Sun, March 22, 2015; ; Lent 5; John 3:14-21, Numbers 21:4-9
A sermon preached by Aaron Lauer
First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC
In the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem sits one of the holiest sites in Christianity: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Built in 325 on the site of what is believed to be the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, the church welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, pilgrims from around the world who come to touch the rock where the cross of Jesus was placed into the ground and kneel at the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid.
As my fellow travelers and I walked through the main doors and into the rotunda of this sacred place, I was a bit surprised with how “un-church-like” the Church of the Holy Sepulchre seemed. The hallways were dark and drab with almost no lighting, the pillars and walls were pockmarked with holes, and the ground was dirty with sand and dust.
As I wandered the halls, making my way into the many small chapels and stopping to take pictures of the different monuments, I began to realize the weight of where I was standing. The dark, dreary tone of the church seemed more and more appropriate for the place where Jesus very possibly spent his final hours. A feeling of reverence and sadness overtook me as I climbed the “steps to Calvary” as they are called, the narrow staircase to the second floor of the church. And as I peered through the crowd at the rock where Jesus’ cross stood on that Good Friday almost 2,000 years ago, I was struck by the paradox I was witnessing.
How is it that Christianity, a faith founded on the belief in life and life more abundant, would erect one of its holiest shrines on the site of an execution and burial?
During this season of Lent, we at First Church have grappled with the many different meanings of “the cross.” Throughout history, the cross has been a weapon violence and death used against Rome’s political enemies, a sign of conquest and colonization as the Christian faith spread throughout Europe, and also a symbol of salvation and atonement, revealing God’s love for a broken world. As Jane pointed out in her sermon three weeks ago, “the cross is not just ancient history. It keeps on reinventing itself in the present day.”
One of the most popular interpretations of the cross in Christian history comes from our Gospel reading today. In this passage, Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus about salvation, how is it that a person is saved from sin and death. Well in order to make his point, Jesus invokes an admittedly strange story from his Jewish tradition, that of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. Remember that the Israelites wandered for years after fleeing from Egypt, and were no strangers to complaining about lack of water, lack of food, and wondering whether they are cursed to die in the desert. In anger because of their lack of trust, God sent poisonous snakes to bite the people, and many Israelites died. So the people went to Moses pleading with him, “Tell God to take away the serpents.” After Moses and God talk, God agrees, and instructs Moses to make the likeness of a serpent, and place it on a pole, so that everyone who looks at the serpent will be cured.
At face value, this story from Numbers doesn’t inspire me with a new, creative interpretation of the cross. In fact I’m a little frustrated with God’s wrath and anger, and all those poor Israelites who died of snake bites before they had the chance to look at the bronze serpent and be healed.
But in John chapter 3, Jesus uses the symbol of the bronze serpent on the pole as a direct metaphor for his own impending death upon the cross. Verse 14 says: “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.”
The Greek word for “lifted up” is hup-sao which also can be translated as “raise up” or “exalt.” The death by crucifixion that Jesus will face is not act of pain and suffering, but of salvation and hope. Just as healing came to those who looked upon the deadly serpent in the wilderness, so salvation will come to those who look upon the cross, a symbol of death in its own right. The cross is not a tool of death and violence, but a symbol of life and hope.
I would say that this is the most common interpretation of the cross in Protestant Christianity today, especially among conservatives and Evangelicals. It was the interpretation I grew up with in my Evangelical church, and a theme I run across again and again as I encounter the diverse expressions of the Christian faith in the United States today.
But I think there is more to this “lifting up” of the cross than the triumph and glorification of Jesus’ death. Instead, I see here a lesson about the violence of the cross, and what happens when we are forced to face that violence with our own eyes.
I’m guessing most of you aren’t very aware of the different “hymnal controversies” in U.S. Christianity today, but let me assure you, they are a thing. A very recent hymnal controversy surrounds the Presbyterian Church (USA) leaving out the song “In Christ Alone” from their new hymnal. The song is a popular one, actually, written by Keith Getty, a well-recognized contemporary hymn writer. The issue is with a particular line in the hymn’s second verse, “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied; For every sin on Him was laid – Here in the death of Christ I live.”
