The Cross that Heals

Jesus was lynched. He was executed as an example, as a sign and warning to others, just as black men who were not guilty of raping white women were lynched as a warning to others not to get uppity. Often enough the one who was lynched was no rapist at all but a leader or potential leader of the African-American community in a town. Paul recognizes Jesus' death as a lynching, at least implicitly, in Galatians 3.1, when he says that Jesus "was publicly exhibited as crucified." The Romans and their Judean collaborators frequently punished and executed Messianic pretenders as a way of warning the people. Caiaphas in the Gospel according to John recognizes this when he says, "It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed."

So in John's gospel, Jesus says, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. 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 the desert, between the land of captivity and the land of promise, when the waiting was getting on their nerves, the people grumbled against the Lord and against Moses. Snakes were sent that struck them and they died. Moses prayed and the Lord told him to set up a bronze snake on a pole, that everyone stricken by a snake might look up at it and live.

When Jesus came to lead people from a new captivity to a new land of promise, they did more than grumble. Jesus turned out to be such a disappointment as Messiah, such a rebuke to their idea of what a Messiah ought to be, that they had him lynched. In his days in the wilderness, Jesus had refused the common ideas of a Messiah, to have power over all the nations, to feed his people by miracles, to defend himself with the power of God, and had accepted the role of suffering servant. This was Jesus' way of being uppity. So his people refused him. He was put on trial, and his Messiahship with him, and made a public spectacle. In his death all the false ideas of Messiah were put to death, and true Messiah, the suffering servant, revealed. God had proclaimed him innocent. We know him innocent just as his own people know the man lynched was innocent. In this sign of contradiction, Jesus was lifted up, so that all who look may have life, so that all who believe may have eternal life, so that all may be healed who are stricken by the snakebite of death.

In the wilderness we are going through in response to God's call, we grumble. And when we grumble, we are struck by the snake, we are bitten and like to die. God's plan for the world and for us doesn't suit us. It's a heck of a way to run a Kingdom of God, right? We have our own ideas about the way the world should be, our own plan for our life in Christ, our own ideas about the treatment we deserve. So God sends the miserable snake of bile that inflates us, and we swell up and burst.<</P>

So the snake must be publicly displayed for our healing, our deflation. Make no mistake. It is displayed. People see us, see our sins, see our faults, see us puffed up with bile and choler. Generally they accept and forgive us, to the extent they can. But we ourselves must look at the snake. look publicly. So we look at ourselves and confess, to ourself, to God, and to others. We publicly own our snakebitten condition. In so doing, our false plans and ideas, our pride and sin, are publicly put to death.

So we must look to the cross and be drawn, we must look to the crucified. We find our glory, we allow God's mighty work to work in us, when we dwell in the crucified, staying with our sins and faults, accepting them and not excusing, denying, or covering them up, not redecorating them, putting new slipcovers on, or sewing Gucci or Calvin labels on them. When our sins and faults are thus crucified, their public execution opens the ground in us for God's action. Just as when the false Messiah was killed, the true one was revealed, so when our falsehoods are publicly slain, the open ground in us is revealed, the place of penitence and humility, and God is revealed in us, forgiving and blessing. In the absence of our falsehoods, we are seen to be what God created us to be, God's continuing incarnation in the world.

This whole snakebite business is the merciful hand of God. If our grumbling did not result in snakebite, if our sins had no consequences, we would go heedless down to destruction, we would die an eternal death in our sins. So the snake must be lifted up for our beholding, and what had been falsehood in us turns into the merciful hand of the Creator. That mercy is visible not only in God's turning to bless and forgive, but also in God's drawing all to Godself on the cross, and in calling us to be God's own continuing incarnation in the world through our dwelling in the crucified.

God has called us all, one way or another, to be apostles and evangelists. God does so by calling us to be, in our snakebitten condition, a public spectacle of God's mercy. Paul clearly understood this. From the evidence of all his beatings and imprisonments. he must have made quite a scene. "I am the foremost of sinners," he says, "but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life."

So. God heals our snakebite, if not our grumbling. God puts our falsehoods about ourselves and our world on public trial in our lives. God reveals Godself in signs of contradiction in our lives, so that we may be able to show God's glory and draw people not to ourselves but to God and to God's cross, so that people may enter into the sign of contradiction and in turn themselves become revealers of God's glory in weak and fallible flesh.