Sermon for HIGH MASS Lent 4 Sunday 11 March 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Lent 4 HM
The link between our first reading from Numbers and today’s Gospel is unusually clear: we move from the story of Moses’ remedy for serpent-bite, looking at a bronze serpent on a pole, to the idea of Christ being ‘raised up’ on the cross, upon whom to look with faith is to be healed, to have life. We enact that ‘looking’ in our veiling and unveiling of the crucifix in Passiontide and Holy Week. That looking upon the cross and finding healing and life is helpful in considering the atonement. It counters nastier theories, especially that of the penal substitution of an innocent son by an abusive Father, the terrible doctrine which has skewed protestant theology away from the core of the Gospel. But it still doesn’t ameliorate the horror of the cross. So what about that connection, the serpent lifted on the pole, prefiguring the ‘lifting-up’ of Christ on the cross. ‘Lifting up’ is a funny expression for torture, isn’t it – because that’s what we’re talking about here.
Certainly the odd phrasing indicates, as often in John, a double or even triple meaning – being ‘lifted up’ on the cross is part of a larger raising, including the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into heaven. But the comparison with Moses’ bronze serpent on the pole makes clear that the primary reference is to the healing, life-giving power of looking on the crucifixion, truly seeing it, with understanding and faith. Of course we’ve taken it too literally: we carry crucifixes or crosses in front of our church processions, just like the serpent on the pole. Which is an odd thing to do when you stop to think: would we carry a carving of someone being hanged or electrocuted? How should we regard this elevation of torture?….
A few years ago I met a university contemporary and friend of my former Chilean in-laws who had been severely tortured; she had also seen many others tortured and killed in the notorious Villa Grimaldi in Santiago, Chile. In General Pinochet’s Chile torture was refined to new levels of sophistication.
There is a challenging book about the Chilean experience called, provocatively, Torture and Eucharist, by a Dominican, Fr William Cavanagh. He connects our understanding of the death of Christ remembered in the Eucharist, and of the Church as Christ’s Body, with issues of brutality and our reaction to them closer to home. At the centre of our worship, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist which we receive, is the broken body of Christ; we are told in the Bible that we, the church, are that Body (‘members’) in the world today.
Cavanagh notices that, while in earlier times torture (including crucifixion) was used as a public warning, its developed modern forms are yet more disturbing and destructive: ‘disappearing’ people and using torture as a weapon to create terror and repression fuelled by ‘not-knowing’ encourages a society which is untrusting, self-seeking and fragmented; one can see evidence of this in modern Chile, and the enormous difficulty of rebuilding trust and shared values because of the ghosts of the past. With that in mind, think about what we’ve just heard:
…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.” John 3.19-21
Cavanagh’s particular point is that, although there were noble Christian responses to the regime, the Bishops could have excommunicated Pinochet – removed him from the Body which he was systematically abusing – but did not; they allowed him to use the Church as part of his patriotic rhetoric, at least initially. If Christ crucified is at the heart of our faith, Christians must treat each other with the respect due to fellow members of the same Body and challenge them when they don’t.
Cavanagh quotes Fr Ronaldo Muñoz’s caricature of Christians who ignore or refuse to acknowledge this responsibility as an ‘anti-gospel’. His ‘anti-gospel’ is dedicated to the real parishioners of a wealthy parish who, after receiving communion at Christmas Eve Mass, turned over to the police a group of monks and nuns peacefully protesting about torture outside the church. Here is an excerpt:
And by all means the public denunciation
of social sin
is not Christian or evangelical,
because the Christian is to be a sign
and not of conflict,
and because consensus
and not the truth
will set us free.
for oppressors and oppressed,
for torturers and tortured.
Because Christmas is a great mystery,
much above such material things
as economic oppression
and the torture of the body.
I can’t claim to do justice to that argument. But meeting this one Chilean woman, Nena, here in London, brought home to me the brutal reality of what we are talking about when we gaze at Christ, ‘lifted up’ on the cross.
Given refuge in this country Nena has worked tirelessly to help others in and beyond her own community in south London. She now has Parkinson’s disease and other physical disabilities, at least partly as a result of what was done to her. She is a strong human being: so many who survived physically were broken mentally and emotionally. Nena spoke to me matter-of-factly about the son of another Chilean woman whom I had met in Sheffield. She saw him tortured and killed. ‘First,’ she said, ‘they put his eyes out; then the hands…’ (one of the favourite tricks of Pinochet’s torturers was to cut off the hands or cut out the tongue of, for example, musicians and activists; another was to send Jewish dissidents to the colony of Nazi escapees in southern Chile).
We must remember that Christ’s ‘lifting up’ on the cross which we blithely celebrate on Good Friday is brutal, vile torture. That is surely why, churches should always display a crucifix: the empty cross is not good enough, just a shape, or a letter of the alphabet. The crucifix shows us what we’re capable of doing: even to God, certainly to each other.
The message of Easter is that God defeats that suffering and evil and offers new life. That’s where I’m on awkward ground with Nena, because I doubt she believes it now. But it is still that triumph over suffering and evil, to which her life bears human witness, which Easter proclaims is offered to us, and also asked of us. Seeking to follow Christ, among many other things, should mean that we do anything we can to eliminate torture and violence against persons created in God’s image. God’s bias is never to limitation and destruction by the brute exercise of power but always to the realisation in each human life of its fullest potential: eternal life. Which is to say that truth, not consensus (which is so often a compromise at the expense of the weak), shall set us free. That is what we see when we look here, at Christ, ‘lifted up’.
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. John 3.16