Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your people, kindle in us the fire of your love, send forth your breath and we shall be made whole, and you shall renew the face the of the earth. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning. I am so glad to have the opportunity to be here with you today. When we told our kids that we were coming, our youngest asked “why?” My wife, Katie, told him that you had invited me to preach as part of your anniversary celebration. He said, “Really? We’re going to Illinois just so dad can talk? He does that every week!?!” Then he changed gears and asked me if there was a priest of the year award?
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Bradley Pace. I am the rector of St. John’s in Lafayette, Indiana. Katie and I attended Emmanuel when we were grad students here in the early 2000s. It is always a great joy to return. I cannot express to you how much this church community means to Katie and me. We think of you often and reminisce about our time here. I am glad to see that you are in such good hands with Mother Beth and the rest of the talented and caring leadership at Emmanuel.
There are so many ways that we can talk about the meaning of Jesus’s death, so many ways to talk about the meaning of the cross. The early Church never settled on one way of thinking or talking about Jesus’ death. Even the catholic Churches—the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Churches—have never settled on a single understanding. Of course the danger of trying to determine a single way of understanding the cross and Jesus’ death—the danger of coming up with a single theory of what the cross means—is that we will almost certainly miss something incredibly important. Perhaps here the Creed says more or less all that needs to be said—he died “for us and our salvation.” But of course we go on to say more. We say that Jesus’ death on the cross forgives sin, that it defeats the evil powers that rebel against God, that it destroys death. We say, as Rowan Williams describes it, that it is “a ransom, paid to our kidnappers; it is a punishment that we deserve, voluntarily borne by another, who is innocent; it is…a triumphant nailing up of a cancelled invoice” as Rowan Williams describes it. We use words like redemption and atonement, liberation and deliverance, all of which could be taken literally or figuratively. In the Bible, we get a series of rich metaphors. The connections to the Passover and to the Exodus story run throughout. Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He alludes to his death on the cross saying that he stands like the green tree that is set ablaze before the great conflagration when the dry branches are consumed. He describes himself as the mother hen who covers her chicks with her wings, giving her own life to protect them. In today’s Gospel, Jesus references an odd story from the book of Numbers. He says, “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.” In that story, part of the larger Exodus narrative, God is angry at the Israelites and sends poisonous snakes to punish them. When the people cry out, God tells Moses to place a bronze serpent on a pole, so that the people who are bitten might look at it and live.
I find this image particularly intriguing. I’m interested, I guess, mostly because I have no real idea what Jesus could mean by it. In one sense, the story in Numbers is pretty straightforward. Yet again, the Israelites had grown tired of manna and were complaining to Moses. In retaliation for their lack of faith—or perhaps because God was simply tired of nearly 40 years of whining—God sent poisonous snakes who bit the Israelites. Many of the Israelites died as a result. This isn’t a particular new or novel twist in the Exodus story. There are many times when God’s righteous anger boils over. But none of them play out quite like this story. Why this solution? Why not just get rid of the snakes? Why is God having the people make a graven image—something they are never supposed to do in the first place. Besides that, how could that possibly help? Why would looking at the serpent make a difference? And how on earth is Jesus’ death on the cross supposed to save us in the same way?
What’s interesting is that somehow, in this story, the poisonous snakes are both the problem and the solution. Somehow, in this story, they are both the consequence of the people’s sin—the consequence of their refusal to trust in God to bring them through the wilderness, of their ultimate refusal to embrace their new freedom and their role in God’s plan of salvation—and the only hope for that salvation. In order to be saved, they must look upon the consequences of their sin. They must come to terms with those consequences.