Many of the Presbyterians who voted to leave out this song from the bew hymnal saw this particular line espousing a particular style of atonement theology. Atonement theology is the theology concerned with how humans are reconciled to God. The atonement theology displayed in the hymn In Christ Alone is known as “sacrificial or satisfaction atonement theology,” and traces its roots all the way back to Reformation movement of John Calvin. This theology often argues that Jesus was a sacrifice for the sins of the world, that God required a payment for our wrongdoings and Jesus paid that price with his death upon the cross. We are washed clean of our transgressions by the blood of Christ.
Theologian Walter Wink has a different perspective on this theology of sacrificial atonement. He calls it the “myth of redemptive violence.” It is the socially constructed belief that says pain, suffering, and death are required in order for new life to emerge. That if redemption and salvation are ever going to come there must first be a punishment, a violent price must be paid, and often times, the victim of this violence is innocent. The ancient practice of scapegoating falls under the definition of this myth. Many ancient Near Eastern cultures (including the ancient Israelites) would mark an innocent animal, usually a goat, with the sins of the people, and then the goat, and therefore the peoples’ sins, would be cast out of the community.
Wink recognizes this myth at work in the sacrificial atonement theology of the Christian tradition. Many Protestants throughout history and today are taught the same theology of the hymn, In Christ Alone, that the only way we can be reconciled to God, the only way we can be make right of our sins, is for Jesus, the innocent one, to be punished in our place.
The verse John 3:16 that we read today is used often to validate this theology, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” God gave up God’s Son, Jesus, for punishment and death, so that we, the sinful human race, would be saved through him and his suffering.
This myth is not reserved for Protestant Christianity, though. And we see this everywhere in American culture. This grounding belief in the redemptive power of pain and violence has been used to justify war, police brutality, domestic abuse, and the systemic grip of poverty on an entire class of Americans, not to mention the old adage that we all have a cross to bear in our lives, and we need to accept whatever pains us and harms us in order to see God’s ultimate plan. As a Christian, it troubles me to know that wrapped up in this larger cultural myth that violence brings about redemption, is the central story of my faith, Jesus death upon the cross. That an essential theme of the Gospels is inherently linked to the death and destruction I see justified every day. I’ll admit it, I’m tempted to just give it up sometimes, and forget about the cross as a symbol of my faith, that it is too gruesome of an image. I’d rather talk about peace and love, to be honest. But then I wonder, instead of using the story of Jesus death as a justification for violence in the world, we use it as an answer to violence in the world.
Two weeks ago, another young, unarmed African-American man was killed by police in the United States. His name was Tony Robinson. He was 19 years old and he lived in Madison, Wisconsin. As many of you know, the Black Lives Matters movement recently formed to address the violence against African-American people in the U.S. often times carried out by law enforcement.
Black Lives Matters recognizes the racism involved in many policing practices across the U.S. and how a deep disrespect for the lives of African-American people reveals itself in police brutality.
But I think Black Lives Matters recognizes something else, just as important and profound. That intertwined within this dishonoring of black lives, is the deeply held belief that the only answer to any sort of conflict in our world is violence. That if an issue is going to have any resolution, it must be resolved through the use of force and brutality. That when the powers that be identify someone or something as a problem, the only way to take care of this “problem” is through the execution of brute violence.
And then we have the cross. And then we have the violence of Jesus’ death, lifted up for all the world to see. I don’t believe that God’s plan for our salvation was to have Jesus suffer and die as a sacrifice. I don’t believe that the answer to our sins and the world’s brokenness was the violent destruction of an innocent life. This Lent, I am challenging myself, and challenging all of you, to see the cross not as a justification of violence, but as a testimony to violence’s destructive power. That the cross cries out not in glory or exultation but in pain and sorrow. That Jesus was lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness not to magically save all who look upon it, but to confront each of us with the violence that is destroying our lives and our world.
Our hope does not rest in death. Our salvation does not lie in violence. Though our culture tries to convince us that pain and suffering are the only answers to the struggles we face, Jesus hangs on the cross as the ultimate reminder, that violence and death are not the answer.