Title: Love Heals
Date: March 22, 2009
Texts: Num 21:4-9, Eph 2:1-10, Jn 3:14-21
Author: Isaac Villegas
“What would not have been assumed would not have been healed.”
~ Gregory of Nazianzus
“The God who created us without us will not save us without us.”
What a strange story. The people encounter poisonous snakes, and the snakes get the best of Israel. They repent and ask God for salvation from the serpents. So God tells Moses to make a snake and put it on a pole. And that’s what Moses does. He makes a bronze snake and puts it on a pole for all to see. And whenever a snake bites someone, all they need to do is look at the bronze serpent on the pole and they are healed. Very strange indeed.
I had no idea what to do with this passage until Tom offered me a bit of information. I happened to mention to him that I thought Numbers 21 had to be one of the craziest passages in the Bible. He didn’t disagree. But he did mention that this story provides the symbol for the practice of medicine. If you look at the front of your bulletin, you can see how the Emergency Medical Service uses it in their symbol.
The image comes most recently from Greek mythology. It’s called the “rod of Asclepius,” and Asclepius was skilled in the medical arts. But lots of scholars think that the rod of Asclepius goes back to the story of Numbers 21, at least that’s what Wikipedia says.
Anyhow, this is a story of healing, of medicine—at least that’s how it’s been read through the ages. The people look at the bronze snake and are healed. Here’s the last line from the passage: “Whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live” (Num 21:9b). The serpent is medicine from God.
That must be why Jesus uses this story to describe why God sent him. Listen again to the first couple verse of our passage from John: “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” (Jn 3:14-15). Jesus indentifies his mission on earth with that of the serpent. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to save the people, so will Jesus be lifted up on the cross for our salvation.
I guess I must not know my Bible very well. I never noticed that the famous John 3:16 verse about salvation comes right after the story of Moses and the serpent. They are linked; John weaves them together—the snake and Jesus. And what do we get? We get a Jesus who is our medicine, the embodiment of divine healing. Jesus has come to heal us.
Salvation is about healing. Resurrection is the healing of our bodies, of our lives. Heaven is a place of healing—our lives are put back together, what we lack is filled with God’s love; we are healed. We misunderstand salvation and our resurrection and heaven if we think that we become something different than what we are. It’s not like we have our earthly bodies and we leave those behind and get heavenly ones later. That’s not the way it goes.
Instead, salvation is the way God heals what he has made. Salvation is the way God brings us into wholeness. The shambles of our lives, the disarray of our bodies, are taken up into God and we are put back together with Christ’s love. Our lives, our bodies, are healed. That is our salvation. Healing.
God heals us. God doesn’t want to replace us with something better, an upgraded model, a new version of the human—something faster, smaller, but with more storage. God doesn’t redeem the world by replacing us. God heals us. What has been torn is mended; what was broken is healed; what has fallen apart is brought back together. That’s the mission of Jesus: to bring us into the healing of eternal life, which, as Jesus says, is love. Unending love is the power that fuels eternal life. God’s healing is moved by love.
I think one of the worst myths of popular Christianity is that eternal life is something that happens when we die. If we believe, then when we die we get to start our eternal life. But in John, Jesus is speaking about something that is starting to happen now, with his presence. “The light has come into the world,” he says (v.19). It’s happening. Eternal life has arrived. God’s love is here. And Jesus ends our passage with an invitation to walk in this light, to join in his mission of love: “whoever lives by the truth comes into the light” (v.21).
What it means to be a Christian is to believe that Jesus shows us what love looks like, the love that is God, the love that created us and sustains us and heals us. When we look at the life of Jesus we see the heart of God, the pulse of the universe. When we look at Jesus, our healing begins. That’s why Jesus connects his life with the story of the bronze snake in Numbers 21. We are like the Israelites who look and are healed.
But we don’t simply look at Jesus; we don’t put him on the bookcase to decorate our lives; we don’t read his story to satisfy our intellectual curiosity. No. We read this story so we can be transformed. We talk about Jesus, we consider his life, so that our lives might begin to look like his. We aren’t simply interested in what Jesus’ life shows us, but we want that life to flow through us. We want that love to heal us.
