This is the 4th Sunday of Lent. Two weeks from today is Palm Sunday and so it is to be expected that with today’s readings, we are into the thick of things when it comes to sin, punishment and the possibility of redemption.
So let us start with the sins and punishments. Paul simply calls these sins passion of the flesh and through these trespasses we are dead, at least figuratively. Things are a little less clear and a little more complicated in the Book of Numbers and the Gospel of John. In the reading from the Book of Numbers, the Israelites speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness for there is no food and no water?” OK, there is but “we detest this miserable food.” This complaining sounds familiar. It reminds me of a chorus I have heard at my own dinner table. “What, spaghetti again? And what do you mean, no pop?” And every single night on the news, there is the steady drum beat of complaints about gas prices, taxes and the high cost of things like designer jeans. It all begins to sound more than a little petty and ungrateful. But what is this sin exactly, especially in light of the punishment? God sends poisonous serpents among the people and many Israelites die. Does petty ungratefulness deserve death by snake bite? It depends. Snakes were a symbol of life for the people of the ancient near east. Petty ungratefulness for the sustenance of manna in the wilderness could get you into big trouble. It would be like refusing the gift of life. My dad would have said, “Don’t get too cocky because life can come back and bite you in the ‘you know what’.”
And then there is the sin of Nicodemus. Today’s gospel is the end of a story that begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus under the cover of night because he is impressed with signs and wonders. But he misunderstands Jesus’ words and does not receive his testimony. Early on in the story, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.” But Nicodemus is confused. He cannot or will not hear Jesus’ call to personal transformation. Being born again of water and spirit makes no sense to him. Signs and wonders are what he is after. This too sounds familiar. Feed the hungry just don’t tell me to give up prime rib. Clothe the poor just don’t invite them to live in my neighborhood. Cure the sick just don’t ask me to change my way of life so that all people can have affordable health care. What exactly is Nicodemus’ sin of misunderstanding? Nicodemus wants his cake and he wants to eat it too. Nicodemus is a hypocrite. He is all for signs and wonders but he does not believe in the name of the only begotten. Nicodemus does not want to be exposed, undone and reformed. He does not believe in the transformative power of love—love for the poor, the needy, the sick and the hungry. Nicodemus is condemned to perish because he has no interest in eternal life which for John is not life forever but life in love.
And now for the cures because today’s readings are not hopeless considerations of sin. They orient us toward the possibility of redemption. “And so Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live”. About a month ago I went to see my doctor. I’m sure it had been there all along but I had never really looked at it. There, just as I walked in the door, was this huge bronze sculpture or wall hanging of a serpent twisted around a staff. If I hadn’t made the connection before, I couldn’t miss it now. The serpent is not just a symbol of the fall and death. It is a symbol of life and healing. For the Israelites, it turns out that the life they pursued into the wilderness was not easy, not safe, not comfortable and definitely not petty. Instead they were faced with a constant balance between creation and destruction, between life and death. And so it comes to be in this story that looking a bronze snake, a symbol of life’s ambiguity, heals the people. The Israelites live as they respond to the demand of gratefulness which insists that we live life with our eyes wide open. Look upon the creative and destructive powers of a snake and you are healed.
In the story of Nicodemus, Jesus 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 his Tractates on the Gospel of John, St. Augustine says, “What is the serpent lifted up? The death of the Lord on the Cross.” For Medieval and Renaissance Christians, Jesus was the divine healer. He was frequently indentified with the serpent. There was even a heretical sect called the Ophites who worshiped Christ in the form of a snake. Commonly, commentary on this passage names Jesus, lifted up to his passion on the cross, as the healing visage. Nicodemus does not believe and he is not healed. But those who do what is true come to the light. In other words, those who find themselves undone and transformed by the death and life of Jesus are exposed as believers in the light of the cross.
And finally, I close with a reflection on the significance of the connection between seeing, believing and our own Lenten journey. Paul says that by grace we have been saved through faith and in this saving we are raised up so that in ages to come others might see. And this happens not by our own power so much as by the inexorable demand of life or as Paul says, by the mercy of God. Teresa of Avila, in her famous poem “Christ Has No Body”, has something to say about this.
“…Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, hours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, No feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
So if Teresa of Avila is right, we are, for each other, the cure; in the same way that we are the cure and are cured by the power of life or by the grace of God when it breaks in on us during all kinds of everyday moments at home, on the street or at work. And so with the author of the Gospel of John, we believe as we are undone by each other; we believe as we are transformed by each other; and we believe as we are exposed in the light of Jesus’ passion by each other. Every Sunday, we sit in this circle and we are raised up so that others might see and together we are healed.