The Israelites grew weary of doing God’s will rather quickly. They grumbled and complained about the hardships they were enduring. God sent deadly serpents to bite them into repentance. They formed the first BMW club (Bitch, Moan, and Whine club). The bronze serpent was a symbol of God who would heal the recalcitrant Israelites from deadly snake bites if they would look upon this symbol and call upon God (Nm 21: 4-9). The bronze serpent was a reminder that they were to do the will of God, hardship or no hardship.
Eventually, the bronze serpent was destroyed. It had become an idol and needed to be removed from the Temple. In the surrounding cultures, the bronze serpent was a symbol of fertility. It was also a symbol of life and fertility to the Israelites. God hears our cries when we come to God. God heals us when we look to God. Do we approach God and ask for healing thinking it might happen? Or, do we approach God with expectant faith knowing that God will show up and healing will occur? Do we believe we will be healed—lifted up to new life?
John (Jn 8:21-30) invokes the symbol of the bronze serpent and applies it to Jesus lifted up. In the new world order ushered in by the Kin-dom, Jesus will be lifted up and all who believe that He is “I am” will come into union with God. The bronze serpent and Jesus lifted up are powerful symbols of healing—the healing that needs to take place so the true self can emerge.
Once again, John has Jesus in a confrontation with the Pharisees. Jesus chides them for not believing in him. They will die in their sins because they do not recognize who Jesus is. Jesus uses “I AM”— the name Yahweh gave when the Israelites pressed God for a name. The Pharisees do not believe in Jesus and his claim. They will consider this statement to be prima facie evidence of blasphemy.
I AM is a call to personhood, a call to live more and more out of our true selves which reflect the image of God in which we are created. God has called Jesus to be all that he is and Jesus grew into love of the Creator. As Jesus grew, he came to understand through contemplative prayer—hours apart in the desert and in mountain nights. Jesus’ contemplative experience of God set him apart. His vision was not of and for this world. He understood that he has to oppose what was not of God—Roman occupation and priestly control. God’s Kin-dom replaces empire.
Once we experience God for ourselves and understand that we are one with God, with ourselves, with others, and with the universe, we see things from a different perspective. Dorothee Sölle, German theologian and mystic, says:
“Mysticism is resistance.” Years ago, a friend said this to me and I wanted to know how to picture the relationship between mysticism and resistance. The experiences of unity in the midst of commotion—hearing the silent cry—necessarily puts us in radical opposition to what is regarded as a normal way of life. (The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, 195, emphasis added)
When we look upon Jesus who has been lifted up both in crucifixion and resurrection, we overcome sin and death. We come to stand in opposition to worldly values—consumerism which commodifies us. We too are lifted up and share in Jesus’ victory. Jesus will be lifted up and he will be victorious because he does the will of the One who sent him. When we do the will of God, we too are lifted up.
It is important for us to recognize that Jesus is telling the Pharisees that they will die in their sins; they will not be lifted up because they belong to this world. Jesus is telling the “Jews”—religious leaders of the people who were in cahoots with the Roman oppressors—that they were part of an evil system which he had come to destroy. Jesus—the I AM—is about life and being, not doing and having. Jesus is “I love; therefore, I AM” not “I consume; therefore, I am.”
We cannot embrace and espouse worldly values and, at the same time, do the will of God. We cannot love God and mammon. We have grown all too comfortable with the vagaries and comforts of empire. We are of this world because we live by this world’s values—greed, power, position, domination, and possessions. Jesus warns us that wealth and possessions will make it very difficult for us to be lifted up.
As we draw close to Holy Week, we see Jesus in his final days. He did the will of God. He was faithful. He was still struggling to get his message across. In the end, he stood alone—betrayed by Judas and abandoned by his closest friends. Still he ate another meal with all of them and told them he would meet them in Galilee. In spite of abandonment, loneliness and imminent suffering, Jesus was the person for others. He held out the hope that they would all be reunited in Galilee and would carry on his work. He was lifted up on the cross, overcame sin and death, and he was lifted up in resurrected life.
When we look upon the crucified Jesus, we are lifted up. When we look upon the resurrected Jesus, we are lifted up.
We are not of this world. We live life on another plane. When we forgive our enemies, we overcome sin and death. When we pray for those who persecute us, we overcome sin and death. When we fed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, give medical care to the sick, visit the imprisoned, and welcome the immigrants among us, we are lifted up. When we value the common good over our self-centered needs and pursuits, we are lifted up. We are overcoming sin and death and ushering in the Kin-dom.