Numbers 21: 4-9, Ephesians 2: 1-10, John 3: 14-21
Last week I reflected on how John takes two images – the Jerusalem Temple and the body of Jesus, and places them side by side. We are struck by the great contrast, and then we reflect on the mystery, that somehow one is replaced by the other, as the focus of God’s presence in the world.
This week our gospel reading from John opens with another folding together of two sharply contrasting images, held within the notion of being “raised up.” This Greek verb means two opposite things: Jesus will be raised up in the sense of a cruel method of execution, being nailed to a cross and then raised up from the ground, held hanging there until he dies. And secondly, raised up in the sense of being exalted, put in the place of honour. But also “up” in the sense of spiritually elevated, nearer to heaven. For this reading follows on from Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, with his talk of being born again “from above.”
I sense that it is down to the familiarity of centuries of tradition that we are able without strain to hold these two thoughts of execution and veneration in our minds at the same time. It was not so, I imagine, for the community for whom John wrote his gospel.
In Christian Art the cross was not depicted until the 4th or 5th Century, at least 200 years after John’s gospel. There are many early Christian images in the catacombs of Rome, but none of the cross: It was regarded with horror, a subject not fit for artistic portrayal.
John adds a further image from Jewish tradition, which perhaps conveys for us that horror – a lethally poisonous snake held up on a pole.
The image comes from our reading from Numbers. The Israelites are wandering in the desert, following Moses but grumbling – for there is no water and only miserable food. Then matters get much worse. Imagine your horror, holding your children tightly as they sleep at night, knowing that poisonous snakes are slithering towards you in the dark. Many died, and those who remained must have been shaking with fear. So God tells Moses to make a bronze image of one of the dreaded snakes and raise it up. And by looking on the thing that most terrifies them, they are healed.
There is another pairing of ideas at work here – of light versus dark, exposure and hiddenness. For the snake works at night, but Moses raises up its image to the light of day and in so doing draws its power and makes of it an instrument of healing. In the same way, the cross is somehow a lifting into the light of a violence that was hidden, but is now exposed.
The act of lifting into the light, of exposing violence and evil, then deprives it of its power. But it is not just the act of exposure but also the intention behind it: For John explains that it is out of love that Jesus gives his life on the cross. So the violence of the world is exposed not to invite retribution, but to offer reconciliation – in this lies spiritual power.
I am reminded of other more recent gestures of exposure. Of Gandhi, who believed utterly in the power of showing by mass public gesture the illegitimacy of the occupying government, who declared that, “Whenever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love.” And who led a movement which achieved British withdrawal from India despite being completely unarmed, against an opponent who at the end of the 2nd World War commanded an Indian Army of two and a half million men.
Also of Mamie Till, who insisted that the coffin of her son, Emmet be carried open to his funeral, for all to see and photograph; her son who was brutally beaten about the head and murdered by white racists in southern America.
And of the film last year from Ava DuVernay about 5 black teenagers in New York, falsely convicted of a rape in Central Park, on the shakiest of evidence, a film which bears the title, “When they see us” and which portrays them not as victims but as individual personalities, confident that revealing them in the fullness of who they were and are, will change minds.
And yet, when Jesus first suggested this was his vocation, it was an astonishingly bold hope: that the violence and brutality of power and in particular the Roman empire will somehow be overcome as a consequence of its brutal truth being exposed, through non-violent protest and self-offering. It is easy to understand the panic of the more politically-minded of Jesus’ followers, for whom the idea that a non-violent, sacrificial approach might succeed was complete and utter folly. And yet, though slowly and beyond the life span of those first followers, this is what happened.
The victory of light over dark is also a victory of life over death. It is a collective fulfilment, a making whole in eternity not of me but of us, of the whole of God’s creation: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…that the world might be saved through him.” And so, in time, the whole world will be raised up with Christ.
Richard Young (Rector)