If you follow the Sunday Bible lectionary, or at least if you read our IHS newsletter, then you know last week featured some stories about snakes. We heard this quote from Numbers:
From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
And then we heard John's Gospel take that text and use it to talk about the saving love of God:
Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “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. 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. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
That was from John chapter 3 and includes some of the most memorized and proselytized quotations from the New Testament, particularly John 3:16. Unfortunately that verse is often pulled out of its context and used to narrowly define salvation as believing in Jesus by accepting him as your personal savior so that when you die you will go to heaven and not to hell. That is at least the popular understanding, I think, that most people might hold today just by experiencing Christianity in the United States. Sadly, when you pull John 3:16 out of its context you pull it away from the incredible good news that John's Gospel is trying to proclaim: the universal nature of the salvation God is offering. Despite what is often conveyed by some Christians, God does not wish to condemn anyone! The world is condemning itself, again and again choosing darkness over light. The image of Moses and the serpent emphasizes that all one must do is simply lift up your eyes to the Son, and that would be enough to draw you to him.
This week's lectionary Gospel reading is from John chapter 20, but look at what it says 17 chapters later:
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
The context for this event is that some Greeks wish to see Jesus. Gentiles, outsiders from a Jewish perspective who are not included in the covenant between God and Israel, are asking to see Jesus. That is the context for Jesus' proclamation that I bolded in the text.
The good news message of John's Gospel is that the darkness of the world is not the end of the story. That darkness does not overcome the light that has come into the world. The Son of Man was lifted up on the Cross so that he might draw the whole world - not just some, but everyone - into the arms of his saving embrace. John's gospel message is one of universal salvation offered to literally everyone, no limits, no boundaries, no qualifications. There are no insiders and outsiders when it comes to Jesus. Everyone is invited to come and abide in him, to have the kind of life giving relationship with the Triune God that today, right now, gives us the life of the coming age.
There's a prayer in the Book of Common Prayer that we use for Morning and Evening Prayer that captures this message of Good News from John. I invite you to make it your prayer as you prepare for Holy Week and Easter:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on
the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within
the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit
that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those
who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for
the honor of your Name. Amen.