At 404 ft, the spire of Salisbury Cathedral is the tallest church structure in Britain. Somewhat taller than our own, and be grateful we don’t have their maintenance bills! Completed in 1320, Salisbury Cathedral spire gives inspiration to visitors who feel thrilled when it first comes into sight while they are still some distance away. In a similar way, the great tower of Liverpool Cathedral dominates the streets of the city, standing as it does on the top of a hill, although a mere 331ft tall and completed only in 1942. For such spires and towers, even in Farnham, seem to point to something beyond ourselves, something greater than we can ever understand, something more beautiful than we can ever imagine, something more mysterious than we can ever comprehend. And the same might be said of the rich heritage of old churches scattered through our villages and towns, with their tall spires and tall towers pointing upwards to the clouds. The people who built those churches with their spires and towers believed that they were helping us all to focus our eyes and our minds upwards towards God, the God who inhabits the heavens.
Those who are fit enough to climb steps to the top of those spires and those towers know well the feeling of exhilaration which comes when you get there. It’s a feeling of being lifted up. The same feeling can be experienced from climbing to the top of a mountain, or taking the lift to the top of a skyscraper, or even taking the train which chugs to the summit of Snowden in North Wales. 325 steps to the top of Durham Cathedral tower rewards you with magnificent views for many miles.
It’s a deeply human tendency to want to strive ever upwards, and we see that in other ways too. Many long to be someone who people will look up to, through reaching what we call the top of their profession, or through some great sporting success, or through achieving what we call celebrity status. So when footballers win a trophy, their captain will be lifted up onto the shoulders of his team mates, and the trophy will be held high for all to see. Holding up the trophy lifts up the spirits of the team, and inspires them to continue to aim high, just as, in former times when troops were led into battle, the regimental standard was held high as a source of motivation for those who were fighting.
So it is that in John’s Gospel, when Jesus talks to Nicodemus about the significance of his coming death, he uses imagery from the Hebrew Bible about Moses lifting up the bronze image of a snake in the desert so that people could be healed, and then speaks of himself in these words: “so too the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”. And that same description of the death of Jesus as being lifted up occurs elsewhere in John’s Gospel. On one occasion, Jesus says, “when you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be”, and another time he says, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”, and John adds, “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die”.
The crucifixion of Jesus took place on the top of a hill, a high point in the city of Jerusalem. It was there that he was nailed to a wooden cross, and the cross was then lifted up and its base was slotted into the ground. It was an act which offers us forgiveness, acceptance, and unconditional love. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”. The cross is accordingly not the low point, but the high point in the life of Jesus.
And John emphasises this in a later passage when Jesus says that “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”. When people heard Jesus saying those words, they must have been excited! This is it! This is the time for God to break into history! This is the time for the Son of Man to come with a divine and superhuman power that nothing can withstand! He will smash the empires of the world and create a new world order! Power! Greatness! Glory!
But then Jesus turns all this upside down, for it’s only by his death that Jesus can be lifted up. It’s the moment of crucifixion that is the moment of glorification. As we approach Holy Week and Good Friday, and as we hear again the gospel narratives of the betrayal, trial, suffering, and death of Christ on the cross, it’s natural that we should focus our minds and feelings on the immensity of the suffering Christ endured. But there can be another side to our feelings too: the cross can also be seen as a celebration.
This is where our epistle reading comes in. Paul takes up this celebratory theme in the letter he wrote to Christians in Ephesus. “God raised us up with Christ”, he writes, “and seated us with him in the heavenly realms. So we too have been lifted up”. And he goes on to make it clear that this isn’t through our own doing, but entirety because of the love of God and the work of Christ, because God’s grace is everything, not anything that any of us have done. God so loved the whole world, and that includes the unlovable and the unlovely, the lonely who have no one else to love them, those who love God but also those who never think of God, those who revel in the love of God and those who spurn that love. All are included in this vast inclusive love. St. Augustine put it this way: “God loves each one of us as though there was only one of us to love”, and Martin Luther put it like this: “sinners are beautiful because they are loved. They are not loved because they are beautiful”. May we give thanks to the God who, through Christ, loves us, lifts us up, and makes us beautiful.