by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus said to Nicodemus: “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life, For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.” John 3: 14-21

I once lived in community with a man who took up distance running at the age of fifty. Over the next two decades, he completed 103 marathons. He told me that the one he remembered most was the one in which he tailed for the full 42 kilometres another competitor who had on the back of his shirt the words of John 3: 16: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” That very verse is often to be seen displayed on banners by individuals in large crowds at public events like open-air concerts and cricket and football matches. While we might admire the faith of those who make and display these banners, our experience tells us that they are often the work of fundamentalists who hold to the view that God planned and oversaw the execution of Jesus on the Cross as the price to be exacted for the salvation of humankind. Let’s be perfectly clear: God most certainly did not plan nor condone the brutal murder of Jesus on Calvary. Jesus’ death was the result of machinations pursued by religious leaders whose security and status were threatened by Jesus’ words and actions that were an expression of the integrity and total commitment with which he lived his life.
However, that does not necessarily make it easy for us to understand the assertion at the top of this page which John attributed to Jesus. That assertion and the theology on which it is built present most of us with a challenge, especially when we rightly believe that the incarnation, Jesus being born into our world, as fully human as we are, was a genuine expression of God’s boundless love for humankind. But God did not deprive any of us of free will. And some of us used their free will to devise the evil plan that resulted in the betrayal of Jesus and the unjust trial that resulted in his condemnation and death. Through it all, Jesus preserved his own integrity and personified the boundless love of God for humankind as no other before or after him. And God validated the integrity and love of Jesus by raising him from the dead,
That still does not mean that we don’t struggle with today’s gospel-reading. The best help I can point to for coming to understand and appreciate that gospel-reading is the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer that is to be found in our Mass Books. Yet it seems to be the one that is least used at our Sunday Eucharist. While all three of today’s readings combine to give us a picture of God who is tireless in reaching out to struggling humankind who has lost its way, it seems as though it is the gospel-reading that puzzles us most. I suggest that we read the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer as a conversation between ourselves and God. It sounds, in part, like this: “God, we know that you created each one of us in your image. – free, good, creative and loving – but through our human weakness and disobedience to your word, we fell away from friendship with you. Still, you did not give up on us but reached out in mercy to us, giving us the opportunity to search for you and find you. Time and again, you sent your prophets to shake us out of our indifference. You even offered us multiple covenants. We learned eventually to hope for the salvation you have not ceased to offer to us.”
At the start of today’s gospel-reading, John presented Jesus giving, through a conversation with Nicodemus, a description of how he understood his mission to the world. Somewhat surprisingly, he opened with a direct reference to the death on the cross that awaited him. The image he used was a direct reference to the story recorded in the Book of Numbers of how the Israelites, after blaming God and Moses for bringing them out of Egypt only to face death in the desert, were set upon by a plague of serpents whose bite was fatal. Out of mercy and in response to the people recognising the error of their ways in complaining against God, God directed Moses to mould a bronze serpent and affix it to a standard, promising that anyone who looked at the sculpture, after being bitten by one of the venomous snakes, would be healed. The whole point of urging the people to gaze at the sculptured serpent was an invitation to them to honestly face what symbolised their sinfulness and thus free them to open themselves to God’s forgiveness. Just as God’s love and mercy was greater than any poisonous snake, so would the life of Jesus given out of love on the Cross be greater than death. In explaining to Nicodemus that the “Son of Man” must inevitably be lifted up, Jesus was anticipating the victory of his death on the Cross out of love for humankind.
In the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) Jesus, on three separate occasions predicted to his disciples that he would eventually meet a violent death. That was something that they could not or would not accept because they were unable to reconcile that with their expectations of what befitted a Messiah. In his Gospel, John parallels those three predictions by stating three times “the Son of Man must be lifted up”. However, the stark difference in John’s theology is the qualification that there will be no association with humiliation or failure in the lifting up. The other two references of Jesus being lifted up are to be found in John 8: 28 and 12: 32, Moreover throughout the whole of John Chapter 17 there are repeated references to Jesus’ death being the moment of his glorification and his offering the invitation of eternal life to all who believe and trust in him. The whole purpose of Jesus’ coming among us and personifying in his life and death the boundless love of God is to demonstrate God’s boundless love for humankind that finds its ultimate expression in the offer of eternal life.