“God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son”
The Gospel before us is a familiar one. It is almost too familiar such that its meaning is all too easily lost.
I am tempted to focus on the part of the reading that speaks of the promise of salvation to those who believe. We can take great confidence from these words, as they reassure us of the reality of eternal life., but there is perhaps a danger here, in that we can read this and think that eternal life is something easily granted – all it requires is believing in Him.
When we press deeper into this though, and couple this reading with a reflection on our own experience, we can see that the first part of this saying opens up to some profound truths about the reality of this love which motivated God to give his only Son.
God’s love for the world, fallen as it is, precedes and in fact precipitates his coming in the person of Jesus. When we consider also his knowledge of the reality of evil, of sin, suffering, and injustice, the fact of the Incarnation awakens us to the depth of the love that God has for us.
This love is a reality that it is much more than a mushy feeling – but it entails an order and a logic that includes vulnerability and inevitably suffering, even unto death, death on the Cross. The greater the love, the greater the suffering.
Herein lies one of the great paradoxes of human existence: We have this infinite desire to be loved, and to love, and yet we are so fearful of the suffering that true love entails. This means that we are often caught up in an interminable restlessness that sees us looking for an elusive risk-free love, that in reality does not exist.
The words of Jesus here portray something of the drama of love, in its most pure and cosmic form. The love with which God loves the world motivates his self-gift in the person of Jesus is one which enters into and experiences the depths of human suffering, only to rise again victorious in the Resurrection.
Point to Ponder
“All my life I had heard preachers quoting John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” They would preach on the second part of the verse, to show the easiness of being saved (“Only believe”). Where I hung now was the first part. If God loved the world even before the event at Bethlehem, that meant He loved it as it was, with all its faults. That would be Hell itself, in part. He would be like a father with a wayward child, whom he can’t help and he can’t forget. But it would be even worse than that, for he would also know the wayward child and the course of its waywardness and its suffering. That His love contains all the world does not show that the world does not matter, or that He and we do not suffer until death; it shows that the world is Hell only in part. But His love can contain it only by compassion and mercy, which, if not Hell entirely, would be at least a crucifixion.”
Wendell Berry, ‘Jayber Crow’