Jesus: Superhero? Antihero? Neither?  [John 3:14-21]

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 11, 2018

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

John 3:14-21 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “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. 17 “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. 18 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. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 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.”

[sermon begins]

Wonder Woman hit movie theaters last spring and tallied box office returns of $103 million for opening weekend and over $800 million in worldwide box office sales.[1] Black Panther opened in mid-February to the tune of $202 million and is currently well over $900 million in worldwide ticket sales.[2] It’s still in theaters so, who knows, a billion dollars is possible. Those are record breaking numbers. People not only enjoy the quality movie making, they also care deeply about these films – their characters and stories. I’m fascinated by how deeply people care. Every so often, I day dream about the doctoral program at DU called Theology, Philosophy, and Cultural Theory.[3] Programs like this excavate the layers of experience and thought behind cultural phenomena. For now, there are experts in their fields who propose their own theories. TV critic Eric Deggans thinks that, “Superheroes answer this desire that a lot of us have to have somebody cut through all the nonsense in life, use extraordinary powers to bring justice to a situation, and I think that’s the appeal of these movies and these T.V. shows; To find somebody who can just sort of cut through all the nonsense and deliver justice very directly.”[4]

It’s not a stretch that we would want God to work in the ways of the superhero, too. Especially in the Gospel of John in which Jesus performs miracles and seems to have superman-like resolve from his baptism all the way through his death on the cross. While I do not think this means what we often think it means, there is something both super-human and all too human going on here. The human part is that we are prone to condemnation. We like to judge other people as if we could do better in the same set of circumstances.[5]  And we tend to pull God into our court to support our verdict. Along this line, I hung out with the first communion students and their parents on Wednesday evening. Their first communion book, written by Daniel Erlander, tells stories about the crabby people who were very, very crabby about Jesus.[6] They didn’t like the way he healed. They didn’t like the way he fed. They didn’t like the way he forgave.

They didn’t like that he ate with the wrong people. You get the idea. We worked through the first few pages of the book, regaled by stories about Jesus while the crabby people in the stories plotted to kill him. The crabby people were meting out their own kind of justice with a plan to hang Jesus on a cross. Class ended with this thought. I told the kids that there may be crabby people who pop up in our lives to ask us the question, “Do you know what God’s going to do to you?!” Then I told them how to answer it by saying, “Yes, God’s going to love me.”  We know this because all the way to the cross there was not one finger lifted by God against the very people who were part of the execution.

The love of God is part of these verses today as the world God so loves. It’s a reference from John 3:16 which begins, “For God so loved the world…”  John 3:16 is well known to us – on signs at football games and quite possibly anywhere else you could imagine, the signs read either just chapter and verse or sometimes the sign-artist will write the whole thing. “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.” I always hope that the next verse, John 3:17, will make it onto the sign too.

Listen to beginning os John 3:17 again, “”Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world…” The Son in these Bible verses is Jesus. In God’s mysterious way, those of us who confess a faith of Jesus, also say that Jesus is God and God is Jesus. The Gospel of John begins with this claim. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…what came into being was life and the life was the light of all the people…the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it…and the Word became flesh and lived among us.”[7] The Gospel of John confesses Jesus’ divinity.


Jesus came not to condemn – came NOT to be the movie superhero doling out retributive justice. Yet that is the justice often claimed out of these verses. It’s the kind of justice we crave from our superheroes because it cuts through the nonsense and appeals to a sense of fairness that is satisfying. Satisfying, that is, when it’s someone else getting cut down. A little less satisfying when we’re the ones under judgment. But, our satisfaction is amplified when our connections with each other are made around a common enemy. Kind of like those crabby people in the first communion book who are united against their common enemy of Jesus. Why doesn’t Jesus come out swinging and deliver the final one-two punch? Jesus, while occasionally sarcastic and biting, is no anti-hero. He isn’t skulking around, isolated and cynical. He is walking around as the light. Shining light on the human condition by telling the truth about the deeds we do in the darkness and light that exist in the world.

Here’s the truth of it. We take turns in the darkness and light – by choice and by circumstance. Part of God loving the world is shining light on the truth of what we do. This isn’t necessarily joyful or easy. But shining the light on our rush to judgment without all the data, our call for retributive justice without compassion, or our determination to energize around a common enemy is exactly what’s needed. Shining a light on all of our attempts to end up at the top of the heap while condemning others around us.

In the Gospel reading we are told that, “The light has come into the world.” The very first verses of the Gospel of John tells us Jesus is “the light of all people.”[8]  During communion we hear the words of Jesus spoken over the wine:

Again, after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for ALL to drink saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for ALL people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me.[9]

During the invitation to communion, we often say that if you are here you are welcome to Holy Communion. It is Christ’s table for all because Jesus is the light come into the world, the light of all people. Such is the welcome and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Neither superhero, nor anti-hero, Jesus is simply given to us by grace, for God so loves the world and continues to draw us into the light of Christ by this good news.


