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A moral crisis

Gospel Commentary June 7, JN 3:16-18 

If you ever have to wager your last nickel on which passage in the Bible is the most famous and best loved of all, bet on John 3:16. We hear it read in our very brief Gospel reading, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that all who believe in him might not perish, but might have eternal life.” Since we celebrate Trinity Sunday this week, focus particularly on the first words of that passage, “God so loved the world, that he gave.” Love is nothing other than giving. The very definition of love is to will the good of another person, entirely for their own sake. Our belief in the Trinity teaches us that such total, unconditional, self-sacrificing love is God's very identity. Our Lord’s words challenge us to make that love our identity as well.

The context of this Gospel is Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin who visits Jesus by night to discuss his teachings. In the course of their discussion, Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one will understand his teaching until after his crucifixion (Jn 3:14-15). That’s because Jesus’ death on the cross would itself become the perfect expression of total, unconditional, sacrificial love, and the summation of everything he had ever taught. It’s why the best symbol of love is not a valentine, but a crucifix.

But such a message cannot remain merely a lovely idea for us to ponder. There is an inescapable moral dimension to Jesus’ doctrine, because the choice to believe it necessarily implies the choice to imitate it. That’s why conversion and repentance are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. It's why we strive to conform our behavior to God's word, rather than expect God to conform his word to suit our behavior. It's a challenge Jesus himself identifies in the words of this same Gospel passage, “This is the verdict, that light came into the world, but people preferred darkness because their deeds were evil” (Jn 3:19). It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for verdict is “krisis.” The proclamation of the Gospel provokes a sort of moral crisis, since it is a message to which no one can remain neutral. Either we hear it and act on it, or we hear it and reject it. It’s why Jesus will forever be the most controversial figure in the world.

Since graduation season is upon us, here’s an amusing fact — the Washington Post once reported that ten years after graduation, 97 percent of people surveyed could not remember who their graduation speaker was, or what the speech was about. Perhaps that’s because so many such speeches proffer the same platitudes — follow your dreams, realize your potential, fulfill your life project. Such advice is forgettable, because it's banal, trite and spiritually enervating. God didn’t create you in the image of one who lives for himself, but in his own image — the image of one who is personal, relational and sacrificial.

It’s become very popular to opine that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you're a good person. That sentiment is shallow comfort, because it is manifestly false. What we believe matters very much, because our actions flow from our beliefs. Our belief in the Trinity means that God’s nature is an unconditional, self-giving relationship, and forms the highest ideal to which we can aspire. “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). Jesus’ words to Nicodemus remind us who God is, and who we are created to become. Remember that, next time you sign yourself with the cross. It's not the sign of a God who is a distant, unknowable force, but the personal love of a God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Fr. Hudgins is pastor of St. Jude Church in Fredericksburg.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020