In some ways, this is what happens on the cross. Jesus tells Nicodemus that “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.” Somehow the cross is our salvation. But how? The cross isn’t just the mechanism by which God saves the world; it is the ultimate demonstration of the problem that has to be solved in the first place. What is the cross if not humanity’s ultimate refusal to trust in God, of humanity’s ultimate refusal to embrace our freedom and our role in God’s plan of salvation? What is the cross if not humanity’s ultimate rejection of God’s plan to bring blessing to the whole world? As the ancient Church Father Melito of Sardis put it, “He that hung up the earth in space was Himself hanged up; He that fixed the heavens was fixed with nails; He that bore up the earth was borne up on a tree—Alas for this new wickedness, they have murdered God.” The crucified Jesus, then, doesn’t just save us from our bad decisions and from the corrupting power of sin. He also shows us our sins, our cynicism, our fear, our corrupted intentions for what they are. The leaders of the ancient world’s most noble religion and legal system join forces with the leaders of the ancient world’s greatest empire to murder God. Now let’s be clear, the religious leaders and the Roman government stand in here for every religion and every empire. Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor and Adolf Hitler are more modern examples. But those who walked past, hid their faces, and held him of no account stand in for each of us. So do those who yelled, “his blood be upon us and upon our children” or “we have no king but Caesar”.
The context of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is again instructive. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. But Jesus tells him that “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” The cross is the light shining in the darkness. But it shines light on humanity’s violence, on our hypocrisy and cynicism, on our anger and hatred, our greed and our corrupt intentions.
When Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, Israel was forced to look at the consequences of their sin. When Jesus was lifted up, when the light shone in the darkness, that light exposed the consequences of all of humanity’s sins. The ugliness of the cross, the horror and the shame and the ignominy of the cross, make it difficult. But we must look. We must see the consequences of sin for what they are. We must see the consequences of how little our society values human life, of the wars and the rumors of war, of gun violence, of poverty, police brutality, racial hatred, of violence against women, queer, and transgender folk. We must see the consequences of our own personal brokenness, the ways we pass our anxiety and fear, our addictions on to our children and our children’s children, how we fight tooth and claw to carve out our own niches in the world and push for our own agendas, to make a name for ourselves, to climb to the top of the pile, how, in effect, we refuse to trust in God, to accept our freedom and our role in God’s plan for salvation.
But in the Gospel story, and it couldn’t be clearer than what we read this morning, God does not make the people look on the bronze serpent as a sign of guilt or shame. They must look because it is the one thing that can save them. In the same way, the point of the cross, the point of looking at Jesus when he is lifted up, is not guilt or shame. The point is to recognize that here, at the same moment humanity’s rejection of God reaches its climax, God’s love is made manifest in the most unexpected and yet most glorious way possible. Here is the problem, but here also is the solution. Here is God bringing the ancient promises to fulfillment. Here is God setting the world to rights. Here we see our own snake bites—the consequences of sin, brokenness, violence, and death—and we see that God has dealt with them, that God is dealing with them, and that God will not abandon us no matter what. We may reject God and God’s purposes, but God does not, will not, reject us. There is catharsis, but there is also salvation, redemption, pardon, deliverance.
It is no wonder then, that Jesus pairs this story of Moses in the wilderness with perhaps the most famous passage in Christian Scripture. Whatever else it means for Jesus to be lifted up, whatever else the cross means—to us, for us, between God and the world—it means that “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that all those who believed in him will not die but will have eternal life.” All those who trust in God, who hang their hopes on the one hanging on the cross, will live the life of God’s kingdom, the life of the new age of God’s blessing.
In the same way, sisters and brothers, we the Church have been both the problem and the solution. We have not always trusted God fully. We have not always loved our neighbor as we should. And yet, God calls us, each and every one of us, to be the Body of Christ in the world. God calls us to be his hand and heart in the world. We are part of the problem, and we are also, with the help of God, part of the solution.
I give thanks to God for the ministry that you share here in Champaign. I give thanks to God for the way you live out that calling—trusting God, loving your neighbor, embracing God’s plan for salvation—here at this time, in this place. May God continue to bless you and may you continue to share the Gospel, the good news that God will never abandon the world and the people that he loves.