Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for Exaltation of the Cross (September 14 2014)

Gospel for Exaltation of the Cross (September 14 2014)

“No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.” (John 3:13-17 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

1. The reference to “ascended” and “descended” is probably best seen in the context of “contemporary Jewish speculation concerning the ascent of Israel’s revealer-figures, Moses, Abraham, Isaiah, Enoch and other great saints”. (Francis J Moloney, SDB, The Gospel of John, Liturgical Press, 1998, 100.) John has Jesus declare that “no one has ascended into heaven”. This recalls a similar definitive statement in John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God.” Then the essential bit follows in the statement: “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

   a. There is another element to verse 13 that presents us with a particular challenge. It revolves around how we understand the Greek ei, me (εἰ, μή). Scholars are at variance on how this Greek expression is to be
interpreted here.

   b. The NRSV and NIV translate it as “except”, in which case Jesus seems to be saying that he has ascended to heaven and he has descended. The KJV and NKJV translate it as “but”, in which case Jesus could be understood as, firstly denying that any of those earlier chosen revealers of God’s ways have ascended to heaven and, secondly, Jesus has descended – ie he is sent by the Father – and therefore speaks with the
Father’s authority.

   c. If it is taken as the NRSV and NIV translate it, it could, for example, point the exegesis towards Gnosticism or an anachronism, reading back into the words of Jesus an event that actually happened much later, after his death and resurrection.

   d. If it is taken as the KJV and NKJV translate it, it could be seen to better preserve the originality of John’s Gospel. That is, John is not expressing a view borrowed from Gnosticism nor is he offering a representation of the post resurrection stories. He is, rather, presenting what he recalls of the teaching of Jesus at the time.

   e. A good body of scholars agree that the reference to – and denial of – ascending, refers to the other revealer-figures, and the reference to – and affirmation of – descending, refers exclusively to Jesus
himself. One of those author writes: “This verse, connected to the preceding verse by kai (‘and’), provides the explanation for the fact that Jesus is able to speak authoritatively of ‘heavenly things’. It is often misunderstood, primarily because it can be translated more than one way. The NIV is misleading: ‘No-one has ever gone into heaven except (ei mē) the one who came from heaven—which sounds as if Jesus, the ‘one who came from heaven’, had previously ascended into heaven as an exception to the rule. This is then taken by many scholars to be a further indication that parts of this chapter are anachronistic. The Evangelist, it is claimed, is writing from the perspective of the church at the end of the first century, looking back on the ascension of Christ decades earlier (e.g. Bauer, p. 56; Brown, 1. 145; esp. Nicholson, pp. 91–98, and Borgen, Logos, pp. 133–148). But is it very likely that the Evangelist would create so clumsy an anachronism when he is frequently so careful to distinguish between events during Jesus’ ministry and understanding
that took place only after the resurrection/exaltation? Even in the immediate context, he goes on to treat the resurrection of Jesus as future to the stance at which he has placed Jesus. Moreover this appeal to anachronism does not explain why the Evangelist has so tightly tied this verse to the preceding one.

“Resolution is found in the fact that ei mē, often translated ‘except’, can introduce an exception to the general idea that has been introduced, without providing an exception to what is explicitly stated in the immediately
preceding clause. English usage in such cases often demands ‘but’, ‘but rather’ or ‘but only’ rather than ‘except’. Compare Revelation 21:27: ‘Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only (ei mē) those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.’ Clearly those written in the Lamb’s book of life are not thought to be impure, shameful or deceitful; the translation would be highly misleading in this context if ei mē were rendered by ‘except’ (cf. also Mt. 12:4; Lk. 4:27; Acts 27:22; probably Gal. 1:19). True, in all these instances the member in the ei mē clause proves to be the only one that does the action described in the first clause: in the example from Revelation 21:27, only those whose names are written in the book of life actually enter the holy city. Applied to John 3:13, that might be taken to mean that the only
one who has ascended is the one who has descended. But the flow of the argument
and the peculiar perfect anabebēken (‘has ascended’) conspire to focus the ‘exception’ rather differently. Jesus can speak of heavenly things (v. 12), and (kai) no-one [else] has ascended into heaven and remained there [so as to be able to speak authoritatively about heavenly things] but only the one who has come down from heaven [is equipped to do so] (cf. Lagrange, pp. 80–81; Westcott, 1. 53; Moloney, pp. 53–59).” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 199–200)

   f. Spare a thought for the fundamentalists!

