“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.” John 3:14, 15:
This verse – part of a sermon I suspect written in the early 2nd century - has inspired the idea that in ‘lifting up the cross’ the followers of Jesus will be triumphant. As George Kitchin’s original version of the hymn we will sing later says: “Led on their way by this triumphant sign, the hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.” Shirley Murray’s version, while inserting words of compassion and peace, still has a triumphant sense of proclaiming the love of Christ “till all the world adore his glorious name!”
Yet the text on which this 2nd century sermon is based is an intriguing one.
In Numbers chapter 21 Moses is leading the Hebrew people out of Egypt and into the wilderness, supposedly en route to the ‘Promised Land’. But the wilderness doesn’t look promising – there is a gap between expectation and reality – and the reality is the wanderers are hungry and thirsty. So they grumble. The author of this passage from Numbers, having a God who doesn’t brook no grumbling, has snakes come along to bite the dissenters, and many allegedly die. [Snakes often get the blame in the Bible!].
As the story goes, the dissenters say sorry and Moses – under instruction from his God – makes a bronze serpent and raises it up on a pole. When someone has been bitten they can look upon that pole snake and find healing.
‘Triumph’ therefore means finding healing, salvation, and restoration by looking at the thing you fear, the thing that has hurt and wounded you – looking at it, addressing it, confronting it...
Note, ‘triumph’ didn’t mean killing off all the snakes.
‘Triumph’ also didn’t mean the promise of a good afterlife or a snake-free Promised Land.
The Johannine Community, from which this sermon came, were in the late first and early second century trying to interpret the stories and memories of Jesus in their context. Following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE antagonisms between faithful Jews who would later be known as followers of Rabbinic Judaism and faithful Jews who followed the teachings of Jesus increased. At the Council of Jamnia in 90 it was formalized that members of the Jesus movement would be expelled from the synagogues. This expulsion produced a trauma of faith for the movement, and John’s Gospel was created to address the needs of the newly isolated community. [It also explains why this is the most anti-Semitic gospel].
The preacher in John 3 likened the beaten and tortured Jesus, nailed to the cross, to Moses’ serpent on the pole. The preacher was suggesting that members of this traumatized community would likewise find healing, salvation, and restoration by looking at the thing they feared – suffering, isolation, and abandonment. [Remember the crucifixion narratives not only have Jesus suffering physical torment, but being abandoned by his friends, followers, and even by his God].
To use the light/dark metaphor that is prevalent in this gospel: It is by looking into the dark/suffering that we will find light/understanding. As Dan Schutte puts it in his song: “Holy darkness, blessed night, heaven's answer hidden from our sight. As we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.”
So ‘triumph’ is therefore not a Constantinian version of Christianity where there is a marriage between the power of the Empire and the power of the Church, and together these two subjugate dissent and control peoples’ lives and faith. It is not the triumph of ‘Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war with the cross of Jesus going on before.’
Rather ‘lifting up the cross’ is an action, a theology, of solidarity with the suffering. It is looking into the dark of suffering, in order that we might understand both God and ourselves – a God who suffers with us.
The verse in John 3 that follows is well-known: “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.” There are problems of course in understanding this verse too literally – for example God does not have a biological ‘son’, or an ‘only’ one, nor does God ‘give’ his ‘son’ to perish. This is metaphor, not filicide; and like other old metaphors we need to be careful how we use it today.
But I want to focus on the phrase ‘believes in him’. In my teenage years when I heard this verse it was interpreted almost in a reciting-the-creed kind of way. ‘Believing in him’ meant things like believing in the virgin birth, physical resurrection, literal afterlife, etcetera.
I would suggest however, in context of Numbers 21, that ‘believing in him’ meant looking at Jesus suffering on the cross – a failed Messiah; looking into the dark of despair and abandonment – his and our own; and committing oneself to stay in solidarity with him, with his way of confrontational compassion.
The three historical creeds – Apostles, Anthanasian, and Nicene – skip lightly over Jesus’ life. Creedal believing was more about assent to doctrinal propositions [that I suggest most people didn’t and don’t understand] rather than committing oneself to a way of living in solidarity with the compassionate actions, teachings, and consequences of both seen in Jesus.
