Today’s Gospel is profound and beautiful but we may miss the meaning because we have heard it so many times in the past. That old adage, “Familiarity breeds contempt” certainly plays out here. You may have even let your mind drift as I read it to you, just as my mind drifted when I read it this past week in preparation for this service.
So, let’s try reading it again. Slowly. Let’s squeeze the meaning out of it:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
What did it mean for God to give his only Son? Mothers and fathers of soldiers would know, especially if their son ended up making the ultimate sacrifice, just as Jesus did. They would know the intense grief of the sacrifice but would also understand that their son wanted to serve his country. Their hearts might swell with pride even as they grieve and never forget.
You may be thinking, “Yes, but Jesus is God and therefore He cannot really die.” As a man however, Jesus did die. And He suffered greatly in body, mind and heart to make His ultimate sacrifice. Just as parents suffer when their children suffer, so did the Father also suffer.
How about this part:
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him.
Are we so concerned with avoiding hell that we fail to recognize heaven right here on earth? As children, growing up in the pre-Vatican II church (which I grew up in too), teaching the faith centered a lot on following rules, guilt and fear of hell. I remember the “fire and brimstone” homilies of the young priest at the parish of my childhood and how women would leave the church weeping as a result. Yet somehow during communion, I understood that I was receiving a taste of heaven and would think of images of a floor swept clean, glistening with the shine of wax, or of a rose bush growing in my heart. The Eucharist represented purity and beauty to me; I was blessed with a sense of heaven in my midst.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
The last part of this reading is hard: again we are reminded of condemnation. But we are only condemned if we decide to walk away from Jesus, to turn our backs on him, to deny him. If however we love him and desire him in our lives, we will not be condemned. We will not live perfect lives for in our broken world this is not possible. Jesus’ mission centered so much on mercy precisely because he understood us. Again and again he offers opportunities for reconciliation and relationship as shown through his free association with the “sinners” of his day: the tax collectors and prostitutes. There is nothing he will not forgive so long as we choose to accept it. So long as we have breath in our bodies he will accept us. Just recall the thief on the cross who with his dying breath asked for Jesus to remember him. We know his reward: he was the first to taste paradise. The same awaits all of us who love the Lord and try each day to follow him.
So what can we do to stay close to Jesus so we can experience more of heaven on earth? Perhaps read the Bible? Listen to the beautiful music composed over the centuries that glorifies God? Just sit and think about Jesus? Reach out to someone who is hurting or lonely and be Jesus to them?