A group of rowdy boys were walking down the street when they went past a Church. They noticed people going into the confessional. “Hah, what a bunch of losers, confessing their so-called sins,” one of them joked. “I bet we could say something that would really make the old priest have a heart attack.” They made up a list of the most outrageous sins they could think of that they might confess to the priest and shock him out of his gourd. “Oh yeah,” said one of the boys to the ringleader who came up with the idea, “I bet you $10 you don’t have the guts to do it.” “I’ll take that bet,” the boy said, took the list of sins and waited in line to go to confession. When he came out he came back to his friends he demanded his $10. “Did you do your penance?” the boy who bet the $10 asked. “I don’t believe in any of that mumbo jumbo,” the boy who had just come from confession said. “What did he tell you to do?” another boy asked. He just said to go kneel before the crucifix and say ten times, “all this you did for me and I don’t give a damn.” “Then no $10: no penance, no confession.” So the boy reluctantly went back into the church to do his penance. “No big deal,” he said to himself as he knelt before the crucifix. He looked up at the nails in his hands and feet, took in the crown of thorns and started to mumble, “all this you did for me and I don’t give a damn.” He thought about the agony it must have been for Jesus to die like that and mumbled again “all this you did for me and I don’t give a damn.” He noticed the look of love as the Jesus on the crucifix seemed to be looking directly at him and he mumbled again “all this you did for me and I don’t give a damn.” After waiting what seemed an eternity his friends finally came into the church looking for him and found him sobbing at the altar rail. This is the story of the conversion to faith of a man who later become the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, who died in 2007. (Recalled version of the story from an article years ago in ‘The Anglican Digest’, and http://frpaulhomilies.blogspot.com/2010/03/you-did-that-for-me.html)
“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,” Jesus told Nicodemus in today’s Gospel lesson from the Gospel of John. It’s a strange reference, but luckily we have the Old Testament passage that Jesus is referring to as our Old Testament lesson for today. The Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, forced to take the long way around Edom and yet again the people grumbled. They complained about the food, the manna God gave them. They complained about the water. They complained that their feet hurt. They complained about Moses. They even complained about God. So God sent poisonous snakes among them. The people pleaded with Moses that they had sinned and asked him to pray to God to take away those snakes. God told Moses to do a very strange thing, to make a bronze replica of a poisonous snake and set it on a stick. Everyone who was bitten by a snake could gaze upon it and live.
It is a strange story and a strange symbol isn’t it? Why should gazing at a snake on a stick bring healing? But think on this. The snake represented God’s punishment for their rebellion. Gazing at the snake on a stick would remind them both of their rebellion and of God’s mercy. Look at the cross on which Jesus hung and bled in agony. It is a horrible symbol of capital punishment and cruel death. Why should such a gruesome sight be something for Christians to cherish as a sign of our faith?
I think we are too sentimental about the cross of Christ. We no longer see it as an instrument of torture and death. Retired Connecticut Suffragan Bishop Jim Curry always wears a strange large metal cross. If you look at it closely you realize that it was made from a couple welded pieces of a machine gun or assault rifle. The people of Mozambique were asked to turn in their weapons after the long and bloody civil war of the 1980’s and 90’s. Those instruments of killing were then turned into works of art by some of the nation’s artists. It’s hard to feel sentimental about an assault rifle. Rather, one is reminded of acts of war, killing and atrocity. More locally one is reminded of the killing fields of Sandy Hook Elementary School and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The cross of Jesus is just such an offensive symbol of death and suffering.
What do we see when we see an image of Jesus on the cross? It is a symbol of death. It is a symbol of God in Jesus taking our brokenness, our suffering, our sins and bearing them. Jesus embraces our deaths, our tears, our suffering, our sins. He was lifted high upon that instrument of torture that we might gaze at it. And as Moses lifted the serpent on a stick so that the Israelites who were bitten by poisonous snakes might gaze on it and remember their rebellion and God’s mercy and be healed, so we gazing on the cross of Christ, might likewise be saved.
Everyone remembers the famous words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” but they forget the words of John 3:14-15 that precede it about the Son of Man being lifted up like a serpent on a stick. John 3:16 – those words that evangelicals are eager to remind us of at every football game and sporting event where cameras will be focused – states God’s mercy. “God so loved the world…” And don’t get me wrong, God’s mercy is a wonderful thing! It’s a great passage that we should be reminded of. The great Reformation theologian Martin Luther called this passage “the Gospel in a nutshell.” I thank God for his mercy. I thank God that he sent his Son into the world because he loves us. It is all good news, the best of news. And yet one doesn’t need to gaze for long at an image of a crucifix with a man dying in agony hanging from two cross pieces of wood, to see more than just mercy. Like the young man doing his penance before a crucifix one is confronted with the tremendous cost of God’s mercy. “All this you did for me…”
When I look at the cross and crucifix I see a tremendous battle going on. Jesus is doing battle with death by submitting to death. Jesus is doing battle with the forces of death – with the power of death that lead to the slaughter of innocents in school massacres. He is doing battle with the power of death that lead to cruelty and destruction. He is doing battle with the power of death that pits my well being and privilege over against another’s equality and safety and well being (the power of death that leads to categorizing people’s value based on race or sex or any other category). He is doing battle with the powers of death that hold people in captivity through addiction. He is doing battle with the powers of death in the lie that promises happiness in the accumulation of things rather than in giving one’s self away.
And from appearances alone, it looks like death gets the upper hand. Jesus dies, cruelly. His critics appear to have silenced him. The authorities appear to have prevailed. One would expect Jesus’ movement to die, his followers to flee and disband. Once again the powerful and arrogant have prevailed. But God did not let death have the last word. Through embracing our death, our pain, our enslavement to the powers of death, God in Christ overturned the very power of death. Through him death, as C.S. Lewis succinctly put it, started working backwards. The great 5th century Church Father, John Chrysostom is credited with these words in an Easter sermon.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hell when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said, "You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below." Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see. O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory? (http://anglicansonline.org/special/Easter/chrysostom_easter.html)
When the Son of Man – Jesus our Lord – was lifted high upon the cross, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, we are meant to see God’s mercy and healing love. As the Hebrews who gazed upon that bronze snake on a stick saw their own rebellion, when we gaze upon the cross we see our own enslavement to sin and death. As the Hebrews who gazed upon that bronze snake saw God’s judgment on them, we who gaze upon the cross see God’s judgment on the power of death. As the snake-bit Hebrews were healed when they gazed on that bronze snake, when we look at the cross of Jesus and believe, we are saved from the power of death.
As we move now deeper into Lent leading in two weeks to Holy Week, Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, let us for our penance look upon the cross and ask ourselves, all this Jesus did for me and I ? How are you moved by the cross of Christ? How is Jesus calling you to respond? How is Jesus freeing you to live in his victory over those powers of death? How is Jesus inviting you to invest with him in the ongoing battle against the powers of death? “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”