[1] The Numbers: Where Data and the Movie Business Meet. “Wonder Woman” as of March 10, 2018.

[2] Ibid. “Black Panther” as of March 10, 2018

[3] DU/Iliff Joint PhD Program in the Study of Religion: Theology, Philosophy, and Cultural Theory.

[4] Eric Deggans, NPR TV Critic. “Here and Now.” March 9, 2018.

[5] Karoline Lewis. Associate Professor of Preaching and the Marbury E. Anderson Chair in Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary.  “After Effects” (John 3:14-21) for Dear Working Preacher. Sunday, March 4, 2018.

[6] Daniel Erlander. A Place for You: My Holy Communion Book. 1999.

[7] John 1:1, 3b-5, 14

[8] John 1:5

[9] Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). Holy Communion, Setting One. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 108.

Torkel Palmer Attleson 1922-2018…Celebrating the Life of a Dear Saint-and-Sinner of the Greatest Generation*

* Simultaneously “saint and sinner” is part of how we try to explain baptism in the Lutheran Christian tradition.

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on March 7, 2018

Torkel Palmer Attleson’s name says a lot about him. Born full-blooded Norwegian, he was proud of his first name, Torkel.  Born on Palm Sunday in 1922, he was given the name most of us know him by, Palmer, because of the palm branches in the Bible story waved when Jesus entered Jerusalem. He filled out his 5 Wishes for what he wanted us to know about him. His list begins like this – full-blooded Norwegian, lifetime Lutheran, and baptized in the Norwegian Church. So much of what defined Palmer’s life was steeped in his families’ experience in the Norwegian immigrant community in Iowa. The other two things on his list stretched him just a bit – the rite of Confirmation in the German Lutheran Church and marriage in a Swedish Lutheran Church to his lovely Swedish bride who was from a Swedish immigrant community in Kansas. These are the things that he wants you to know.

Of course, there’s more. Palmer was a part of what’s called America’s Greatest Generation. Naval service in World War II’s Pacific Theater is incomprehensible to most of us, as is the rebuilding of the post-Depression, post-War America.  He and Leona married in it, grew their family in it, and held onto their faith through it.  Palmer lived this life while winging out Ollie and Lena jokes along with other one-liners with his signature dry humor and twinkle in his eye. His care and devotion to Leona through her MS is unparalleled, moving her in her wheelchair up the stairs in their home at the age of 75. The list could go on and on and there’s more in Palmer’s bio in the back of your bulletin. He loved his wife, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He loved his church. He loved his life.

Celebrating Palmer’s life is the easy part. Missing him is the harder part. I read recently about grief that it seems to take up all the space in the world until one day, it doesn’t.  So we celebrate his life even as we miss him in death.

As devoted, proud, funny, and accomplished as Palmer was, he had an honesty about his own imperfection – the limits of his humanity. In the language of Christian tradition, we call it sin.  And this is where his testimony of faith is so powerful. He worshiped with awareness and humility to hear Jesus’ promise of forgiveness and God’s love for him.  For Palmer, this language of faith was formed by his Norwegian Lutheran heritage expanded by Leona’s Swedish Lutheran commitments.

In the Bible story chosen by his children from the Gospel of John, Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time on his way to the cross. He had just come from visiting his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was because of the sign of raising Lazarus from the dead that the crowd came to see Jesus when they heard he was coming into Jerusalem. They took branches from palm trees and went out to meet Jesus. What a strange parade – palm branches waving as Jesus rides by on a donkey.  The story goes on to tells us that even his disciples didn’t understand what was happening at first. Their lack of understanding is comforting. Jesus is on the move, on the cross, and onto the resurrection on our behalf whether we understand it or not. It’s a beautiful, powerful promise.

The Gospel of John emphasizes the power of God’s promise in Jesus. Jesus, who is God. God, who is Jesus. Jesus whose life reveals God’s love and care for all people regardless of class, gender, or race.  Jesus whose ministry of God’s unconditional love led to his execution on a cross. Jesus’ death on the cross means a lot of things. One thing the cross means is that God knows suffering. More than that, the cross reveals the mystery of God suffering with us when we suffer.  For someone like Palmer, whose last years muted hearing, dimmed eyesight, and faded memory, the promise of the cross, of God suffering when we suffer, is no small thing.

The crosses in our lives can separate us from each other and from God.  But God says, “Not so fast…I’ve been there too…I who came in the form of a baby, who lived and walked the earth, who was put to death and who conquered death in rising again…I am God and I have the last word.”  God’s last word meets us our grief with hope – the hope that forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation with each other are possible; and the hope of all that God is yesterday in a living baby, today in a living Christ and tomorrow in an eternal God.

In self-sacrificing love, Jesus laid his life down and now catches death up into God, drawing Palmer into holy rest.  Here, now, we are assured that this is God’s promise for Palmer, just as it was for Leona.  And be assured, that this is God’s promise for you.  Thanks be to God!