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Lastly I want to address this portion of our reading this week:
“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. 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Over the last several weeks, we have repeatedly discussed the harmful results of the myths of self-sacrifice and redemptive suffering when being held up as an example for marginalized or disenfranchised communities to adopt. In this passage from John, nothing has to be interpreted as pointing to Jesus’ death as the substitutionally salvific means by which others are saved.
Let’s read this closely.
There was nothing substitutionary about the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. The serpent didn’t die for the people. It was simply raised on a pole for anyone to look at in faith that by so doing they would be healed. In the same way, I believe that in following the life-giving teachings in the Jesus story, our feet are moved from the path of death to the path of life. The teachings in the Jesus story must be lifted up for people to encounter and, if they see inherent wisdom in them, follow. We could interpret “whoever believes in him” to mean “whoever follows him,” as it does elsewhere in the Jesus story.
I also love how the passage paints God, not as condemning and in need of appeasement with the death of Jesus. Rather John’s God is already poised to save us from the path of intrinsic death that we are already on. I find it meaningful that the term “saved” in the text can just as accurately be translated as healed.
There is most definitely so much in our world today, both personally and societally, individually and systemically, that is in need of healing. This reminds me of the words of Delores Williams in her classic Sisters in the Wilderness:
“Black women are intelligent people living in a technological world where nuclear bombs, defilement of the earth, racism, sexism, dope and economic injustices attest to the presence and power of evil in the world. Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross; that is, that Jesus took human sin upon himself and therefore saved humankind. Rather, it seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)
Do we find teachings lifted up in the Jesus story that aid our work of healing our world’s pain today? If we do, then it is in this healing that our passage rings true.
This week, let’s be a source of healing in our world. Let’s lift up Jesus, too, as one who can deeply inform our work of setting our communities, society, and entire world right side up, making it a safe, equitable, and compassionate home for everyone.