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Numbers 21: 4-9; John 3: 1-18
by Ellen Sims
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14).
Like any metaphor, this one comparing Jesus on the cross to the brass serpent on Moses’s pole finds one main connection between two very dissimilar objects or ideas. The writer of the Gospel of John believed that Jesus was like the bronze serpent because both were a means of salvation. What it means to be saved and how Jesus makes that salvation possible is the subject of a theological enterprise lasting for centuries. It’s a subject we as progressive Christians have considered before and will continue to revisit because one of the ways our ministry in Mobile brings a saving word to our community is by retuning churchy words like “saved” and “believe.”
What is Jesus “saving” us from? And how is “belief” the means of salvation?
Many answer that Jesus is saving us from eternal damnation. They say Jesus accomplished this saving work by dying for our sins, an exchange necessary for God to forgive us from the penalty of death for our sins, a means of reconciliation with God possible only through Jesus’s shed blood.
But John 3 says nothing about hell as the fate from which Jesus saves us. John’s Jesus emphasizes the promise of eternal life (to Nicodemus, in this chapter). But Jesus makes no mention of the punishing fire of hell. John’s Jesus offers an eternal life that begins here and now and equates salvation with the kingdom of God which is already unfolding. The kingdom of God in the Gospels is the realization of God’s way of peace and compassion to reshape this world in the here and now. Salvation is less about individuals escaping eternal punishment and more about the community of Jesus followers implementing his vision of God’s kingdom.
Believing certain things about Jesus is not how Jesus saves us. The third chapter of John begins with the story of Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee, seeking out Jesus under cover of dark to affirm Jesus as a teacher in whom he sees the presence of God. Jesus begins to teach him about the importance of being born from above, or “born again” as some have translated the phrase. Then Jesus explains that to be “born from above” requires one to believe about “heavenly things,” which leads immediately to this declaration by Jesus: “14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Two key words in this passage can be understood differently from ways you’ve probably thought about these words. The word believe in this context is not necessarily about assenting to certain doctrine but instead is about “setting your heart” toward something. To believe in Jesus is to love and follow after Jesus and is not about holding particular details about Jesus to be true or false. See Marcus Borg on this: (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/marcusborg/2013/11/what-is-a-christian/).
In addition to the word believe, we also need to address the meaning of the phrase “eternal life.” You might associate that phrase with heaven, and have learned that this passage promises those who think certain things about Jesus will go to heaven and live there forever when they die. But eternal life has already begun. We don’t start eternity upon death. We are already inside the boundlessness of eternity and God’s Kingdom. Jesus is talking about a state of being, not an address somewhere above the clouds nor a date in time out into the future.
Throughout the conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus accents the word “believe” and the idea of God’s kingdom. Listen again: “14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him (not about him) may have eternal life.”
And then we get to the best known verse in scripture:
16 “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
What a shame that this hopeful verse has been used by some as a totem to signal who’s part of our tribe and who’s not (#John 3:16) and a means of condemning those who believe differently. Which makes God into a magician designing secret passageways out of the dark caverns, a fickle or downright mean overlord who requires loyalty to a specific code of life, a gatekeeper who lets in certain people by accident of their birth and other circumstances beyond their control, a punisher who treats the biggest and littlest crimes with equal sentences.
Here’s my loose paraphrase of the best-known verse in the Bible: “God loved the entire world so much and in this way: that God gave to us a way of living, revealed by Jesus, and whoever lives in that way will not succumb to venomous, fearsome threats but will experience love eternal.”
If you think John 3:16 is promising a heavenly afterlife to those who think certain things about Jesus while promising hell to those who die without having professed certain beliefs about him, then note the very next verse:
17 “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.”
You can’t make this passage mean that God wants to condemn us, though some preachers try.
And you can’t see salvation as something that happens just in the privacy of an individual’s heart because “the Son” came into the world “in order that the WORLD” might be saved through him. The work of Jesus is aimed at saving the world, the planet and all that live on the planet.
Recall that the Bible was written for and about people far less individualistic than we are. The Ancient Near Eastern peoples found their identities within their people. In that communal culture, your welfare was tied to your community; your group either brought you honor or shame. In the biblical stories, a whole nation needed saving — from famine, from battle, from bondage. So Moses liberated and led a whole nation into a promised land and the freed people sang of their salvation. Sin and its consequences were communal.
In today’s Hebrew Bible reading, “the people” as a group sinned by complaining, and everyone then endured the consequences: “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you'” (Numbers 21: 7).
Today we’ve forgotten our communal responsibility. When someone in our community causes harm, we forget that all share in the responsibility for causing and correcting injustices or social ills. When systemic racism or homophobia exists, a “we” is responsible — not one bad cop; not one violent individual.
Certainly individuals commit individual injuries for which they are responsible. But the “darkness” of this world is rarely the result of a solitary individual. Evil is a system, a force, a collective action. And in today’s world that collective may look like a corporation, or a political or religious organization, even an unhealthy family that passes along moral injury through the generations.We therefore need a sort of collective salvation because we can’t extract the individual from the community. There’s collective injury, so there must be collective salvation as entire systems are transformed. Our abused planet requires concerted, world-wide action if “the world” is to be saved.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus explains God sent the Son into the WORLD so that the WORLD might be saved. God loved the WORLD, did not condemn the WORLD, sent the Son into the WORLD so the WORLD would be saved.
Do you hear how enormous is God’s saving work? Salvation that Jesus talks about is a cosmic event.
But God doesn’t force us to trust in the Jesus way. Therefore, “18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Those who do not follow in the Jesus way are not condemned to hell, but they may be condemned to the consequences of unhealthy actions and may not experience the benefits of his way.
The Greek pisteuOn eis, translated as belief, actually means trust or faith in or having the faith (of Jesus). The Greek preposition translated as “in” -believing IN Jesus-can also be translated as believing “into, of, or through him.” We are not saved by having certain beliefs ABOUT Jesus. We are saved by having the faith OF Jesus. Jesus saves me, again and again, when I adopt his trustfulness in God, when my faith in God’s love defeats my fear of my own finitude.
You and I are not “saved” in this life and in whatever may come afterward because we think certain ideas or ascribe to certain facts about Jesus or assent to some proposition. We are saved in this life and in whatever else may come because we’ve cultivated the kind of faith that allowed Jesus to live for God fully and not count the cost, to become part of the light that illuminates the good, to trust that love and light are stronger than hatred and darkness. I imagine others in human history have, like Jesus, given themselves so fully to a God of compassion that it could be said that we can be saved by having faith like theirs, too.
If I live my life to its fullest, eternal life starts right now. If I learn to trust that God is love and life and light and is not a crazy tyrant who condemns us to death, I’m not spared potential suffering. Jesus certainly experienced pain and death. But I can participate right now in the ways of God: the liberation, forgiveness and love that comes from trusting God in this way. This reversal of the values of Empire is what Jesus preached and enacted. And why he was executed.
What is central to Christian teaching is that God-in-the-flesh, the Christ, knows human pain and is with us in each and every suffering in this earth. Because you and I are united in Christ, we, too, want to practice a compassion that joins our hearts with the ongoing birth pangs of a world laboring to bring forth God’s new humanity. We begin to pray, with tenderness of heart, for those who are bearing burdens, large and small.
For God so loves the world . . .
God of Boundless Love, when we are tempted to limit your love and to fear your ways, let us look to Jesus, lifted up on a cross. Amen