2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23
Ps 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6.
“For God so loved the world . . .” John 3:16 is probably the most well-known, most widely-used Bible verse out there. People hold it up on posters at sporting events, and until recently, Tim Tebow sported it on his face during games. I’ve met countless who claim it to be their favorite verse in the Bible.
Why? For many, John 3:16 simply is the good news of the Bible: believe and Jesus and you will be saved. Believe in Jesus and heaven is yours. Believe in Jesus and you are a Christian. Indeed, the gospel according to John was written “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, you may have life in his name” (20:31).
This verse is also at the heart of a lot of Protestant/Catholic controversy. For many Protestants, it is by faith alone (sola fides) that we are saved; for Catholics it is faith and works. John 3:16 seems to clearly come out in support of the latter. Just believe in Jesus, the passage seems to say, and you will be saved.
The word for faith is used in different ways in the NT. In the synoptic gospels, for example, faith is what makes it possible for Jesus to perform miracles (see Mark 9:14-29). In John, Jesus’ miracles (and Jesus’ long speeches about the miracles in which he discloses who he is as seen especially in John 6) are what compel people to have faith. The ongoing proclamation of Jesus’ miracles in the Church is what continues to make faith possible. The Church testifies to what it has seen (Jn 3:11) so that those who have not seen may come to believe (Jn 20:29).
For John, faith has specific content. To believe is to accept that God has sent the Son into the world to save it. Faith is the acceptance of salvation that has already happened. Moreover, by faith, salvation is accomplished in the believer. This is what we see specified in our gospel passage this week:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed . . .”
So in John, there is a strong emphasis on faith in what could be seen as strong support for the sola fides position presented above. But in John, faith must still be understood in the context of obedience (14:15). Those who truly have faith obey Jesus’ commands, particularly the command to love one another (13:34). We might say then that the heart of discipleship is not just faith, but rather believing obedience. And this believing obedience is seen in the disciple’s love, the love which is made possible because God first loved him.
So even here in John’s gospel where faith in Jesus is so strongly emphasized, faith still has an ethical component. Those who believe in Jesus do what he has done, most especially in the laying down of his own life for those whom he loves (15:12-13). Here we are invited to reflect on our own Lenten sacrifice as we journey with the whole church toward the cross. Does our love reflect the “believing obedience” which our gospel for this week invites us to embrace so that we too might have eternal life?
Few of us will literally become martyrs due to our own call to discipleship, but there are many other ways to lay down one’s life. Saint and Doctor of the Church Therese of Lisieux helps us to better understand this Johannine theme. She talks about little acts of self-sacrificing love that characterized her own journey of discipleship. Instead of literally sacrificing herself, she writes, “All I did was break my self-will, check a hasty reply, and do little kindnesses without making a fuss of them.” For many of us, walking into an arena of lions sounds a lot easier than the way of Therese!
“Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” John 3:16 is good news indeed, and it is true: all you have to do is believe in Jesus to be saved. But unlike the way some represent it, belief in Jesus is not at all easy. It is not just an intellectual assent, but an obedient belief characterized by the same love that Jesus has for us. Without this love, John 3:16 is our condemnation rather than our good news. But the paradox of the Christian faith is that this love is made possible by grace, and by grace alone. As we read in Ephesians:
For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not from you; it is the gift of God;
it is not from works, so no one may boast.
For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works
that God has prepared in advance,
that we should live in them.
Mary most perfectly reflects what it means to have faith. Through no merit of her own, but only through the merits of her own son-yet-conceived, Mary was redeemed which made it possible for her to respond with believing obedience, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” The seeming paradox of faith and works finds harmony in Our Lady who truly laid down her own life in the love of the very first disciple.