2. The title “Son of Man” seems to be one that Jesus used of himself.

   a. Against the backdrop of the repeated use of this title in John’s Gospel, the words of Pilate to the people are ironic: “‘Here is the man!'” (19:5)

   b. Ironic too is the situation of Jesus before Caesar’s representative, Pontius Pilate – who is judging whom? We have coins from that era that are engraved with the letters “DIVIF” which is an abbreviation of “DIVINI FILIUS” meaning “Divine Son”.

3. “The serpent in the wilderness” offers an intriguing symbol. Again, scholars are at variance as to the precise meaning both in the original usage – see Numbers 21:4-9 – and in John’s usage here:

   a. There are at least four possible themes at play in the original usage:

     i. The wilderness, the place where the pilgrims are taken when freed from Egypt, is both a place of death and dying and a place of Covenant;

     ii. The serpent in the tradition is a symbol of evil;

     iii. The serpent’s bight becomes lethal in the context of sin, particularly the sin of complaint that the manna – which according to one tradition had any taste the eater desired – becomes boring and tasteless; this is more a statement about the loss of faith of the eaters than the reality of what is eaten;

     iv. The sin of idolatry is the worst of sins; the people have stopped looking towards God and are caught up in their own earthbound self-regard; like the serpent they find God’s food – the manna – to be like the serpent’s food – dust (see Genesis 3:14); the people have therefore committed the ultimate sin by aligning themselves with the serpent; they must therefore look at the image of the serpent, see it for what it is and through that experience recognize the Lord of the Covenant.

   b. Ironically, the bronze serpent that was to be a healing symbol, a way of drawing the people back to YHWH, in time becomes a god in its own right: “Hezekiah removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan.” (2 Kings 18:4)

   c. The major theme in John’s usage of the symbol is the parallel drawn by him between Moses and Jesus. In Jesus “lifted up” we not only see the ravages of sin but the manifestation of God’s glory. This is a paradox worth contemplating and much of John’s Gospel is dedicated to that contemplation:

     i. John has thirteen explicit references in which he associates Jesus with Moses.

     ii. In his Prologue he has announced: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17. See also 1:45; 3:14; 5:45 & 46; 6:32; 7:19, 22 (twice) & 23; 8:5; 9:28 & 29)

     iii. Francis Moloney writes of the parallel between the symbol of the bronze serpent created by Moses and the death of Jesus: “What this association of ‘lifting up’ and ‘exaltation’ might mean is yet to be determined. After 1:5; 2:4 & 18-22, and the Christian awareness that Jesus died on a cross the ‘lifting up’ is associated with the death of Jesus, but the link between death and glory will develop. As the narrative unfolds it will become the leitmotif of the passion narrative.” (Francis j Moloney, The Gospel of John, Liturgical Press, 1998 101)

     iv. D A Carson writes: “Even Isaiah brings together the themes of being lifted up and being glorified, and this in the context of the suffering servant (Is. 52:13–53:12, esp. 52:13 LXX). If Jesus is the ‘one who came from heaven’ (v. 13), how shall he return? The Synoptists think of the crucifixion and the exaltation as temporally discrete steps; John makes it clear that Jesus’ return to the glory he had with the Father before the world began (17:5) is accomplished by being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. It is this exaltation that draws people to him (8:28; 12:32). If in v. 13 the Son of Man is the revealer, the one who came down from heaven, here he is the sufferer and the exalted one—but it transpires that it is precisely in the matrix of suffering and exaltation that God most clearly reveals himself in the person of his Son. The theological connection between resurrection and exaltation is not infrequent in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 2:32–33; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; 2:6; Col. 3:1; 1 Pet. 1:21). John goes farther, and theologically ties together the crucifixion, the resurrection and the exaltation.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 201-202)

4. The statement – or better, proclamation – that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes (pisteuo (πιστεύω)) in him may not perish but may have eternal life” could be taken as a summary of John’s Gospel. This is the Good News!

   a. The focus is God’s love enfleshed in Jesus; that love becomes redemptive in and through the cross;

   b. For our part, believing is the key; the Greek verb pisteuo is used more than fifty times in John’s Gospel; John never uses the noun, always the verb, to describe our faith-relationship with Jesus;

   c. Our believing suggests a deep personal engagement with Jesus as God’s “Word”; we might say “to believe” is to enter an ongoing conversation, bearing in mind the etymological link between conversation and conversion.

   d. Pope Benedict began his first encyclical with these words: “‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them’.” (1 Jn 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with
remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of humankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: ‘We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us’. We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his or her life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” [Deus caritas est (Christmas Day, 2005)]

   e. “The cross is not only example and model, but ground, power and norm of the Christian faith.” (Hans Kung, On Being a Christian, Doubleday, 1976, 410).


