March 29, 2009
Today’s gospel is filled with beauty and power. But it also contains within it a certain danger. If we were to misunderstand the words of Christ, that misunderstanding could lead to confusion and to harm. Take for example the beautiful image that Jesus gives us at the end of the gospel. He says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Now when you and I hear of that phrase “being lifted up from the earth,” we probably imagine Jesus’ resurrection or his ascension, Jesus lifted up into the clouds. But this is not what the evangelist John has in mind. The last verse of the gospel makes this clear, for it says, “He said this to indicate the type of death he was to die.”
For John, Jesus being lifted up from the earth is Jesus being lifted up on the cross. This makes perfect sense historically, because crucifixion in the ancient world was a form of execution particularly designed to lift up the crucified one, so that his death could be displayed before everyone. The Romans, who practiced crucifixion, intended that the crucified person be seen by everyone who walked by. They wanted his long and anguishing death to be visible, because it sent a message. The message it sent to anyone who saw it was, “Be careful, because you could experience just this kind of death if you challenge the power of Rome.” So lifting up the crucified one was part of the strategy of Roman imperial oppression. Here we see how dramatic Jesus’ words are: “When I am lifted up, when I am crucified, when all can perceive my agonizing death, then I will draw all people to myself, then will all people be saved.”
Now clearly what Jesus is doing is associating his crucifixion with our salvation. We believe this. We frequently say that we are saved through the cross of Jesus. But here is where we need to be very careful. It is important for us to understand how we are saved through the cross of Jesus. What is it about Jesus’ crucifixion that saves us? We know that Jesus’ crucifixion was unjust, brutal, and horrible. We are safe to say that there is nothing about the injustice, the brutality, and the horror that saves us. All of these things were evil things. Had we been present during Jesus’ life, we should have taken every step we could to prevent Jesus—or anyone else for that matter—from experiencing such an unjust and horrible death. So we are not saved by the injustice or brutality of the cross. What we are saved by is the love and service of Christ who embraces the cross and the power of God that raises Jesus from the dead. It is the love of Christ and the power of God that saves us. And that love is stronger than the evil of the cross. To say this in another way: There is nothing good in the cross itself. But good comes to us through the cross because what comes to us through the cross is the love of Christ and the power of God.
Now why is this so important? It’s important because the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection is a pattern that we find repeated over and over again in our own lives. It is important for us to get that pattern straight, to understand it correctly. Evil enters our life and it enters in many forms: in the death of a child, in a diagnosis of cancer, in the upheaval that addiction and divorce can cause within our families. When these things happen, they are evils in our lives and our faith does not ask us to pretend that they are not. To be a believer is not to say that we believe that these evils are somehow blessings in disguise. They are not. We should do anything to avoid such evils. And it compounds the error to imagine that God sends these evils into our lives. God does not give us evil so that later God can save us from it. We do not need a God like that. We do not believe in a God like that.
God does not send us evil. But when evil comes into our life, we do believe that God has the power to pull new life from that evil. Without making the evil thing good, we believe that God has the power to make good come from it. No matter how horrible a death we must face, God’s love is greater. No matter how heavy a cross we must bear, God’s power can lift us up. That is why Christians are always hopeful. Not because we believe that there is no evil, but because we believe that the love and power of God is greater than evil. God can bring us from evil to new life.
Just like Jesus, there will be times when evil enters our life, when we must face our cross. But just like Jesus, we are called to embrace that cross in love and faith and in the belief that God has the power to bring us out of that evil into new life. And when in time we find ourselves in that new life, when we do in fact experience God’s power and love, then we can look back on our cross and say, “I have come here through the cross.” But it’s important for us to realize that we did not come here because of the cross. We come to salvation through the cross. But we are saved because of the love and power of God.