Numbers 21:4-9; Ps 1071-3. 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
You may have noticed if you sometimes pass through Blackrock, County Dublin, a sculpture of a rod with a snake entwined around it on the roof of the Blackrock Clinic. This is the staff of Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of healing. It is used in the logos of numerous medical services and institutions such as The World Health Organization and the National Ambulance Service here in Ireland. So maybe that weird and wonderful serpent of today’s readings is not as far removed from our culture as might appear at first sight.
That story about the healing effect when people looked at the bronze serpent is actually a good example of biblical multiculturalism. It draws on beliefs held in numerous ancient Near Eastern societies about the mysterious powers of snakes. It incorporates elements of these beliefs into Israel’s story, but in such a way that what other nations regarded as divinities become servants or instruments of the God of Israel. For ancient peoples, the snake was a familiar symbol of healing. Snake venom was an ingredient of some medicines. There was also the fact that the snake regularly shed its old skin to reveal a new one. To people destined to become “wrinklies,” the snake represented the alluring possibility of regeneration, of becoming young again. A dubious prospect, but maybe not all that crazier than the promises that many of us believe today, like those of anti-ageing or even age-defying skin creams! The connection between serpents and healing would have not have been lost on the people for whom today’s gospel passage was written. They would have been familiar with the temples of Asclepius in the cities of the Mediterranean world. Sick people would go there in search of healing, sometimes sleeping overnight in dormitories where the sacred snakes that were kept in the sanctuary precinct in honour of the god slithered around them—non-poisonous species, presumably.
In our gospel reading Jesus presents Nicodemus with two pictures: the bronze serpent that Moses set up on a pole and Jesus himself lifted up on the cross. There are similarities. Like the Israelites looking at the serpent, believers in Jesus are to look at the crucified Jesus. As the Evangelist will say later, quoting the Scriptures, “They will look on him whom they have pierced” (19:37). In the Gospel of John, looking means a lot more than activating one’s eyesight. It has to do with one’s capacity for insight leading to faith. So Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he is to be lifted up on the cross so that whoever believes in him will have eternal life.
This term “eternal life” signals a major difference between the two pictures. In our First Reading we heard that whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. In other words, they would recover and return to living a normal human life, but a life that would eventually end with their death. Jesus promises that whoever looks at him lifted up on the cross will have eternal life. This is not normal human life, but neither is it human life that just keeps going on and on forever. “Eternal life” has a special meaning in John’s gospel so we almost need to imagine inverted commas around it.
One way into an understanding of it is to begin on familiar ground with the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” At the time of Jesus, the Jewish people longed for the coming of a special agent or messenger of God who would usher in what they called the kingdom or the reign of God, a future golden age of restoration and renewal, not only for Israel but for all people and even for the entire creation. Many people thought of it as God’s re-making of the world so that it would again be as the Creator intended it to be. This would be a fresh start for humankind when they would no longer be a destructive force in the earth, but would return to the original task God had given them, the work of tilling and caring for the garden, being the Creator’s co-workers for the sustaining and flourishing of Earth with all its lands, seas, skies, plants, animals and people. The earliest followers of Jesus believed that he was that special agent or messenger sent by God and that by raising him from the dead God had inaugurated this new era. The people behind the Gospel of John were under no illusions. They knew that in the world at large it was “business as usual,” that the dawning of the new epoch had gone unnoticed by the vast majority of people. But they were convinced that their little community could, through their faith in Jesus, begin living here and now the life of the newly re-created world. They thought of themselves as having been born again into the kingdom of God, into the “the life of the new age.” So for them “eternal life” was not “pie in the sky when you die,” but was the life they lived in the here and now as disciples of Jesus.
So what do we see when we look at Jesus lifted up on the cross, when we look to him? We see someone who was prepared to lay down his life freely, even joyfully, if that was what it took to complete the work that the Father had given him to do. In John’s gospel, we hear the crucified Jesus cry out, just before he dies, “It is finished.” He has completed the work that the Father gave him to do and now this cross which lifts him up from the soil of the earth is the means by which he returns to God his Father in heaven. And what was his work? It was the work he had learned from God—just like a son learning his father’s craft or trade—the work of giving life to the world, the work of sustaining the creation, keeping it in being, the work that God never stops doing; otherwise everything would collapse into nothingness. God’s creative work is not like a sculpture that the Artist makes and walks away from; it is more like a song that the Performer keeps singing.
Jesus calls us to perform that work, to be a life-giving presence in the world. When talking to Nicodemus, he does not say, God loved humankind so much that he gave his only son, but “God loved the world so much . . .” So living the “life of the new age,” is not just about our interaction with our fellow human beings; it is a way of living in the world, the cosmos that God loved into being and holds in being. And this is where today’s people of faith in Jesus must ask, Is it “life to the full” for God’s world and for all of God’s children when we hear about people living in cities in China where the air is so polluted that it is safe to go outside only on an average of 190 days per year, when children have never seen the stars or a white cloud. And lest we put all the blame for environmental degradation on other countries, we might take note that while most EU countries have over-achieved in their implementation of the Kyoto Agreement, Ireland comes out as the second to worst country in the EU for greenhouse gas emissions, at 17% over the EU target in 2012.
As people who look to Jesus, our commitment must be to the healing of the planet. This might mean using our vote to insist that our politicians respond to climate change, ensuring that our church buildings are models of sustainability, avoiding wasteful packaging, taking care that any timber products we buy come from sustainably managed forests, being conscientious about waste disposal and imaginative about upcycling; above all, bringing up our children and teaching our grand-children to care for the earth. All of this is the work of God that Jesus commissions us to do.
So, a little suggestion: today let us put all our hearts, our loudest voices and all our commitment into the prayer that we will say together after Communion, especially the line where we pray that the whole earth may live to praise God’s name.
Dr Margaret Daly Denton – 15 March 2015
 http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/g-gas/docs/kyoto_progress_2014_en.pdf, pages 9-10. Luxembourg falls short of the target by 23%; Belgium by 11%.
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