Serpents and Salvation: Facing Our Poisonous Fears and Trusting in God’s Grace

In the Name of the Healing Love and Grace of God. Amen. 

My first experience with a white supremacist took place in 2007 when I was a graduate student at Indiana University. That morning, I woke up to messages on social media warning students that the Ku Klux Klan planned to hold a rally on Kirkwood Avenue. I walked a different route to classes that morning. I worked an administrative job at the School of Music and as I was finishing my work that afternoon, it dawned on me that if I was going to go to Evening Prayer, Holy Eucharist and Supper with the Canterbury Young Adults before Choir rehearsal as I did every Thursday evening, I would have to walk through that KKK rally on Kirkwood Avenue to get to Trinity Episcopal Church. Just before we closed the office for the day, my beloved boss at IU, Helena Walsh – a magnificent soul from Dublin, Ireland – noticed that a deep fear had suddenly infected me. Helena asked what was wrong. After I explained my fear and inclination to not go to Trinity that evening, Helena, being one of the most well-read, down-to-earth, and genuinely wise people I’ve ever known, gave me some sage advice steeped in our shared Christian Faith. First, Helena reminded me that as foreign Christians (she an Irish Roman Catholic and I a Zimbabwean Anglo-Catholic) we had to respect the genius of the First Amendment which protects the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech, the freedom of press, and the freedom of assembly, for them and for us, for better or worse. Then Helena reminded me that if there’s one truth we both shared in our Christian Faith, it was that the Incarnate God is with us and we need not be afraid. With Helena’s encouraging words wrapped around me like an invisible cloak of protection, I walked across campus toward the KKK rally on route to Trinity Episcopal Church. The fear that had poisoned me soon dissipated. That KKK “rally” consisted of one incredibly angry, sad, white man, standing on a bucket, yelling himself hoarse through a megaphone, as dozens of passersby paid no attention to the hatred he was spewing. Just before I walked past him, his voice finally gave out. He must have been screaming hatred all day. Hoarse and unable to use his damaged voice, he stepped off his bucket. I looked into his bitter, twisted face, and he walked away in profound, dejected misery. 

Like the Israelites in this morning’s Old Testament Lesson, I had been bitten and poisoned with fear. A poison that unleashed a terrifying fever of delusions in my mind that almost prevented me from communing with the Truth, Goodness, and Beauty that nourished me every week in the community of Trinity Episcopal Church. Helena’s pastoral ear, wisdom, and reminder of our shared faith and trust in Christ gave me the courage to face the venomous fear that had bitten me, and just like the Israelites, to trust in God’s promise to heal anyone bitten by a serpent to look at it and live.i  

Lest I be accused of magical thinking about the meaning of serpents in Holy Scripture, let’s be good Anglicans and turn to some sound Reason to temper the ways we might make meaning of this morning’s Biblical narrative. Dr. Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology, observed that snakes or serpents are the most common dream symbol of therapeutic transcendence. From that symbol of a snake coiled around the staff of the ancient Greek god of healing Asclepius (a symbol still used in healthcare, medicine, and on most ambulances we see today), to the ways ancient Indians, Egyptians, and Romans revered snakes, Carl Jung discovered that over centuries and across diverse cultures in the collective human unconscious, serpents symbolize the mediation between the underworld, the earth, and heaven, and communicate subconscious spiritual messages of transcendence, deliverance, and healing.ii 

Now as true and as fascinating as Jung’s wisdom is, as a Zimbabwean who grew up with the terrifying reality that the venom of puff adders, spitting cobras, or black mambas could kill you in a matter of minutes, in my mind, snakes represent the furthest thing from healing and transcendence, and instead communicate that same deep fear of death that terrified the ancient Israelites. Perhaps our Anglican commitment to Tradition might help us to begin bridging this gap between both the terrifying and the healing significance of serpents.  

A legend about Saint John the Evangelist comes to mind. Yes, our patron Saint is often depicted in Christian art by the symbol of a serpent in a chalice. According to legend this symbol represents the cup of poisoned wine that the murderous Emperor Domitian ordered Saint John to drink; and as soon as Saint John took the cup and looked into the poisoned wine, the poison darted away in the form of a snake.iii Whether this legend is based on real events or not does not alter the fact that Jesus’ revelation of the mystery of eternal life to Nicodemus, by way of the story of the bronze serpent, is unique to John’s Gospel. Only John’s Gospel has the poetic breadth to harmonize the abstract mystery of God’s healing grace symbolized by Moses lifting up the bronze serpent on his staff, with the concrete event of God’s Love crucified and lifted up in Christ on the Cross. 

How do Experience, Reason, and Tradition help us to weave the meaning of these Scriptures into the fabric of our lives? What is the Spirit of God saying to us today through Moses, the Israelites, the bronze serpent, and the Word of Light and Life that Jesus speaks to Nicodemus and to us in the dead of night? 

I had the honor of studying under and then serving as the graduate assistant to the Rev. Dr. Carolyn Pressler, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities’ Professor Emerita of Biblical Interpretation. The culminating work of Dr. Pressler’s career – her Commentary of the Book of Numbersiv – helps us to meaningfully integrate these Scriptures into our lives of faith. Pressler writes, 

The story of the bronze serpent invites theological reflection on how God responds to the Israelites’ distress. The penitent people ask Moses to pray that God will remove the venomous snakes. YHWH’s response to Moses’s prayer is not to destroy the serpents, but to provide a way to survive their poison. That is, YHWH does not prevent or eradicate the difficulty, but instead opens a way beyond it to renewed life. It is not surprising that the author of John’s Gospel draws on the story to speak of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection or glorification (John 3:14). The story of the bronze snake illustrates a recurring pattern in biblical narratives: that God acts not to prevent grievous events, but to work in and through them to bring about a greater good, transforming lament to praise, slavery to freedom, and death to life.v   

At some point, each of us, in one way or another, is bitten and poisoned in mind, body, or spirit by something venomous that’s beyond our control. Like the ancient Israelites, taking a long, hard look at whatever is poisoning us is the first step in our journey toward healing and wholeness. Much like antivenom or vaccines, the very thing that has the power to kill us actually contains the very substance that can heal and preserve us. Having the courage to look into the Crucifixion, to look into the hateful face, the poisoned cup, or the venomous eyes of whomever or whatever it is that has the power to kill us requires an abiding trust in God’s Love and Grace. A trust that we can cultivate only with and for each other through loving and faithful kinship. If Helena hadn’t asked why I was so afraid, if I didn’t share my fears with her, and if Helena didn’t have the courage to remind me to trust in our loving and liberating God, I would have allowed the venom of a delusional fear of a phantasmagoric KKK rally to rob me of communing with my ultimate joy in worshipping God, socializing, learning, and singing with the beloved community of Trinity Episcopal Church. Through faith and trust we can face the hatreds, greed, resentments, and fears that are poisoning us individually and collectively. Together we can continue to encourage and remind one another that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to heal those who trusted in the saving promise of God, we can trust that the crucified and risen Christ is already working in and through our griefs and fears to heal and raise us all to abundant new life. Amen. 

i Numbers 21:8-9. 
 ii Carl G. Jung, Man and His Symbols (New York, NY: Dell Publishing / Random House, Inc., 1968), 153-155.  
 iii George Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1971), 126.  
 iv Carolyn Pressler, Numbers, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017), 186-198.  
 v Ibid., 198.  

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