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. (John 3:17)
Do you know what a catalyst is? I found out a long time ago in an interesting way. And what I learned suggested to me a new way of understanding the meaning of the coming of the Christ.
When I was a college student, I had the good fortune of being employed during the summers as a vacation relief worker in an oil refinery. I worked day after day among the ponderous machines and the awesome towers of that industry. I have always been a curious soul so I wanted to learn what I could about the things around me.
One day, while I was working on one of the tallest towers in the plant, I asked the pipe fitter with whom I was working, “What is this thing?”
He said, “It’s a cat cracker.”
I said, “A what?”
He said, “That is short for a thermocatalytic cracking unit.”
“Oh.” I said. “Well what does it do?” (That is the question I really wanted to ask in the first place but I was a little afraid to ask it after the fitter told me it was a cat cracker.)
He answered. “I don’t know.” He could fix it but he couldn’t explain it.
As time went by, I asked some of the operators and others the same question and got very similar answers. I found people who could run it and people who could fix it but no one who could explain it.
Finally one day, quite by accident, I found someone who could explain the unit. Sure enough, it was another college student like myself, a chemistry major. Typically, he couldn’t run the unit or fix it but he could explain it.
We were working together preparing a box car to be loaded, (mine was not an executive position), and my friend bent over and picked up a little cylinder of something that looked like asbestos about half the circumference of a pencil and about a quarter of an inch long. He asked, “Do you know what this is?” I didn’t, so he explained. This is a catalyst. They use it in the thermocatalytic cracking unit. They heat these little pellets until they are white hot. Then they force them into the crude oil. The heat causes a chemical reaction that breaks the crude oil down into its components and separates the light oil from the heavier components. That is an important part of the refining process.
I had learned something. My old collegiate dictionary explained, “Catalysis is the causing or the speeding up of a chemical reaction by the presence of a substance that does not itself change.” A catalyst is the substance used to bring about that reaction.
As I began to translate those words into pictures, which is the only way I have ever been able to understand anything new, it occurred to me that I had just caught a new vision of what it means that God sent the Son into the world in order that the world might be saved through Him. Let me try to share with you what I began to understand.
God sent the Son into the world to interact with us and with our world in a way that will cause a reaction that will make a difference that will save.
There are several things that way of thinking about the coming of Christ can teach us.
First, it can teach us that to save is to change.
We keep wanting God to save us in some way that doesn’t require change — at least, not in us or in the parts of the world with which we identify.
We would like for God to renew the structures of family life. But we want him to do it without requiring us to change our values so that we can give family life a priority in the investment of our energies.
We would like for drug traffic and the crime that goes with it to stop. We don’t want to do anything about the desperation that drives people to use drugs or the “get rich quick” value system that drives disadvantaged people to sell them.
We want there to be peace on earth but we don’t want to pay the price of establishing justice for all people as the rule on earth. We want the world to be saved without changing.
We want some sort of personal salvation that will not require change either. We want to live full, happy lives, and we want to be assured that nothing bad will ever happen to us and we would like to know that we will go to heaven when we die. But we don’t want God to tamper with our favorite habits or bitterness or ambitions or addictions or prejudices. We don’t want our lives reorganized around new hopes and purposes. We don’t want anything to interfere with our scrambling after the same little prizes we have had our hearts set on for so long. We would like to be saved without being changed.
But it just won’t work that way. The things that are causing all of our troubles, the things from which we need to be saved, are things that are wrong with our lives and with our world.
We don’t like to think about anything being wrong with us. It damages our self image. But we have to reckon with the fact that the sources of most of our troubles are within us. If we don’t, there will be no hope for us.
We have the idea that if God finds anything wrong in our lives, we will be undone — so we hide it — and we pretend. That is a mistake. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn us or our world; to judge maybe, but not to condemn. There is a difference between judgment and condemnation. Judgment is a matter of bringing our problems into focus. It is part of what God does to save us. Condemnation is something like a death sentence. The only condemnation we are likely to experience in our relationship with God is what will happen if we draw back from the better possibility he offers us and hide in the darkness of the notion that we don’t need to change.