I want to show you some images of the cross in the context of solidarity with the suffering. In the first image this protester, in Egypt I believe, is lifting up both the cross and the Qu’ran, making a statement about religious liberty and his hope that faiths can exist side by side without one having to ‘conquer’ the other.
Interestingly Billy Graham, who died recently, in his later years got offside with some of his fundamentalist Christian colleagues by suggesting that maybe Muslims – as well as folk of other faiths or none - will be in heaven too. Some of the sureties of Billy’s earlier convictions were becoming frayed.
The second slide is from Venezuela where crosses are being placed representing people killed during a protest against the policies of the government.
The third slide is from New Zealand. 1981. Rugby Park, Hamilton. A group of students from St John’s and Trinity theological colleges had taken a cross onto the park in order to stand in solidarity with those suffering under apartheid in South Africa. Ironically the police labelled the cross as ‘an offensive weapon’.
That cross went on many protest marches in the 1980s, and it is sad comment on theological students that today instead of continuing to see it at marches in solidarity with those who experience injustice it is in a glass case on display in Te Papa.
The fourth slide is a different one. The Christian feminist group Pussy Riot are chopping down a cross in Kiev as a protest against the collusion of the Orthodox Church and Putin’s state. The cross in their mind has been captured by those seeking to oppress and control.
And in this last slide the cross has been captured by an ideology – that of the Klu Klux Klan – in seeking to persecute and oppress Black Americans.
Following Billy Graham’s death some two weeks ago I read a number of articles about this very prominent Christian and his influence on American Christianity. Particularly I read about Billy in relation to the Black Civil Rights Movement and his relationship with Martin Luther King.
Graham's rise coincided with the most turbulent years of the movement, when pastors and public figures were forced to make choices that would define them for the rest of their lives. Billy’s nods to racial tolerance were token and inconsistent, for he refused to risk his popularity with white evangelicals by championing the movement. In comparison other white ministers lost their jobs, and lives, for their activism.
Graham was shaped by his theology of the cross. Jesus was no longer on the cross. He was in heaven, beyond suffering, waiting to literally come again to earth to put things right. Responding to King’s I have a dream speech, Graham said: “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” Graham’s apocalyptic anticipation of the coming kingdom of God blinded him to the realities of living in this world, and made him a puppet in the hands of those who benefitted from racism.
The cross for Billy was not about solidarity with the suffering, it was about – and only about – personal, individualised salvation. And ‘salvation’ was understood as a ticket to a Jesus afterlife club. Then, once you were a signed up club member, the great hope was that Jesus (who was still alive and in a human kind of body) would literally return to earth in order to rule over it as monarch.
So racism was ‘a heart problem’ that could be solved simply by converting people to Christianity. For King and others unjust laws and institutions promoting racism had to be changed, not just people's hearts. Graham condemned the civil disobedience tactics they used during the 1965 campaign in Selma, for he was uncomfortable with confrontation - adding that ‘if the law says that I cannot march or I cannot demonstrate, I ought not to march and I ought not to demonstrate.’
The times though, of course, called for confrontation.
The cross for Graham was not about confrontation – it was a symbol of an orientation to a God and life that lived off the planet. For six decades Graham taught Americans that the federal government could not be an instrument of God to bring about justice, not on race, nor the environment, nor other significant issues. His theology blinded him to both the potential of government policy to effect change and the vested interests that didn’t want change. His fall-back position was that only the return of Jesus would bring social and political change. No wonder the powerful loved him.
There are of course different ways to read the Bible. Billy Graham read it one way, and Martin Luther King read it another. Both had different understandings of Jesus and the meaning of the cross and salvation. I would suggest that history has vindicated the reading of King. The cross is salvific in that it invites a person to look into the dark of suffering, be in solidarity with those in pain, despair, or abandonment, and find through such solidarity restoration and salvation. The challenge is to look, be addressed by what you see, and try to confront it.