God is the antidote

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  • September 5, 2008

Triumph of the Cross (Year A) Sept. 14 (Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 78; Philippians 2:6-11; John 3:13-17)

As anyone who has ever been on a long journey knows well, there is nothing like heat, thirst and hunger to bring out the worst in people. The Israelites provide a good example of human fickleness and fear during their journey through the wilderness.

Forgotten are the many miracles and wonders by which God had rescued them from Egypt. They are like so many people: swift to find fault and complain and slow when it comes to gratitude and remembering past blessings and kindnesses. They are hungry, tired and thirsty. In their murderous mood they take out their frustration on Moses and on God.

“God” sends fiery and venomous serpents in reply. The authors interpret the serpents as a divine chastisement sent, but today it would be wise to question such an interpretation. We might focus on the serpents as a concrete manifestation of the venomous attitude of the people. They have created their own little hell by turning their face against God. It is interesting that “God” will not remove the serpents that he has supposedly sent but will provide the antidote. The cure consists of what anthropologists call “sympathetic magic.” By gazing on an image of the snake that bit them, sufferers are cured of the effects of the venom. The serpents will remain as a reminder of what the path is like when we turn aside from God and become mired in our own negativity and selfishness.

The image of the cross and its glorification in Paul’s letters completely inverts the usual view of power, honour and shame. Philippians assures us that it was the loving and willing acceptance of a shameful, lowly status and death on a cross that empowered and exalted Jesus. His earthly role and the manner of His death were viewed as a source of shame and disgrace by many, but as honour, glory and power in the eyes of God and those attuned to God.

This image of the self-emptying of Christ is the paradigm for Christian discipleship and spirituality. The cross is not about self-punishment or a morbid focus on death and suffering for its own sake. It expresses the spiritual transformation that occurs when we open ourselves to the good of others in a radical and loving way even at cost to ourselves. This is not some technique to “be saved” but a way of imitating the divine — in fact, of experiencing and being part of God.

The Gospel of John utilizes the bronze serpent image from Numbers to illustrate the saving power of faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus. The rich ambiguity of the Greek word for “lift up” — it also means “to exalt” — enables John to make an exhilarating theological point in his teaching on the crucifixion. His crucifixion is actually a glorification or exaltation, contrary to its fear-filled human associations.

In the continuing inversion of human values, Jesus demonstrates that the greatest love and the greatest honour consist in laying down one’s life for others. There is little to comfort those who measure their worth by worldly standards of accomplishment or success. In John’s theology, “believing” in Jesus means surrendering to Him, abiding in Him and walking continually the path of love. There is no chasm or separation between what one believes and how one acts and treats others. Belief is a way of life rather than an ideology or theological weapon.

Jesus will be crucified or lifted up as a means of providing the antidote to the poison that afflicts humanity: death and all that is associated with it, such as fear, violence and selfishness. Jesus offers in Himself a new revelation and image of God. This God identifies with us, walks with us and in Him there is no violence or darkness, only life. The drama of redemption continues: God will not swoop in to save us from the painful fruits of our own negative behaviour and choices. This would dishonour our own free will and cast God in the role of the cosmic “fix-it” man. But God will provide the way out, the antidote. And for us that antidote is the way of Jesus, the path of love, humility and service.

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