Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
March 26, 2006
Numbers 21:4-9; Philippians 2:4-11; John 3:14-21

Archbishop Oscar Romero

Numbers 21:4-9. From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’ Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Philippians 2:4-11 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

John 3:14-21 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

The Rev. Joe Eldridge was scheduled to preach tonight, but was called away early Friday because his father, the Rev. Ed Eldridge, had become critically ill and was in the hospital. As last week was the 26th anniversary of the death and martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Joe had planned to preach on the passages from Philippians and John and talk about the ministry of Archbishop Romero. Having been a missionary in Latin America, Joe is, of course, far more expert in these matters than I. I told him that I would do my best to preach on those themes.

I received word this morning that Joe’s father had died peacefully. I would like to dedicate this sermon to Joe, my colleague and brother in Christ, and to the memory of his father, Ed, a true southern gentleman, a fellow Red Sox fan, and a Minister of the Gospel of the first order.


The most famous Bible reference is by far John 3:16. I wish I could say that this was due to the excellence of our Sunday schools and of Biblical preaching across the country. No, most people know of John 3:16 because of sporting events. There is always someone in the stands at a sporting event carrying a placard that says “John 3:16”.

In fact, so famous is this citation, that some people even know what John 3:16 says. It appears that those placards have made a great many people aware of the verse, but not much more than that. I often encounter people who upon hearing the words “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” say “Oh that’s John 3:16. I’d heard of it, but didn’t know what it was.” Yes, it’s the famous verse about God loving the world.


Perhaps even those of us who are familiar with the text don’t always appreciate all that it has to say. It is far more complicated a text than most people realize.
First when we read it in context, it is not perhaps as warm and fuzzy as we might have thought. There is language of light and darkness. Salvation and condemnation. Language suggesting that this love convicts and condemns. A curious understanding of love, to be sure. We all like to think that love is something soft, something safe.

And then there is the reference to lifting up the Son of Man the way Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. The passage from Numbers describes a time in the wilderness when the people rebelled against God and God inflicted them with poisonous serpents that would bite them. Repentant the people come before Moses and ask for help. God instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze and whenever anyone gets bitten by a serpent, they look at the image of the serpent and they survive. That story is interesting enough to merit a sermon of its own (and indeed, three years ago, I gave such a sermon). But more interesting for our purposes is to look at how John makes the connection with lifting up Christ and with the serpent in the wilderness. The serpent in the wilderness was a sign of God’s grace and healing. The people had rebelled and had to suffer the consequences, but God gave them a way out. In the same way, we have rebelled and suffer the consequences but God has given us a way out through Christ. Jesus lifted up is a sign of our healing.

But we need to remember that John is very adept at word play and double meanings, and so of course, the statement that the Son of Man must be lifted up has a double meaning itself: it means both to exalt or proclaim—the way we will ‘lift up’ people for prayer in our time of joys and concerns—and it means to crucify. And so what we read in John’s gospel is that Jesus must not only be exalted but crucified in order that eternal life might be brought to those who trust in God.

It is a jarring portrait that salvation and deliverance should be brought by an act of such horrific violence. It is one of the reasons some theologians have tried to get away from the idea of “sacrificial atonement”—the idea that Jesus died to appease the desire of a bloodthirsty God, because the violence of the cross looks too much like the cruel violence of the world to have any salvific value.


And there is plenty of violence in the world.

You may not realize it, but many of the people who clean your dormitories, who clean this chapel, who are underpaid and underappreciated, who work late into the nights and early in the morning—many of them are from El Salvador, having come to the United States in the 1980s to flee the systemic violence and oppression found in that country.

El Salvador is the smallest Central American country in area. But it ranks as the third largest country in population in Central America. El Salvador ranks as the most densely populated nation on the mainland of the Americas. It has about 10 times as many people per square mile as the United States, which has the largest population in the Americas. Ownership of scarce fertile land-El Salvador’s main resource-has been a cause of turmoil and conflict in the country. [1]

In the late 1970’s, the country had been ruled by one military government or another for decades, and widespread protests erupted over land and jobs for the poor. In 1979, junta replaced the president and not long after that a civil war began between the junta government and leftist guerrillas. [2]

In 1977, Oscar Arnulfo Romero was elected Archbishop of El Salvador. It was believed that he was a safe person to be bishop and that he was disinclined to get involved in politics. And they were right.

Until one day when two of his parishioners were murdered in his country’s escalating cycle of violence. Bishop Romero was converted. He began to speak out against the violence and oppression in El Salvador. His sermons were broadcast on radio—when it wasn’t being jammed or sabotaged. He became a champion of the poor and the downtrodden and his sermons proclaimed a Gospel of justice for all:

Unfortunately, brothers and sisters, we are the product of a spiritualized, individualized education. We were taught: try to save your soul and don’t worry about the rest. We told the suffering: be patient, heaven will follow, hang on. No, that’s not right, that’s not salvation! That’s not the salvation Christ brought. The salvation Christ brings is a salvation from every bondage that oppresses human beings. [3]

We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him among the undernourished children who have gone to bed tonight with nothing to eat, among the poor newsboys who will sleep covered with newspapers in doorways. [4]

I cry out against injustice, but only to say to the unjust: Be converted! I cry out in the name of suffering, of those who suffer injustice, but only to say to the criminals: Be converted! Do not be wicked!” [5]

He was an untiring advocate of the poor, a critic of the military government, and an advocate of nonviolence. He preached a gospel of love for both oppressor and oppressed. But on March 24, 1980, an unknown gunman entered the cathedral and gunned Archbishop Romero down while he was celebrating the mass.


