St. Patrick’s Shamrock
Numbers 21: 4-9; John 3:14-21
You are Holy Mystery, O God. You are beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description. We thank you for enabling us to lift up questions about who you are and giving us opportunities to express our own faith anew in our generation. Throughout our Lenten journey, may we continue to struggle to discern your will in our midst. Amen.
“Luck of the Irish: A record hot day for parade in
St. Patrick has endured as the principal champion of Irish Christianity. It is intriguing that, according to Irish folklore, he used the shamrock to explain the doctrine of the Holy Trinity to the Irish people. Believe it or not, he used the three-leaved plant to convert the pagan Irish, who had believed in polytheism before he began his ministry with them.
For me, it is still difficult to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity. However, the pagan Irish had no problem making sense of it and came to believe in one God as three persons when St. Patrick explained it with the shamrock. If only I had been Irish at that time! After reading today’s passages from both Numbers and the Gospel of John, I wonder, if St. Patrick could come again, could he help me understand another difficult doctrine, the doctrine of the atonement?
There is a pattern in the wilderness stories of the Israelites. The people complain and God sends some kind of “wake-up call” or “punishment.” Then the people repent and Moses intervenes on behalf of the people and God delivers them.
In the passage from Numbers we read today, we see this pattern again. This time the Israelites complain about everything, including the manna they are given to eat: “Why have you brought us up out of
to die in
the wilderness? For there is no food and no water and we detest this miserable
manna! (v. 5)” They are not happy with God and Moses. They are “impatient.” As they face the trials
of the wilderness, the Israelites’ faith wavers. Egypt
In some ancient cultures, serpents were associated with gods. The serpents that attack the Israelites are described as “poisonous” or “fiery”(v. 6). The serpents have a dual capacity. These serpents have the power to destroy, yet faith in the bronze serpent crafted by Moses has the power to save. The bronze serpent becomes a visible symbol of God’s power to save and to heal.
“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.” Most Christians have heard and many have memorized this famous John 3:16 passage. Yet, how many realize that these words are placed in the text immediately following the description of Jesus as one who is lifted up by God in the same way that “Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” (v.14)?
Here comes the doctrine of the atonement. Just as Moses held up a staff with a bronze snake on it, so God lifts up Jesus on the cross out of her love for the world. We are told that God killed Jesus on the cross on purpose. Well, that troubles me a great deal. It does not make sense to me at all. How can our loving God possibly kill her innocent child intentionally? Killing is killing. It is not an accident, but an intentional, purposeful and brutal act. Isn’t it first degree murder? And isn’t it against the sixth commandment: “Thou shall not kill?” Is it right to punish a person for what other people do?
Are we really so bad that God had to kill Jesus to make up for what we have done? What good did it do in the end? Okay, Jesus was killed to save us from what, maybe killing each other, but aren’t we all the same people, still doing the same bad things, like waging wars against each other even after his death? I wish St. Patrick would come again and explain it to me in a plain and simple way, like the shamrock.
At the last General Council meeting held in
in 2009, which I
attended as a Commissioner, one of the most significant debates was about the
nature of doctrine in our church. In the
end, Council passed a motion to add three other statements of faith to the
doctrine section of the Basis of Union, which is referred to as our church’s
constitution. In order to change this
constitution, the majority of the presbyteries and congregations across the
country are required to vote in favour of the proposed change. As a congregation, we have received this
referral, what we call a remit, and our Council will make a decision on our
behalf next month. Kelowna
Why do we need this change? It comes from our belief that our faith can and should be expressed anew in each generation in ways that are both faithful to scripture and reflect the language and meaning of the time. Since
our church has written three more faith statements: the 1940 Statement of
Faith, the 1968 A New Creed, and the 2006 A Song of Faith. Now, we are asked whether we agree to include
each of these three statements of faith in the Doctrine section of the Basis of
When I had my final interview as a candidate for ordination many years back, I was asked whether I was “in essential agreement with” the doctrine section of the Basis of Union. I had great difficulty in saying “Yes,” because I could not make sense of all of it. In order to avoid any barrier to my ordination, I said, yes, reluctantly, hoping I would be able to make sense of the articles in time.
More than anything else, apart from the doctrine of the virgin birth, the article that troubled me most was the doctrine of the atonement I mentioned earlier. It reads: “For our redemption, He fulfilled all righteousness, offered Himself a perfect sacrifice on the Cross, satisfied Divine justice, and made propitiation for the sins of the whole world.” This statement still troubles me.
Obviously, I was not alone. By 1940, only 11 years after the Basis of Union was adopted, our Church wanted a new statement of faith. The 7th General Council stated that “the time is opportune to write a new statement of faith in concise and intelligible form.” In this new statement of faith, the doctrine of the virgin birth has gone. However, the doctrine of the atonement is still there with different wording.
Calling for an alternative to the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds for use in worship, our church wrote “a modern creed in modern language,” A New Creed, or the United Church Creed, in 1968. Thank God, there is no more mention there about “sacrifice on the cross.”
The third faith statement, “A Song of Faith,” is intended to provide a verbal picture of our faith at the beginning of the 21st century. It is an invitation for the church to live out its convictions in the current theological, social, political and historical context. I love this song: there is no concept of atonement. Instead, it sings like this:
He preached and practised unconditional love— love of God, love of neighbour, love of friend, love of enemy—and he commanded his followers to love one another as he had loved them. Because his witness to love was threatening, those exercising power sought to silence Jesus. He suffered abandonment and betrayal, state-sanctioned torture and execution. He was crucified.
Lent is a time to ask questions and re-examine our faith. As in today’s story from Numbers, God is willing to listen even to our complaints. The key is that we are not afraid to lift up our questions, fears and anxieties to God. During this Lenten journey, may God lead us through the desolate and deserted places of our lives to a place of new life, hope and blessing through our struggles to discern God’s will in our midst. Amen.