John draws us into a cauldron of apparently contradictory ideas. It is affronting. The places of death – the wilderness and Calvary – become places of life; the symbols of death – the serpent and the cross – become symbols of life; the crushing – the crucifixion – becomes the exaltation. The dying is a passing over. Jesus is the Passover Lamb of God.

St Paul’s thinking merges with John’s thinking: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) In other words, without faith the Cross is at best a tragedy and at worst madness. The eyes of faith are need to penetrate to the heart of the Cross.

In the presence of Jesus we are in the presence of God’s infinite love. The limits of the human mind and human expectations are exposed in that presence – and liberated if we believe.

Long before St Paul, the prophet Isaiah wrote: “Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.” (Isaiah 29:13-14. See also
Psalm 33:10-12)

Like the people in the wilderness, we all need to be healed of our various idolatries. We need to look straight at those idolatries, without turning away, and let that experience shock and even frighten us. Throughout the raw truthfulness of that experience we may be taken beyond our various idolatries into the infinite love of God where idols and pretence are not needed.

Seeing our lives from the cross, through the eyes of our crucified Lord, is liberating. We can see the way we are, the way the world is and the way God is. Believing enables us to see as never before. Seeing is believing.

“Yet the living Truth, the great breaker of idols and destroyer of false gods, is ultimately easier to live with than the most comforting of lies. It is better to lose the God we found it easy to envisage, and the faith that was only a protection from our fears, and stand naked and unknowing in the presence of the One who can only really be known when he is lived with. At least with that God we can, and indeed, must begin from where we
are. There can be no becoming that does not start from something that already is.” (Aelred Squire, Asking the Fathers: The Art of Meditation and Prayer, SPCK/Paulist, 1973, 10-11.)

” ….. it is in the cross that we see the revelation of what it is that characterises God’s personal being, and so what is also possible for man: the cross reveals personality as ‘kenotic’. …. ‘Image and Likeness’ establishes personality in man (in the sense …. of free self-transcendence) as constituting the imago Dei: the renunciation of existing-for-oneself is man’s most authentically personal act and so also man’s most Godlike act. …. such an act can be recognised as ‘Godlike’, in the light of the Incarnation.

“Christ’s incarnate life is apprehended by the believer as the life of God in the flesh; but it is a life of rejection and agony, lived in the total self-renunciation of absolute obedience to the Father. This obedience leads us to see salvation as the common will and act of the whole Trinity; and the second person is perfectly manifested to us in a life utterly devoid of selfish, individual will: ‘This renunciation of his own will is not a choice, or an act, but is so to speak the very being of the persons of the Trinity who have only one will proper to their common nature’.

“This revelation of humility and self-renunciation in the heart of the Godhead is further confirmed by the ‘kenosis’ of the Spirit. His work is to witness to the Son while his own person remains hidden: he draws each unique human person in a unique and personal way to the contemplation of and participation in the Godhead imparted to humanity in the Incarnation, but conceals his own person in order to manifest and communicate only what is common to the whole Trinity. Thus the trinitarian dogma proposes a model of personal being which radically challenges the assumptions of the fallen human mind: thought itself must be turned upside
down by grace if we are to grasp the mystery in any way.

“The dogma is a ‘cross for human ways of thought’ because it demands a belief that the abnegation of self and the absence of self-assertive, self-interested ‘individualism’ are the fundamental notes of personal existence at its source, in God. In its fallen and encapsulated condition, the individual human subject cannot accept this: only in the life of the Spirit, who transforms the whole of human being, is faith in the trinitarian dogma possible. This faith is not a matter of indifference, of taste or distaste, for the Christian: it is a mark of the transformation accomplished by the Spirit, it is inseparable from soteriology, indeed from anthropology as a whole. The ‘apophatc attitude’ is the primary expression of trinitatrian faith, of the profound disturbance in thinking which is created by the manifestation of God as personally suffering death and the ‘abyss of hell’.” (Rowan Williams, Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, edited by Mike Higton, SCM Press, 2007, 14-15. Rowan Williams is here examining the Trinitarian theology of the Orthodox tradition as explained by Vladimir Lossky.)