Those who killed Archbishop Romero thought that they could kill the love that he preached.

They could not.

They could not destroy the love that sided with the poor. The love that called out for justice. For freedom from tyranny or oppression. The love that recognizes the inherent value of every human being as the “image of God.” The love that calls out for reconciliation and peace, not recrimination and violence. The love that turns the very world upside down.

They could not kill that love because it was not theirs to kill. It was not even Oscar Romero’s love. It was Christ’s.

This had been tried once before. Well, more than once, I suppose. But this had been tried with Christ himself. (Is it irony or just coincidence that Romero should have died for a country–the only country named after Jesus: El Salvador, The Savior?) Jesus preached a love so radical that it became a threat to those in power. Not because he preached niceness and those in power thought niceness was wrong. Not because he taught compassion and others believed in law. No.

Because the love that Christ taught was the kind of love that does violence to all the principalities and powers of the world. It is a love that turns tables over in the temple, and turns the world itself upside down. It is a love that says the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill made low. A love that says if you would be first you must be servant to all.

It is a love that is not a respecter of power, but a love that lifts up those who are in need. A love that challenges the status quo, a love that says that the way things are is not how they are meant to be. A love that rejects power and force and violence for the ways of peace—and not the kind of peace that means merely the absence of war—but that peace that brings justice and reconciliation.

The Romans had a peace. It was called the Pax Romana. What it meant was that Rome was so powerful that no one dared to attack Rome and there was no war for a great many years. That kind of peace is relatively easy.

But that is not Christ’s peace.

Christ’s peace comes through sacrifice and reconciliation. Through repairing all that is broken, bringing liberty to the captive and release to all those that are bound. It is a peace that ‘surpasses all understanding’ because its totality is beyond our ability to grasp. It is a peace grounded in that violent love that convicts and transforms the very world we live in.

That threatens the world we live in.

If we really understood that love, we too would be put at odds with the world. If we really believed—believed to the point of putting our lives on the line—that God alone was sovereign and every human being was equal and worthy of respect and dignity, how long would systems of racial, political, and economic injustice stand? How long would it be before those very systems reacted to protect their power? How long was it for Jesus? Five days in Jerusalem? Five days before the political, religious, and cultural powers that be realized that the message he was preaching was dangerous. Not because he said “turn the other cheek”—those in power will gladly have people forgive them of their wrongs. But because the message of forgiveness professes allegiance to a power greater than any earthly power, and a resistance to be manipulated by violence or fear—and that is dangerous.

Bishop John Schol once said in statement to the members of this annual conference: “Jesus never said that making and engaging disciples in [Christian discipleship] would be easy. As a matter of fact, he said it may cost us everything.” That is because the love that Christ proclaimed and calls on us to proclaim is a love of consequence. A love that matters. The Sermon on the Mount is not simply a nice ethical system worthy of admiration—it is subversive, because of what it says about God and what that implies about earthly power.

It was a message that Oscar Romero understood, a message he paid for with his life.


We are half way through our Lenten journey, in the wilderness before we enter into Jerusalem, and make our way to the cross, and the empty tomb. It is easy to see the events of Holy Week as events of violence. Given film portrayals like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, it would be easy to think about Christ’s days in Jerusalem as days of brutal violence: floggings, scourgings, mockings, crucifixion, and spearing. It is a week of violence, but not the violence of the world—the violence of love.

Romero said:

We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood, the violence that will to beat weapons into sickles for work. [6]

As we move forward through lent, we lift up the Crucifixion, not to glorify the violence, but to lift up the Cruficied. As John writes, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”. The light that is seen in the death and resurrection of Jesus exposes evil for what it is. The cross must be lifted up not because it reinforces the world and the world’s violence, but because it destroys that violence.

In the crucifixion and resurrection the love of God does violence to all the powers of the world. The power of the Emperor, the Roman Legions, the Temple Guard, the Temple Priesthood—all are made insignificant next to the power of God. Even Death itself is destroyed by the love that God has for every single one of us, for me and for each one of you. This is the love for the world of John 3:16. The love that made us, redeems us, and sustains us. The love that invites each of us into relationship with God and one another. A love that frees us to love one another, because it has destroyed all that would imprison us: fear, hatred, selfishness. A love that empowers us to love one another, and walks with us as we, like the ancient church, turn the world upside down.

In the words of Bishop Romero:

“Let us not tire of preaching love;
it is the force that will overcome the world.
Let us not tire of preaching love.
Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love,
love must win out;
it is the only thing that can.” [7]

[1“El Salvador”, 2005 World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia,
[3Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, compiled and translated by James R. Brockman, S.J., Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY (1988), p. 163
[4Id., at 179
[5Id., at 14
[6Id., at 12
[7Id., at 7

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