God did not send the Son to condemn the world but to make possible the salvation of the world. He came to make a real difference. That means he came to change things. He came to change things in us and in our world.
Well how did Jesus change things? He changed things in a way very similar to the way in which a catalyst in a chemical reaction changes things — and he still does. He moves into relationship with us and interacts with us and requires us to react to him.
The very birth of Jesus changed things. It drew Mary and Joseph into an adventure of faith and commitment that was very different from the happy simple life they had planned for themselves. It drove mighty king Herod into a fit of paranoid anxiety and it plunged the families in the region of Bethlehem into costly sacrifice and grief that they couldn’t understand. But it also brought hope to a desperate nation.
Remember what you know about the life changing ways in which Jesus interacted with the people whom he encountered during his life.
Remember his interaction with Nicodemus, the genuinely good and sincerely pious old leader of the Jews. He told him that he would have to start over again as from the beginning and let his life be put together in an entirely new way, as if he were being born again. Eventually that actually happened.
Remember his interaction with Zacchaeus, the corrupt and unhappy tax collector. He surprised him by caring about him and offering him a new possibility and it changed his life.
Remember how he moved into the life of Peter who had nothing bigger to do with his life than to catch fish and sell them. He called him to commit himself to a new purpose and that made him a new person.
How well do you remember the stories of his interactions with the Samaritan woman by the well, the Gerasene demoniac, the woman taken in adultery, the rich young ruler and many more. He interacted with each of them in a way that was appropriate to meet his or her needs and he made a difference in each of their lives.
Finally, Jesus pushed himself into the history of his nation and forced it to make a decision between the new possibility he offered and the darkness in which they had become accustomed to hiding. That interaction was pivotal for the history of that nation. That is how Jesus worked to change things during his life, through dynamic interactions that required reactions and brought about change.
But how does Jesus make a difference in our lives today now that he is no longer living among us?
Certainly, the memory of Jesus has changed many lives. Remembering the things he taught and the things he did has made a big difference to many people.
But that is not the whole answer. It is not really even the most important part of the answer. You see, it is a mistake to think that Jesus is no longer living among us. That God who was God with us in Jesus is still God with us today. God is the one who gives us life and interacts with us through our interactions with life. God made himself known in Jesus so that we will be able to recognize what he is doing in our world and in our lives. Whenever we recognize that something Jesus did is being done again in our lives, we can know that God is doing it. The risen Christ still interacts with us and requires reactions from us and works to change us and to save us.
A family who takes a troubled child to a therapist and discovers that the whole family system needs to be reorganized can know that they have experienced the saving work of God.
A person who has been sustained and enabled to live through a bad time in life, a grief, a sickness, a failure, because he or she was surrounded by a circle of loving friends can know that he or she has experienced the saving work of God.
A person who steps outside the selfish pursuits our culture encourages and gets involved in doing something really good for others and discovers in that something that fills life with new meaning and new joy can know that he or she has experienced the saving work of God.
The God who sent the Son into the world as a catalyst keeps sending him in all sorts of life shaping experiences. We need our memory of the Jesus, who came once, to help us recognize what the Son is doing when he comes again. When we find ourselves interacting with the living God, the risen Christ, then, if we open ourselves to the interaction, if we let ourselves enter into it, that interaction can change us and save us.
The Son still pushes himself into the lives of communities and nations in every issue that involves love and justice and human dignity. He still forces us to choose between his better possibility and the same old darkness in which we have been living. James Russell Lowell named the event when he wrote: “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood for the good or evil side; Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight, And the choice goes by for ever twix that darkness and that light”. In those sometimes painful encounters with the living Son is the possibility of the salvation of the world.
God sent the Son into the world in order that the world might be saved through him. God sent the one who represented him to draw us into interactions with him that can change us and save us — and God is still doing that. The catalysis still goes on. Let us always be open to his coming.

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