Salvation Through the Cross (4th Sunday of Lent (B), 2021-03-14)

Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent (B)
2021-03-14, St. Eugenia Catholic Church
John 3:14–21 (Num. 21:4–9)


+ Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

In today’s Gospel reading we are thrown into the middle of a theological discussion. In fact, the selection of the Gospel text is somewhat curious, since the passage we just read is the answer to a question that has been posed earlier by Nicodemus but that is not included in the reading.

The question that Nicodemus has posed is ‘How can that be possible?’ The Lord acts as if he would be astonished by the man’s lack of knowledge. His reaction is not insignificant, because Nicodemus is not only a Pharisee; it says that he is ‘a leading Jew’ and a ‘teacher’. This learned man has sought up Christ by night in order to be taught by him, but as it turns out, he cannot understand what Christ is saying. What saint John the evangelist wants to show us is that this is because the Lord is speaking about ‘heavenly things’, that is supernatural mysteries of a different order than natural knowledge. Therefore, Nicodemus, despite all his learning is unable to understand them.

‘How can that be possible?’ Nicodemus has asked. He is referring to what Christ has said about being reborn from above: ‘Unless a man is born through water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’. What Nicodemus is asking is how this is possible. How is it possible that we are spiritually reborn through baptism? What is it that Christ means when he is speaking of being born anew? What does it mean to be saved? How does it take place?


The Lord’s answer is very simple and at the same time very difficult to understand. He says that ‘No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of Man who is in heaven’. He is referring to himself. We are only saved by Christ. There is no salvation outside of Christ and his body the Catholic Church. No one can enter heaven except through Christ. The reason is that only God himself can lead people to heaven. And so, Christ, the second person of the Trinity, must come down from heaven by becoming one of us and through his humanity take us with him, as it were, in his return to heaven.

But Christ continues by saying: ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him’. The ‘lifting up’ us usually understood as a reference to the cross: The Lord was lifted up on the cross, and so, the way to heaven goes through the cross. Something similar is true on the natural level. We might think that we can find happiness without struggle and effort, but in reality, the way to happiness often involves sacrifices and difficulties. Similarly, we can reach heavenly beatitude only through the cross. And so, we are reminded and exhorted during this time of lent to embrace the cross as the way to God.

Another important point of the saying of Christ is the reference to the book of Numbers in the Old Testament. He refers to the story when God sent poisonous snakes among the people as a consequence of their rebellion against him. When the people regretted their sins and returned to God, Moses made a bronze serpent that he put on a standard, so that if anyone was bitten by a snake, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. In a similar way we are saved to eternal life by looking at the Lord through faith. We are therefore urged not only to embrace the cross, but also to look at the crucified Lord and contemplate his cross. During the time of Lent, a good way of meditating on the cross is the traditional devotion of the way of the cross.

We should also notice the reference to faith. Christ says that ‘everyone who believes may have eternal life in him’. It is unfortunately a common misunderstanding that faith is primarily an issue of trust and confidence in the Lord. This actually pertains more to the virtue of hope. Faith is primarily about belief in the sense of an intellectual assent to the articles of faith. In this way, we externally profess what we believe when we recite the creed. We teach and learn the faith through catechism. It is therefore important that we know the teaching of the Church, which is what we believe by faith. The time of Lent should also be a time of deepening our faith. If we haven’t made any Lenten resolution yet, it is for instance still possible to use the three weeks remaining before Easter to commit ourselves to some spiritual reading every day in order to deepen our friendship with the Lord.  i


Let us therefore turn to Christ and ask him for the grace to embrace and believe in his cross, so that we can go up to heaven together with him and through him see God the Father face to face and be united to the saints that have gone before us. +Amen.


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