understanding of God as very cruel, that God would demand that Jesus be tortured and executed in order to buy us back. You have to say, "What kind of a God is that?" Well, it really isn't who God is, and that's what Francis is proclaiming in that encyclical letter, and it's a joy to read it. You begin to experience the joy of the Gospel when you read what Francis has written.
But Francis didn't pull this out of the blue. If you listen to today's lessons, don't you see how you will understand the same deep message? If we go back to our first lesson today, you could hardly find a more grim listing of sin, as did the chronicler, the historian of the Jewish people, has written here at the end of this second Book of Chronicles: "Furthermore, all the heads of the priesthood, the people too, were exceedingly unfaithful, following the disgusting example of the nations around them." So they defiled the house which God had made holy.
God had continued to send prophets to warn the people because God had compassion on them and on God's dwelling place, but the people mocked the messengers of God, ignored their words, laughed at the prophets. That's the kind of unfaithfulness that the chosen people had fallen into. But how does God respond? Through their sins, they had been overwhelmed by enemies. In their unfaithfulness, [they] had gone to war against the preaching of the prophets. They had experienced a terrible, terrible devastation.
They, people from Babylon, came in, burned down the house of God, broke down the walls of Jerusalem, set fire to all its palaces and destroyed everything of value in it. They brought this upon themselves because of their unfaithfulness, not following the way that God had shown them. It isn't that God is punishing them; it's rather their evil lies in the evil actions they had taken, brought this kind of evil into their lives by not being faithful to God. They were overwhelmed by evil in the world.
But then at the end of the passage today, in the first year, Cyrus, king of Persia, to fulfill what God had said to the prophet Jeremiah: "God stirred up the spirit of Cyrus to issue the following command, and sent it out in writing to be read aloud everywhere in his kingdom. Thus speaks Cyrus, king of Persia, 'God, the God of heaven who has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, has ordered me to build a house in Jerusalem, in Judah. And now all of you who belong to God's people, go there, and may God, your God, be with you.' "
See, even though the people had sinned, in a way there was just like total unfaithfulness, God did not pour forth evil on them. God was waiting to be merciful to them. Those are words of the prophet Isaiah: "God is waiting to be gracious to you." And then God fulfills that, is gracious to the people, restores them to the place, to their home, the promised land.
But it isn't just there; that's a marvelous example in the Old Testament. But in our second lesson today, Paul, writing to the church at Ephesus, speaks the same thing: "God, who is rich in mercy, reveals his immense love, the unlimited love that God has for us. As we were dead through our sins," see, brought spiritual death upon us, "God gave us life in Jesus. By the graciousness of God, you have been brought back to life." That's what Paul is saying -- God has raised us to life with Jesus, giving us a place with Jesus in heaven.
And in doing this, Paul says, "God is showing such kindness. God will reveal and unfold in the coming ages the extraordinary riches of God's grace. And this has not come from you." Paul is saying to the Christians of Ephesus and to us, "It is God's gift." Remember what John says in the first letter he wrote to the community of Christians that he was relating to? "God is love. Where there is love, there is God. And this is the love I mean: not that we have loved God, but that God first loved us." See, that's the message. That's what Paul is repeating here in writing to the church at Ephesus.
And as we listen deeply to today's Gospel, isn't it the same message? "The wind, the spirit blows where it pleases. You hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it's going." It's like that with everyone who is born of the spirit of God. God's spirit is waiting to be gracious to us, to enter into us, to overwhelm us with love if we are open to that spirit.
And in that passage of the Gospel where John records Jesus telling Nicodemus, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the son of man be lifted up, so that whoever responds to him may have everlasting life." What John is referring to is an incident that happened, and recorded in the Jewish Scriptures, about when the people were traveling through the desert.
They were overwhelmed at one point with scorpions that were bringing devastation to the people -- or serpents, I should say. And Moses instructed them to raise a pole in the desert and place a serpent on that. And when the people looked at it, to me it's a way of looking at your sinfulness, exposing it. Then you can be healed because again, God is waiting to be gracious to us. And so whoever responds to God in Jesus, who is in God come into our human history, will not be lost, but will have eternal life.
As John says, "God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world. Instead, through Jesus, the world is made whole." All of us can come into wholeness by responding to this love of God proclaimed in the chronicles of the Old Testament, proclaimed by Paul in that letter to the church of Ephesus and in so many other places. But now especially in the Gospel, proclaimed to us in the presence of Jesus, the very son of God, become one of us, entering into our human history. He's showing us God's unlimited love for us.
And Jesus, yes, dies on the cross, but not as a way of buying us back, but rather as a way of showing us how we can transform our world. What Jesus does, he confronts evil, hatred that people have brought against him. He confronts all of this and experiences the hatred that they pour onto him. But he responds only with love, prays even for those putting him to death: "Father, forgive them." See, that's what Jesus is teaching us through his death on the cross. It isn't a buying back. It's rather a revelation of the unlimited love of God. God never stops loving us. It's without condition; it's without limit.
What does God ask of us? Love God with your whole heart and mind and soul. Be open to receiving that love of God, then responding to God with as much love as you can pour forth. And then let that love overflow so that you love your neighbor as yourself. You make love the whole motivating and guiding force of your life, reaching out in love to brothers and sisters, to all members of the human family, responding in love to God.
I hope that as we go on through this season of Lent now -- we're at the midpoint of Lent, so we have three more weeks to remind ourselves of what we began at the beginning of this part of the whole Easter season -- that Lent is a special time for penance, fasting, for almsgiving, sharing with others, but especially for prayer.
How many of us are taking the time each day to go apart five minutes, 10 minutes, and just let ourselves be absorbed or drawn into the love of God that is there waiting to be gracious to us? Taking the time to reflect on how God has brought us into being, God has brought the whole universe into being, God's gifts are without limit?
As we, if we take this time -- and maybe during these last three weeks if we haven't been doing it, make sure we do -- each day to listen, be alert to God, to God's presence. And experience the love that God is pouring forth upon each one of us, upon all of us, upon our whole world, all of creation. Experience that love and respond to it with love.
As we're all aware, we've been made in the image and likeness of God. God is love; the way we grow into our fullness as human beings is to let love become again the motivating and constantly energizing force in our life. Listen for God; God is waiting to be gracious to us, and you will experience that love.
It will enable you to love God, to love one another, and to come into the fullness of life that God is making available to every person, every one of us. The last three weeks of Lent could be very rich for us if we really listen to what God is saying today, the message that Pope Francis is proclaiming, and if we respond to it with thanksgiving and with love.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]