When a doctor gives us a bottle of pills that will cure us, the point isn’t to take it home and look at it. Looking at medicine will do us no good. We take it; we swallow it; we let the medicine flow through us. And we are healed, though it may take a while. Jesus is our medicine; Jesus heals us from our inhumanity, from all the ways we fall short of living as a true human being, which is what Jesus was.
So, how do we take our medicine? Hopefully it’s easier than taking a vitamin every morning because I’m not very good at remembering. I can think of two ways to ingest this medicine called Jesus.
The first way requires a story. I went to a memorial service yesterday. Her name was Robin. I can’t say that I knew her very well. She showed up every once in a while for lunch on Wednesdays. There’s a group of folks who eat lunch on the side of the road, and some of the people live in the forest or homeless shelters or wherever. Robin lived in the forest. It wouldn’t be exactly true to say that she was homeless. The forest was her home. She had a tent. And she hung pictures of her family on the trees around her tent.
She died of pneumonia. From what I could gather, she lived out in the forest for nearly a decade. Robin wasn’t interested in anyone’s charity. Instead, she always gave her stuff away. She had nothing, and shared whatever gifts she had. Even though she was dirt poor, she gave what she had to other homeless people.
At the memorial service, I heard one homeless man talk about how Robin always took care of him. If she had a few dollars, she would give it away if he asked—even though everyone knew he was a drunk. I also heard a man from one of the churches talk about how every time he would see Robin, Robin would tell him about someone else who needed care—Francine and Donnie need a new tent, Carl needs a sleeping bag, Claude needs a few dollars, Scott is depressed.
She knew everyone’s needs and shared what she had. That part of Robin’s life is a wonderful display of a life transformed by the love of Jesus. Yes, this kind of love would rather give than receive. But it’s more than that. Dorothee Soelle, a German activist and theologian, said that “The best translation of what the early Christians called agape is still ‘solidarity’” (The Mystery of Death). Love means solidarity. God’s love is solidarity.
Solidarity. That is the shape of the love of Jesus—to be among those who we are to love, to belong to them, for them to belong to you, for them to call you a friend. That is solidarity, the shape of God’s love. That was the shape of Robin’s life. She discovered a new humanity, a new way of life that was permeated with God’s love.
Jesus is also a display of solidarity. The quote on the front of your bulletin says as much: “what would not have been assumed would not have been healed.” In the 4th century, Gregory of Nazianzus, a pastor and theologian, wanted to make it clear that Jesus was in fact human, completely human, human to the very core of his being. And that is what saves us, that is what heals our inhumanity. God doesn’t save us from the outside, some kind of powerful and external force that changes us like a clockmaker fixes a clock. God saves us from the inside; God saves us by becoming human, becoming internal to our lives.
Jesus assumed human flesh, Jesus is a human body. Because that’s the only way Jesus could heal us—from the inside, as one of us. Jesus heals us through solidarity. Jesus saves us by becoming like us, living among us, showing us a new way to be human, a humanity that is sustained by our love for one another. And that love is what God feels like.
Jesus befriends our flesh, draws close to us, doesn’t run away; he isn’t disgusted, he doesn’t run from our pain, from our suffering, from what we hide, from our shame. Jesus loves it all. That’s why Jesus became human, because he loves us. And that’s why we love one another, because we are already loved by God.
So, that’s the first way to take our medicine. We learn to love like Robin loved, like Jesus loves. And the name of this kind of love is solidarity. Through that love, we are healed, we taste the eternal life of God.
But this quickly leads us to the second way to take our medicine. We love because Christ first loved us. Jesus assumed our flesh, he knows our life from the inside, he knows the dark corners, and he doesn’t run away.
Grace is the name we give to this solidarity. Jesus befriends every part of our life, even when we want to run, even the stuff we don’t like, even the parts of us that we want to reject, the parts that we want to escape from. Jesus loves it all.
So, we take our medicine this second way by faith. Despite what we may think of ourselves, despite what we may think of our neighbors, we trust that God does not abandon human flesh. Christ is there, among us, full of love, a presence of light in our depths. We have faith that God does love us, despite what we see. We are gifts from God, even though we have a hard time thinking of ourselves as gifts. You are a gift, the gift of eternal life, of eternal love.
The last line of our passage from Ephesians says it best. I’ll close with it. Ephesians 2:10: “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared to be our way of life.” For we are what God has made us.