Gospel Jn 3:14-21

For God so Loved the world…

Perhaps one of the most well known Gospel passages is taken from today’s story, where Jesus says to Nicodemus that, ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.’ (Jn 3:16).

So often we hear people preach about this, focusing on the second part of this saying that, in order to be saved, one need only to believe in Him who the Father has sent. True enough. Acknowledging, of course, that this belief finds itself manifest in a life conformed to Christ. (cf. James 2:14-26)

But there is more to this statement than merely that element of salvation through belief. Something perhaps more fundamental – the truth that God’s love for the world precedes everything.

God’s love for the world, for all of us, precipitates his coming amongst us in the person of Jesus Christ and the offer of salvation that ensues. His love, unreserved as it is, necessarily must be open to the tremendous suffering that all true love entails, by virtue of the fallen state of our world and of our nature.

Kentucky farmer and novelist Wendell Berry reflects on this passage in the voice of one of his most beloved characters, Jayber Crow, which I will cite at length here:

‘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 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 it unto 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.”

Point to Ponder

According to the words spoken to Nicodemus, God gives his Son to “the world” to free man from evil, which bears within itself the definitive and absolute perspective on suffering. At the same time, the very word “gives” (“gave”) indicates that this liberation must be achieved by the only-begotten Son through his own suffering. And in this, love is manifested, the infinite love both of that only-begotten Son and of the Father who for this reason “gives” his Son. This is love for man, love for the “world”: it is salvific love.

John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, 14.