If you had to pick a piece of Scripture to be read at your funeral or even written on the headstone on your grave, what would you choose? In today’s Gospel we have a verse which is a favourite of many Christians:
“God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
This is reckoned to be the most complete sentence in the whole of the Bible to convey the extent to which God has gone to bring us into a relationship with Him through Jesus. The next, following verse, not quite as well-known, is just as important:
“For God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world but so that through him the world might be saved.” (v17).
Here in these Gospel verses is a God of heroic and enduring patience in spite of his people’s waywardness; a God who, in love, intervenes in history to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves; a God who comes to save us, not least from ourselves and the harm we do to each other.
What do we mean by Jesus coming to save us? Joan Chittister, in a Lenten Meditation written many years ago, puts it this way:
Jesus does not judge us or condemn us; Jesus saves us – from our pettiness, our pride, our smallness. Jesus does not reject us; he embraces us. Jesus dos not label us; he liberates us from ourselves so that we might live the life that Jesus did: raising the dead of soul to life; accepting outcasts; making women disciples; curing the sick of heart.
So, to apply to ourselves Our Lord’s teaching in the two verses above, we can say with confidence: however bad we or the world might be, God does not condemn. True, terrible things happen at any one time but God does not condemn – our actions, yes; but condemn the whole world? NO.
More directly, we also can say: no one taking part in this Mass is condemned by God, whatever our past or present waywardness. Jesus teaches that God as Father loves us individually with infinite patience; and in Jesus reaches out a loving hand to lift us up. The religious term used to describe God’s saving action is ‘grace’ and it is this – God’s grace – that saves us. And about this grace, St Paul elaborates in the Second Reading (Ephesians 2:4-10) that God reaches down to us not because we deserve or merited it but, simply, because that’s how much God loves us. The whole initiative of being saved or rescued from ourselves lies with God, not with us. It is not our efforts that saves us but God’s ‘grace’ or mercy.
Hence the hymn, pre-pandemic, we’d be singing at Mass today: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me …
This teaching about God not condemning but saving is part of a discussion Jesus had with Nicodemus, a figure of religious authority in Judaism. Attracted to Jesus’ teaching, he met the Lord secretly, at night, because he was afraid to be seen with him in open daylight. But their discussion went around in circles at times because Jesus was using language that Nicodemus found difficult to understand at first (some never understood him at all).
However, Nicodemus persisted and he appears on two more occasions in this Gospel of John. The first is when he defends Jesus’ right to a hearing when the other religious leaders demand that he be arrested for what he did in the Temple (last Sunday’s Gospel). Now Nicodemus, originally the night visitor, begins to step out into the daylight. His third and final appearance completed his spiritual journey when he came forward with myrrh and aloes to anoint the Lord’s dead body and, joined by Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple, to arrange the burial of Jesus.
Nicodemus emerging from darkness into the light is one of the key themes in John’s Gospel where Jesus is presented as the Light of the World – he overcomes the force of darkness to bring light and meaning into our lives. And how we react to this light will determine our destiny. We may condemn ourselves but God will not condemn us.
From time to time, we can be weighed down by terrible guilt and engulfed in darkness. Christ may shine a piercing light into the dark recesses of our lives but, as he told Nicodemus, God’s love is such that he wants to save, not condemn us. The simple yet profound truth is that there is nothing any of us can do to stop God loving us, or to make God more merciful than He already is. No sin of ours is greater than God’s love.
Once we fully grasp the force and implication of Christ’s teaching – that God never writes us off like a bad debt, that no one is rubbish in God’s eyes, and that God does not give up on us but wants better for us – then we will have what Jesus calls ‘life, life to the full’.
Holy Name, Jesmond
14 March 2021