The Passover was near and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He went into action on our behalf. He rode in to the rescue, to take us back out of the power of those who held us captive. John telescopes the whole incarnation and passion into the Passover and its celebration – The Passover is the event of the resurrection and our celebration of it.
The Gospel for the fourth week of Lent is John 3:
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up… in order that the world might be saved through him
The Son of Man is lifted up. He is picked out from the crowd, selected from the whole assembly of Israel and indeed of the world. Of all these many millions, this one is the One. Having been picked by the selectors, he has been trialled and he has come through all the tests well, the Letter to the Hebrews tell us. He is confirmed and anointed. This is man in all his glory, given by God who intended it for him from the beginning. In this man, God has established the future for all men.
So God glorifies man. God gives man to man. And God receives this man from us. We reject him, but God receives him from us with full approval. We threw him out but God brings him in and sits him down on the throne, there to be our great representative, the truth of us. God gives man to man, and God receives this man from us.
God glorifies him, but we rejected him. Jesus faces three or four trials – Herod, Sanhedrin, Pilate and the softening up by the garrison. The regime punishes Jesus in its own lazily arrogant way so that no one else should think of sticking their head up too high. Then comes the brutal wrestling with Death. Death intends to make an end of him. Death wrestles Life, intending to get it down and extinguish it. This is what is happening on the cross. It is the end point of the long descent to find the bottom to which humanity has fallen, and the place from which it must be lifted again.
In this covenant, God undertakes to maintain creation for us. Everything needs maintenance. Every machine works as long as it receives its occasional oil change. If its filter is not taken out, and cleaned or replaced, any mechanism will clog and stop working. Everything needs to be exposed to daylight or to receive the caustic of public truth. But the poor old British – no home truths have been told them for such a long time. Everything needs a service. And every church service is that service. Christian worship tells us what is missing, and supplies it to us, so that the Church can provide the maintenance that the nation requires.
We look to this king on a cross. He is the image of God. He is not only Christ in glory, publicly and at rest on the throne. The Lord is portrayed enthroned, outside, in the porch, above the south door. There we see him unambiguously vindicated. God lifts up Jesus of Nazareth for us, and puts him in front of us, to admire and receive. And Jesus lifts us up to the Father, and holds us up before him, in continuous intercession.
The Gospel, John 3, tells us that:
The Son of Man must be lifted up….Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness
Jesus on the cross is the dark figure who appears to accuse us. He looks as dark as death. Our salvation has started when we realise, as we are looking at him, that we are looking at ourselves. That awful figure up there is us. That is how we really are. He is the innocent one and we the guilty. So the innocent one is our accuser, and we don’t like the sharpness of his implicit accusation. The innocence of the innocent one is causing pain to us, the guilty. We are the oppressors. At this moment of somersault, we realise that it is not him who is accusing us at all. It is we who are accusing and oppressing him. We are oppressed – only – by the falsehood of our accusation of him. The moment we realise that we are guilty, we are released from the lies by which we had become bound – and from that moment we are no longer guilty.
John is citing Numbers 21, which is the week’s Old Testament reading:
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.
The Israelites are grumbling in the desert, demanding to be taken back to Egypt. They are in pain, as though bitten by unnamed forces. In their pain they cry out and Moses is instructed to save the situation by holding up an image of a snake, the source of their pain. The biter is lifted up, and as Israel sees that the biter has been lifted off them, the biting ceases; the judge and the punishment he inflicts are lifted off Israel.
We have been grumbling in the desert too. We are bitten and we are the biter. As we look up to Jesus on the cross we see our own selves there in pain. We are the judges who have judged him to be the source of our pain. And we see that we are the biter, for we have bitten one another and we are the cause of all this pain. We have been merciless judges, and we are the victims of one another’s merciless judgment. We are the biter, and therefore we are bitten too. But the Lord raises us off one another, so we can bite one another no more. He has taken me off your back, and you off mine. He has released you from me and your redemption has begun.
Mothering Sunday – Man and Woman
But the fourth week of Lent is also Mothering Sunday, in which the lesson is from John 19:
Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son’. Then he said to the disciple, ‘here is your mother’.
Lifted up high, publicly on the cross, the Lord gives his mother a replacement son, so John takes Jesus’ place. And he gives this man, John, responsibility for this woman, Mary. From the cross he puts us together.
We celebrate Mary the Mother of God, and we celebrate the woman who anoints the Lord in Holy Week and the women who go to the garden on Easter Sunday morning and who are the first witnesses to the resurrection. In this gospel, women, who would otherwise be without a public voice, are raised up and given the first voice and the most public affirmation, in a chastening moment for all male-kind.
So there is a third relationship that sustains our common life, that between man and woman. So this is a moment to consider that the issue of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, for the covenant of God with mankind places us in a covenant between men and women.
Here’s a verse from 1 Corinthians 7. 4:
The wife’s body does not belong to her alone, but also to her husband. In the same way the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.
Each of us belongs to ourselves, and our labour and our product belongs to us first. So a woman belongs to herself first; but if she marries, without losing anything of herself, she also gives herself to her husband. She gives herself, but keeps herself. There is an absolute reciprocity, mutuality and equality between the man and the woman. Happy the man who is married to a feisty woman. Happy the woman married to man strong enough to be happy because she is feisty. They are equal and complementary. This reciprocity, mutuality and equality is at the foundation of covenant.
