14 September 2008 Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
Numbers 21, 4b-9; Psalm 78; Phil 2, 6-11; John 3, 13-17
Nicodemus is identified as an archon, a leader of the Jews, probably a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin is the civil ‘court’ of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. Previous to the Gospel readings, Nicodemus asks the question, “How can a person once grown old be born again?” And Jesus replied that unless the person is ‘born from above’ or ‘born from the Spirit’ the person cannot enter the Kingdom of God. In other words, unless we become like children of God, we cannot enter God’s kingdom. The credibility of this divine truth comes from the Johannine claim that Jesus is the only source of divine knowledge. Jesus is the only one who came from above; He is the Son of God.
We are, first of all, people of the flesh. “Flesh” refers to our being humans; we are subject to weakness, sinfulness and alienation from God. The first reading describes this. On their way to the Promised Land, the people of Israel complained to Moses about the food. In their impatience and ungratefulness, they have doubted God’s intention to bring them out of Egypt to the Promised Land. So God sent seraph serpents that bit the people and many died.
Many of our sufferings come from our sinfulness and weaknesses. Our sickness is an accumulated neglect of our body’s needs either from an overdose or a deficiency. And the toxins build up in our bodies. Our heartaches are experiences of alienation from the people we love. Often, the break-up of a relationship is a shared fault: one is unfaithful and the other is unforgiving. And in a confrontation, past hurts are relived and recalled. The gap between two people widens. We have contributed to the alienation we feel within ourselves and among others.
However, we can be born of the Spirit. Jesus compares the Spirit to the wind: we cannot see it, but we feel its presence. We know it exists! The Spirit is experienced when we are motivated to become better and not to be controlled by our negativities. When we experience our strengths (like discovering and using our talents for the good), our goodness (like appreciating a sympathetic and listening heart), or our capacity to gather people (like assisting a peace process among friends), we know the Spirit is with us.
Here are some examples. Despite our hurts, we are motivated to forgive. When we are lazy, there is a ‘tug’ in our hearts to open our books and study. When we are insulted by enemies, we decide to give to them the respect they deserve as human persons. The Spirit, quite the opposite of the tendency of the ‘flesh’, transforms us into God’s children.
And so Moses casts a bronze serpent on a pole to be the source of healing. The very cause of their pain, becomes the beginning of their betterment. From the experience of physical pain, we know how to prevent illnesses. From our traumas, we learn how to deal with the world. From our heartaches, we know how to maintain relationships. When we are able to deal with these ‘serpents’ we are able to develop, improve and mature. In fact, when we reflect more about our upsetting, distressful, and wounding experiences. We ask what went wrong to understand the situation, so that we will not commit the same mistakes the second time. And after gazing upon them, we are healed. Our improvement makes us a ‘different person’ --- from a person of the flesh, to a person of the Spirit.
The same way when we look at Jesus for healing and growth. When our suffering and cross contributes to the betterment of our lives and the lives of others (read: becoming God’s children), then we can be truly grateful to our pains. The cross is exalted because it saves --- it frees us from our sinfulness and catapults us towards holiness.