Dearly Beloved in Christ
I imagine most undergraduates either have or will experience this or something like it in your residence hall. Sometime, maybe you’ll be studying or relaxing watching TV and you’ll hear (Knock 3xs). You get up from to answer the door, like you do when someone knocks at the door, and find at the door someone from your floor. They look innocent enough. Maybe you’ve had a conversation with them in the bathroom if you’re a woman or maybe you’ve said hello to them in the hallway so you know them but not really well. They ask if they can come in to your room and you say yes, again, like you do when someone comes to the door. They sit down and ask you one of those questions that we Catholics hate to be asked, “Do you know if you are saved?” or “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?” Or, “Do you know if you’re going to heaven?” Or one of a dozen other questions that they have memorized to start the God conversation. You may start to feel trapped. You may even wish at this point that you had never asked them to come into your room in the first place. Some of you may feel energized and ready to explain your beliefs and, if that’s you, I’d suggest you talk to Misty Heinen who is one of our campus ministers. She’d love to have your enthusiasm with the outreach team. But, I imagine most of you feel trapped in more of an adversarial way than in a way that makes you want to explain your faith because you may feel like you aren’t able to articulate it well enough. I hope that, in the context of this homily, you’ll learn a tip or two about what to do when this happens.
You may be asking why this topic is coming up on this feast day of the exultation of the Holy Cross a celebration that commemorates when St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, found the true cross in Israel. It was September 14th in the year 320. Of course, considering the fact that if you were to gather all the fragments of the “true cross” you’d likely have about four or five true crosses at this point, one wonders if the original point of this celebration is still clear. I’d suggest not. Instead, I’d like to suggest that church wants us to focus on a topic connected to the example I stated in the beginning, knowing your faith and knowing the cross.
We hear from the Old Testament this very interesting story about the Israelites whining in the desert. As whining had almost become second nature to the Israelites, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s happeneing. But, we should be surprised at God’s reaction. Why would God send seraph serpents to harm his people, this people he has removed from slavery, promised a new home, and helped to guide through the wilderness. All they are asking for is food, for goodness sake. Who can complain about food. Do you remember, as a kid, sitting down at the table and seeing some food that you didn’t like? Brocolli or spinach or pizza with vegetables on it. Do you remember what happened when you complained about having to eat that food? When I did that, my mother would say to me something along the lines of, “Starving children in Africa would love to have this food.” To which, I would reply, “Well then send it to them.” At some point in the conversation the point would be driven home that, if I don’t like what’s on the table, I could just not eat. You see, it’s not that God hasn’t provided food and water for the Israelites. At first they try so say that’s the problem. But then they say, “We are disgusted with this wretched food!” In other words, they have food, they just want to God to bring them something different. That’s what makes God so mad. They aren’t starving. They aren’t thirsty. They’re just expecting God to do whatever they want him to do. That’s what makes God so angry that he sends these serpents to attack them. It's a little more severe than a time out but equally as effective. The Israelites eventually repent and ask Moses to intercede for them. But then it gets really interesting. God's solution to this problem is not simply to stop the serpents from attacking his people. That would be too easy. Instead, God tells his people to mount the image of a seraph serpent on a pole and, whenever they get bitten, they are to look at the serpent and it will cure them. I don't know about you, but it appears to me that God gave his people a graven image. A graven image…hadn’t he just told them not to do that? Why? Because he told them to do it. A graven image is only graven when you are doing something that God doesn't want you to do. But, in the New Testament we see a different explanation of the pole that led the Israel safely out of the desert.
In the gospel, Jesus talks about his cross in the same way as the serpent image of the Old Testament to the leader of the Jews. Scripture scholars believe the image would have been still been present in the Temple at the time of Jesus. They believe Nicodemus would have not only been familiar with the story from Exodus but would have known the pole and serpent very well. So, Jesus is telling them that his cross will be the same image that heals the entire world of the sin that it had fallen into. That's why we, as Christians, set the cross so prominently in each of our churches. It's the symbol of our redemption. Sometimes our evangelical brothers and sisters criticize us for our "graven images" like the cross. We hear our Lord telling us that it's not graven when Christ tells us to do it.
In the context of this passage we also hear a verse that Evangelicals love to emphasize. You see it at sporting events and other prominent places, John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” And we are blessed that they do emphasize that faith in the cross of Christ is what saves us. But, sometimes in their zeal for John 3:16, they neglect John 3:17 “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
We, as Catholics, have a sense that God really does want all people to be saved but, on this feast of the exaltation of the holy cross, we are reminded that it’s not out job to determine who is saved or not. God alone determines who is saved or not. So, when your evangelical friends ask you,“Do you know if you are saved?” or “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?” Or, “Do you know if you’re going to heaven?” First of all, remember charity, remember that we are to be a people identified because of the love we show other people. And then tell them, "I hope so." And when they ask you, "What do you mean? You don't know?" Just tell them, "Nope. It's not my job to know. No feeling that I have. No innate sense or presumed knowledge saves me. God alone is my savior. He and he alone can determine that.