An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Looking to the Suffering One

A sermon on John 3: 14-21 by Nathan Nettleton, 30 March 2003

It is a well known cliche that truth is the first casualty of war. In the last week we have been seeing again the truth of that saying, as it becomes apparent that the images of the war which are allowed to make it to our newspapers and television screens are highly selective and heavily controlled. The censoring of these images is even championed as some kind of virtue on the grounds that it is necessary in order to protect public sensibilities and taste. The political and military establishment claim a moral high ground and condemn and impose sanctions against Arabic news agencies such as Al-Jazeera for showing footage of dead and mutilated bodies.

Of course, in reality, it probably has absolutely nothing to do with concern for public sensibilities. Rather it is about the need to promote and maintain public support for the war. It is exactly the same reason that the Australian Department of Immigration wouldn’t allow television cameras free access inside the immigration detention centres. They tried to pass it off as a high-minded concern for the privacy of the detainees, but we know that it was in order to ensure that the public didn’t begin to see and identify with the human face of the misery being caused there. I read an article by a journalist who had covered the last gulf war, and he was writing about the impact of the gruesome sights on the battlefields which were often photographed and filmed but never shown. He described one occasion when he was photographing an area littered with the mutilated bodies of killed Iraqi soldiers. While he was there, a wild dog came by, ripped the arm of a decaying corpse, and ran off with it, fingers grotesquely trailing in the dust. He said it was clear to him that governments would never allow the broadcasting of such images, because if the public had access to such images, they would never again give their support to a government who wanted to wage war to achieve its objectives. If people are able to see the horrific consequences of evil, they are much less likely to perpetrate it. The TAC ads worked on the same principle: show people the gruesome and mutilated consequences of speeding or drink-driving, and they are less likely to do it.

I suspect that the same thing is part of what is involved when Jesus, in the gospel reading we heard read a few minutes ago, speaks of the power of the crucifixion as a symbol to be looked at. He makes the parallel with the event in the first reading where Moses erected a statue which people were to look at, as a focus for their faith in God’s power to save them. In reminding us of that and saying, “in just the same way the New Human must be lifted up” he invites us to consider the visual and symbolic impact of the crucifixion.

Perhaps it is at a time like this, when we are more attuned to the prevalence of carnage and atrocity in our world, that we are most prone to noticing that before it is anything else, the visual image of the crucifixion is a depiction of an atrocity. It is the sort of scene we would not be allowed to see if it came from the battlefields in Iraq. To view a human body suspended from metal spikes driven through its flesh into a wooden post is to view a scene of grotesque torture, a scene of human brutality at its worst. And when we are aware that this is the brutal political execution of a person of extraordinary compassion and integrity and goodness, we realise we are seeing the depths to which human evil can stoop. It is abhorrent. It causes shock and revulsion. And perhaps that is part of the point. Perhaps if we are to be saved from the worst we are capable of and liberated to become the best we were created for, perhaps we need to be confronted with the ultimate consequences of our own evil and shocked out of our complacency and our tolerance of our own compromises with evil.

But clearly that cannot be the whole of what Jesus meant. The call to look to Christ Crucified is not just a scare campaign to frighten us back on to the straight and narrow. There is something else going on too, and in John’s gospel it is the stuff of a repeated wordplay. John frequently speaks of Jesus, or has Jesus speaking of himself, as being “lifted up”, and the context keeps pointing to being “lifted up” on the cross in a public humiliation and execution, but the term “lifted up” is, of course, also a term we use to speak of a person being exalted, or covered in glory, or put up on a pedestal. And the further we get into John’s telling of the Jesus story the more apparent it becomes that this is a deliberate wordplay and that John wants us to hear both implications of his language. And is it not true that exactly this two-sided understanding has filtered through into the popular image of the crucifixion? Far from being seen as just an object of horror and disgust, we produce beautiful jewellery of the cross, sometimes even with the body still hanging on it, and we see it as something of beauty and as an object of devotion. We wear it as a sign of our commitment to the one who was lifted up on it. If you saw someone with a silver hangman’s noose or a gold guillotine on a chain around their neck, you think of it as morbid or sick, but this implement of torture and execution now stands to us as a sign of life and truth and love.

And so it should, for when we look at the crucifixion of Jesus, we see not only how far evil can go, but how far love will go to overcome evil. We see the truth that Jesus would stop at nothing, not even this own brutal and humiliating death, to get the message of God’s love and mercy through to us. We see the means by which Jesus absorbed the worst that evil could dish up and, instead of returning it in kind, rose above it, drawing the sting from it and forging a path to a life free of it. Our forebears in the faith have never celebrated just the risen Christ without reference to his humiliation and death, for to do so would be to present a distorted picture of his triumph. Jesus Christ did not triumph over the powers of evil with some kind of shock and awe campaign, calling in wave upon wave of the heavenly armies. He triumphed by sticking to the path of love and mercy and peace and freedom even when it brought down the hellish fury of the political, religious and military powers upon him, and by demonstrating once and for all that death, which was once thought to be the ultimate roadblock on the path to fullness of life, is now the very gateway through which it is entered. And so indeed it is true that even as we look to Christ lifted up on the cross, all who believe in him, and in all he hung there for, may have life without limit.

During this Lenten season, as we focus our thinking all the more around the battle with evil and the need to for our own lives to be purged of its all-pervasive influence, the crucified Jesus is before us as both the sign of the ultimate consequence of human evil, and of the ultimate victory of Christ over evil through the power of suffering love. In a few minutes, when those who have enrolled as Catechumens in our Lenten School of Discipleship participate in a ritualised banishment of evil, known as the exorcism of the catechumens, you will hear that the words used are “Jesus the Crucified commands the evil in you to be gone.” For indeed none of us have the strength alone to purge our lives of the evils that have colonised us in the forms of fear and greed and indifference and stultifying conformity to the ways of the world around us. But Jesus, who has been crucified by those very evils, has disarmed them and now has the power and the authority to order them out of our lives. Of course, we are rather prone to either hanging on to them or letting them back in, so this is not a one off, you beaut, all will now be well, event. The same words will be spoken over the same people again next week, as a reminder that this is a clean-up operation that will go on throughout our lives. Similarly, week after week, we will continue gathering here to look at the signs of Jesus’ brokenness lifted up, and to receive those signs as food and drink to sustain us in the ongoing quest for holiness and wholeness of life. For as we look to the crucified Christ, and as we receive his offering of his own broken self in bread and wine, we are receiving into ourselves the greatest and most liberating truth in the world, that 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.


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