“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.”
Lent is always a good time to ask questions, so here are a few for today, reflecting on the Gospel we’ve just heard.
First, how does the crucifixion of Jesus mean salvation for us? How does it appear, not as a masochistic son placating an angry and sadistic father, but as a sign of life, as a sign of life meeting and transcending death? How can we make sense today of this crucified Christ who waits to meet us at the end of the road we follow in this Lenten season?
Second, working from that first question, how do we live out our understanding of this saving life and death in our own living and dying, as friends and followers of this Jesus? How do we live our lives, order our priorities, spend our days? How can we be real and religious at the same time? How do we do truth here and now?
So, let’s look at the Gospel. John is setting out two very complex patterns of truth, two threads interweaving like a strand of DNA in the very centre of the story he tells. First, there is the majesty of the savior walking through history, the king, the son of a king, coming among us and reminding us who and whose we are. In the royal pilgrimage we see the story of a great holy hero, the picture of Jesus reminding us of the immeasurable distance between humankind and God, as scripture says elsewhere, “My ways are not your ways.” John focuses us to see the immensity of God, the transcendence, how big the reality of God is, how far it all extends, how long it might go on.
But St. John also lets us know how close God is willing to come in the way of Jesus: close enough to meet foreigners and fallen women, noisy tax-gatherers and inquisitive temple personnel, self-proclaimed saints and sentenced sinners too. To every one of us, Jesus comes to offer the ultimate intimacy of God, to speak love, make love, let love live in us: meeting with us in the very middle of reality, closer than the polarities and disparities of in-group and out-group, “us” and “them,” success and failure, life and death. In the great majesty of Christ, God comes closer to us than we are to ourselves. And we come here to practice the ongoing discipline of a kind of double vision in order to see it clearly in all its immensity and intimacy. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said to the World Council of Churches in South America last month:
‘We are the servants of a monarch, the monarch of a nation set free by God’s special action to show his love and strength in their life together, a monarch whose authority belongs to the present and the future as much as the past. We are witnesses to the consistency of a God who cannot be turned aside from his purpose by any created power, or by any failure or betrayal on our part. We are more than servants or witnesses, because we are enabled to speak as if we were, like our king, free to be intimate with God; God has stepped across the distance between ourselves and heaven, and has brought us close to him. When we speak directly to God, we speak in a voice God himself has given us to use.’
Big and small together, majesty and familiarity, for what might appear to be two and are really one. In the Gospel we see the mighty picture of a monarch who has come from so far to be close to us in the value and the voice and the face of the friend, the sibling, the lover. All this is in the fourth Gospel: both a mystery and a love story. And all the time it is pointing further and deeper into the story, into the mystery, into the moment where Jesus prays that we may be one with him as he is one with the Father. “I in them and they in me… so that they may be one as we are one. That is the connection, the communion we are called into, the closeness that comes to us, comes to all of our life, all of it!
All of our lives: that is the tough part of the Good News; not just in the peak moments, the happy travels, the good years, the precious harvest. But in the times when life is spare and sad, when crops fail, when death seems to stalk us, in that time as well. When the crowd comes unfriendly and the end is in sight and is nothing we would have hoped for: Then he is one with us as well, God and Jesus intimate with each of us: meeting our failures and our endings: when the snakes bite, the wolves come, the story pours out to a sad ending. But the question then is, how can that take place?
John writes: “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.” It is an odd picture isn’t it? But it is such an odd and very complex world.
My niece in California has been studying homeopathy for quite awhile. I know almost nothing about it, but I think it works on the principal that a little of a bad thing is a good thing, a little poison, an infinitesimal amount, carefully applied, can save you from a larger poison. It’s close to more mainstream medical methods that use dead or weak cells from a virus contained in the right package to teach your body to kills live cells from the same virus. There can be trouble when the cells are stronger than the person they are supposed to cure, so care needs to be applied.
So if we are one body in Christ, than that cross, which is the last place we would look, may be the very place where Jesus meets the poison, turns the corner, takes the cure. Maybe (like the miracle of the serpent in the wilderness) the cure comes when we can see him take the road we were fated to walk and find the light there that we could have never seen. Maybe that’s the instance where the DNA gets a new start, finds a new path, a wider road. And from the place, he lights up the way, shows us the way home right through the darkness.
Listen, if anyone shouldn’t die, it would be him. So if he dies, meeting death as we all will, and if we are, as he says, one with him, then all our deaths meet his death and his life there. In Jesus, God love sews the thread of a majestic love and a deep connection, which stay down there in the middle of everything. That unspeakable intimacy, where God hugs the world with the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross, threads through life and death, success and failure, ending and beginning, weaving past, present and future into one eternal now where love is all in all.
It is important to state that it is not easy to understand how this could be. As a person who still doesn’t know how his computer printer works or when it is going to run out of ink, I honestly don’t worry too much about the mechanics of it: how all the parts fit together or how it might be diagramed. For, as I go along the Christian way, I worry less about the names or the lines on the map and learn to rest more in the heart of the journey and the assurance of coming home at the end. But what I do know, and what is very important to say and remember and to relax into is the fact that we are created, redeemed and sanctified, breathed, by the God who can, and would will to, take this kind of route, to go to any length to bring us home.
But we’re not there yet, we’re still on the road. Sometimes we get hints, guesses, keeping hope alive, and other times we seem to be lost in a dark way in the middle of the journey. But the Gospel tell us the good new is that God is on the way as well, has taken this route, walks besides, will see us home. All we need to do is live towards the light, do what we can, to allow God to live in us, begin again, day after day, now after now, to learn over and over to live in that love, face that face of forgiveness, mercy, renewal, humility, hope. And to keep letting God love us when all that seems impossible anyway, when everything falls flat and all we can do is cry, “Where in this hell are you and why have you forsaken me now?” The Good News, though it might not seen good at the time, is that God can be there, has been there, will be there, too.
Rowan Williams said this at the council:
the nature of our conviction as Christians puts us… in a certain place, which is both promising and deeply risky… where we are called to show utter commitment to the God who is revealed in Jesus and to all those to whom his invitation is addressed… We are not called to win competitions or arguments in favour of our ‘product’ in some religious marketplace… [instead] we have to be ready to witness, in life and word, to what is made possible by being in the place of Jesus the anointed – ‘our reasons for living, for loving less badly and dying less badly’... And we do so by giving prayerful thanks for our place and by living faithfully where God in Jesus has brought us to be, so that the world may see what is the depth and cost of God’s own fidelity to the world he has made.
St Georges' Anglican Church, East Ivanhoe 26 March 2006