A married man and woman have freely chosen to enter a covenant. They take on the protection of one institution which is more fundamental than the state. They owe everything to one another long before they have any wider obligations, to country or state.
Mary simply said, Let it be unto me according to thy Word. Bring us together, Lord, and make parents of us. This first child gives you a new status and identity; their birth made you a mother. So we may say yes to children, and yes to parenting. Mothering Sunday is Parenting Sunday, is Fathering and Husbanding Sunday, Son-and-daughter Sunday. We may say yes to that responsibility and expense, to that work and worry and sleepless nights, in which we wait for their temperature to come down, or for their rage to abate, or wait for them to come in. But England has not appreciated her status as mother of children. Have we passed on to our children enough of the affirmation necessary to make them ready for this service of parenting? Did we pass on all the praise and wisdom and self-discipline we received? Have we spent enough time with these children of ours, engaging with them, keeping them busy and content, and did we persuade them not to rush into sex without love, promise and commitment?
We Christians say mothering, fathering, child-bearing and child-raising are good and we are thankful for having had the chance to pass on the life we received, however second-hand this experience sometimes was. We can say this, publicly, in defiance of two cults which, in opposite ways, come from the same great unhappiness. One is the modern pursuit of sexual equivalence. This new cult of woman in which all maternal functions of care are delegated and centralised. No one has to be mother in a deep sense because the government plays Mother for us. The government provides, and our job is just to take the funding she gives us. So many of us are committed to her cult, and repeat the mantra that we just need more of her centralised bounty. Not many dare dissent from this cult, but we must.
The other is the recently imported cult of male domination of women. This cult promotes a war within each household, in which men must constantly reinforce their superiority over women, by covering, disciplining, punishing and even cutting a woman’s body in an attempt to suppress the God-given dignity of the woman, body and soul.
These are two opposite forms of an idolatry which that does not believe in the mutuality of man and woman. Instead they believe that sexual differentiation and the very form of our bodies are unfortunate, and so in this aspect, creation is not good. But the God of Jesus Christ is our creator, the creator of creation who does find humankind good and so affirms our differentiation and reciprocal orientation as men and women.
It is our calling to be husbands and wives and mothers and fathers. We may live in communion, and Christian discipleship sustains us in this communion. I can only be a good son, or husband or father as I am brought to the Lord to confess my failure in each of these identities, and as he removes the consequences of my failure, and allows me to start again. To be a man and a husband means that I must ask for, and receive, forgiveness, from God and from my wife. To be human is to be forgiven and receive the grace of God. When we celebrate Mary, we do as she does, lifting up this son to our countrymen, and saying England, Behold your Son, the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Beloved Son.
The Son of Man must be lifted up….
Christ is lifted up and in glory high up above us. And he now lifts us up. Look at this roodscreen, at this step up into the choir. A rood is a tree, the specific tree of the cross. ‘By thy passion and death deliver us’, it says up there. When we step through an opening in this tree we enter the garden, and once inside we will find that the garden is much, much more spacious than the world outside it. This safe enclosed garden place is what creation is; the savage powers will not be allowed to break in. So this tree is that cross and our way in.
Ash Wednesday was our bleak return to the Church on England’s behalf. We have come through the porch and week-by-week progress up the nave. Good Friday we step up to the sanctuary which is Golgotha. The altar is the tomb in which the body of the Lord is laid, as blank as death.
On Easter Sunday morning it turns out that that is not a wall at all, but the doorway, now open. The Lord has broken through. We wait at that entrance for his coming again. Meanwhile we hear the sounds of heaven and through Scripture we get a reflected view of what is going on.
So the structure and decoration of this church make it a model of creation, redeemed and glorious, just as the temple in Jerusalem was. Here are creatures, vegetation and water, fire and light, planets and stars, moon and sun, night and day are represented here, figuratively and also in the harmonies of the music of their communication and praise.
But it is also a creation that has a safe place for us in which we are not in the immediate presence of holiness, but in a more safely mediated relationship which protects us from too much exposure to that holiness. There is room here for us who are works-in-progress, our not-yet-holy selves. We look forward to life directly face-to-face, at the altar, but meanwhile we are safe here in the nave. But that holiness is expansive, for like incense it wafts down to us, and we can take part in it and sing along with the angels, and with all who bring us the message that this is the good creation of God for us, and God will redeem us and it. Look up and see the angels, each giving us a line from the Te Deum Laudamus – a version of the Gloria – We Praise you, O God. We praise God. Why do we do so? We praise God so that we not misdirect credit to all the over-inflated powers-that-be, the little would-be divinities, who buzz around us, greedily and desperately attempting to source life from us.
Our praise of God is only the backwash from the much greater wave of praise that comes from God to us. The Lord praises us first. He values us, approves of us, gives us credit, extends his credit status to us, so we may charge all things to his account. We may and must remind all powers and institutions not to take too much credit for themselves, not to encourage any cults of personality or celebrity, for that they have a specific mandate, which they may not overstep, to serve us and participate with us in our great well-directed thanksgiving to God from whom all things come and who alone maintains the good functioning of the economy of mutual esteem and credit in which we live.