I preached a homily at St Theresa's and St Mark's Community of the Deaf on the meaning of John 3:16 this past Lord's Day. Many asked for copies of the homily so I am posting it here.
I know that some Protestants have ‘hijacked’ John 3:16. Remember that man who used to always hold up a sign with “John 3:16” on it and showed up at major televised sports events wearing a rainbow coloured clown wig? He would stand in front of every camera shot at baseball games and golf tournaments, making weird faces and push his message. His name is Rollen Stewart and we can thank him for our ambivalence towards John 3:16 especially because he’s in prison for taking a hotel housekeeper hostage in Los Angeles, threatening to shoot airplanes taking off and landing at LAX while taping Bible passages to his window. He’s now serving three life sentences in California, but the damage was done. John 3:16 has become, unfortunately, that ubiquitous but least favourite verse that everybody knows. Today, I want to fix that.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his Only-Begotten Son…” What did Jesus mean when He said that God “gave” Him? We say in the Stewardship Prayer, “the great gift of Jesus your Son.” How did God “give” Jesus to us?
God “gave” Jesus to us in three principal ways: at Creation, at the Incarnation, and at the Cross.
God gave us his Son in Creation by way of anticipation. Hence “For God so loved the world…” God created the universe, and us, as a ‘meeting place’ between himself and us. The Church teaches that God created us in order that we may “to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.” Creation took place in anticipation for the human race’s encounter with the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
With creation in place, and thus a ‘meeting-place’ between creatures and the Creator, God sent his Son as one of us, as a human being. This we call the Incarnation, as we read in John 1:14, “and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” As Catholics we believe that the Incarnation was the first Christmas gift, when God gave to us his Only-Begotten Son by uniting the Eternal Word with our human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so that God the Son would speak to us in a human language, share our human experience, and even endure our human end, death.
Finally, God gave us his Son even to the point of surrender at the Cross. Why? Jesus did for us what none of us could do for ourselves—Jesus gave His life perfectly, completely, and obediently to the Father, thereby ‘proving’ that He is a Son. By our own sinfulness, on the other hand, we have irreparably withdrawn ourselves from God; our nature became so deformed that we were thus henceforth incapable of repairing our broken relationship with God. God gave us, or rather gave up his Son to do for us what we were unable to do for ourselves: making satisfaction and reparation for humanity’s offence against God, thereby meriting for us mercy, grace, and pardon.
I cannot stress that last point enough. The Church has gone so far as to excommunicate those Catholics who believe that you can be your own saviour. “I’m going to heaven because I’m a good person.” Wrong! “I’m going to heaven because I’ve earned it.” Wrong!
So how, then, can we be qualified that we “may not perish but may have eternal life”?
Jesus makes it clear, although the English Bible obfuscates it just a bit: “so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” What does it mean ‘to believe’ or ‘to have faith’—which in Greek is the same word? It means, on one hand, to be devoted to Jesus; it also means to intellectually assent to the Truth that is Jesus. The tense of the verb “believes” used by the gospel writer is in the present active tense, which means we believe and continue to believe and never relent in believing. Hence St Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, “from faith to faith.”
There’s more. At the beginning of John’s gospel, it says “But to all who received Him, to believed in His Name, He gave power to become children of God.” But to adhere to Jesus already implies a package deal: Jesus the Son points to the Father by His obedience; Jesus is the Christ points to the Holy Spirit who anointed Him. So by adhering to Jesus, we automatically adhere to the Trinity. This is why one of our lesser-known creeds, the Athanasian Creed says, “Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all keep the Catholic Faith. For unless a person keeps this faith whole and entire, he will undoubtedly be lost for ever. This is what the Catholic Faith teaches: We worship one God in the Trinity, and the Trinity in unity…” Remember what ‘Catholic’ means?—‘according to the whole.’ To follow Jesus is to take the package deal—everything Jesus teaches us, and just by believing in Jesus Christ the Son of God, we believe in the whole Godhead, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in Trinity. To not believe, as Jesus unambiguously said, is to be “condemned already.” Vladimir Lossky, a Russian Orthodox theologian, put it this way: “Between the Trinity and hell, there lies no other choice.”
God has given his Son to us, and therefore the whole Trinity, in Creation, in the Incarnation, and in the Cross. God has given God’s self to us entirely. This self-gift of God we call grace. In Greek, the word for ‘grace’ is charis. But charis, grace is freely given to us. Free, why? Because we can’t afford it. So what is left for us to do? We receive Him, by faith, that is to say, with adherence of mind and heart to Jesus. And we cannot repay this costly, priceless, invaluable grace except in thanksgiving. It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for ‘thanksgiving’ is eucharistein, where we get our word for ‘Eucharist.’ But look what’s hidden in the word eucharistein: the word charis is hidden in the middle of it, because the only ‘repayment’ we can give for grace, if anything, is thanksgiving.
Notice how Eucharist mirrors the gift of Jesus. From Creation we harvest the wheat and the grapes to make bread and wine; this bread and wine, like the Incarnation, changes into the Body and Blood of Christ here at the Table. And this table is where we celebrate the memorial of the Cross. We’ve come full circle.
We renew our faith here at this Table. Listen to this prayer used in the Byzantine Liturgy just before the Communion: “I believe, Lord, and profess that You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God, come to this world to save sinners, of whom I am the greatest. I believe also that this is really Your spotless Body and that this is really Your precious Blood. Wherefore, I pray to You: have mercy on me and pardon my offenses, the deliberate and the indeliberate, those committed in word and in deed, whether knowingly or inadvertently, and count me worthy to share without condemnation Your spotless Mysteries, for the remission of sins and for eternal life. Amen.”