The Serpent, the Cross, the Kingdom of God

[Homily:  ADDU Junior High School Baccalaureate Mass, April 5, 2016]

In the celebration of your Baccalaureate Mass, the Lord speaks to you in powerful images. Hopefully, at the end of your Junior High School at ADDU, you are able to appreciate these images.

There is the image of Nicodemus. He is among the elders of the Jews. He has seen the signs which Jesus had performed. Through these signs, he has recognised that Jesus was no ordinary man, no ordinary prophet. Yet, he fears his own insights. He needs to talk to Jesus. But he is also afraid of the criticism of his colleagues. He cannot be seen talking to him. So he visits Jesus at night.

There is then the image of Jesus. It is late at night. He should have been in bed. Yet, he receives Nicodemus. He understands him. He understands his fears. But he also has insight into what he is searching for, a search which has led him to Jesus. Knowing the genuineness of his search, Jesus confronts him with disturbing images.

The first is of rebirth. Jesus says, “Unless one is born again, one cannot see the Kingdom of God.” It blows Nicodemus’ mind. He doesn’t understand. How can an old man re-enter the womb of his mother? But Jesus is not speaking physically; he is speaking on another plane. “Unless one is born of water and the Holy Spirit,” he says, “one cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Unless one is washed of one’s sins, freed from the filth of one’s sins, and journeys from slavery to sin through the waters of baptism into the realm of the Holy Spirit, as the Hebrews had journeyed from the Egypt of enslavement through the waters of the Red Sea to the Promised Land, one would not be able to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ images were challenging – catechism for educated adults only; he was using images of rebirth, of water and of Holy Spirit to confront Nicodemus with an even more powerful image that would inevitably connect Nicodemus to him. That was the image of the serpent on the pole.

Jesus said: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” In the book of Numbers the story is told of how the Hebrews, wearied by the trials of the long journey to the Promised Land, raised their voices against God and Moses, complaining of the endless walking, the poor food and the lack of water. God punished the people by sending fiery serpents among them; those who were bitten by the serpents died. The people pleaded with Moses to pray to God to remove the scourge of the serpents. He did. God said: “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So in obedience Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. It is an unlikely image: the bronze serpent placed horizontally on a vertical pole, shaped like a “T”, almost a cross, yet all who looked upon this image were saved from the poison of the snakes. Jesus made Nicodemus recall this image from the Book of Numbers, and said, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that every one who believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus was already referring to his being placed like a worm, not a man, on a cross. This is underscored in the conclusion of the Gospel passage which is proclaimed in tomorrow’s Gospel:

“For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (Jn 3:16-17). God so loved the world that whoever looked upon him on the Cross should not perish in sin, but have access to the eternal resurrected life that Jesus won for us on the Cross.

Jesus was telling Nicodemus: If you’re looking for the truth, I bring you the truth. It is not in your concerns for your wealth and standing and reputation in the world. It is not in your pious practices, your phylacteries, your external observance of the law. It is ultimately in your being transformed, washed, liberated from your sins by the compassion, forgiveness and Love that the Father utters for you in my gazing at you from the Cross. Look upon me and you shall be saved.

That’s a heavy pabaon that the Lord gives you in the Gospel of your Junior High School commencement. But I did not choose this message. God gives it to you through the Church; he gives it to you with love – for the rest of your lives. It is the very heart of the Christian message. On the Cross, Jesus is the Word of the Father’s Love – Son, Father and Holy Spirit – turned towards you in love. For the rest of your lives, look at him and be saved. Look at him and be born in the one Spirit that is essential for the Kingdom of God. Look at him and respond to Love with love.

The Kingdom of God: that’s the final challenging image. The First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us a glimpse of the Spirit of the Kingdom of God. “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they held everything in common. With great power, the Apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need” (cf. Acts 4:32-35). This image of the Kingdom of God is possible only in the Holy Spirit of God. Jesus said so: “Unless one is born of water and the Holy Spirit,” he says, “one cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” This image of people giving up their possessions to end poverty and injustice in our world is possible only in the Spirit of God. As you gaze on the Cross, the Cross which brings healing, the Spirit challenges you to to be of “one mind and one heart” in responding to Jesus’ love for us all with extraordinary sacrifice and love. The Spirit may inspire in you a more sophisticated image resulting from discernment of the common good. But as you graduate from the ADDU JHS, say yes to the challenge. Say yes to God’s love. Say yes to the Kingdom of God!







About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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