Don’t you just love the whole wide world and everyone in it? God does. Perfectly and truly and absolutely. And the more like God we become, the more we will love the world and everyone in it. Unreservedly. Unconditionally.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John Three Sixteen. This is, among Americans anyway, probably the most famous of verses in Scripture. Its fame, of course, precedes America by millennia.
Our holy Father Saint John Chrysostom includes it in his Anaphora, which we usually pray at The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom after the Holy, Holy, Holy several times a week (except during the Great Fast, when we pray it only once a week on Saturday mornings). So, you see, this verse has been popular among Byzantine Christians long before it was widespread among Americans. We liked it before it was cool.
And rightly so. The love of God for the world it is the good news. It is the gospel that we preach. It ought to be the first and the last message the world hears from us as the Church. We love you. God loves you.
Sometimes Christians with our moralizing fail to communicate to the world the love that God has for the world. We fail to communicate that the morality itself is an expression of love. Too many Christians are eager to play gotcha and condemn others in their sins. Our first and last message is love. It’s the good news we preach, not the bad news. That’s what it means to evangelize.
No matter who you are and no matter what you’ve done, no matter what color you are and no matter where you’re from, no matter what language you speak or don’t speak, God loves you. Whether you’re rich or you’re poor, powerful or weak, God loves you. No matter what you believe, God loves you. Even if you deny that he exists or, worse, deny that he loves you, he loves you.
I don’t say your beliefs and your actions don’t matter. But I do say that God loves you completely and just as much as he would otherwise regardless of what you’ve done and what you believe. There is nothing you can do to diminish God’s love for you. You have not power over him and he is unchangeable and perfect and his love for you remains unconditionally perfect.
Indeed, it is precisely for you that he has entered into the world and become a human being like you and accepted death, even death on a cross, to save you from death and to save you from the suffering you have brought upon yourself with your evil deeds and false beliefs.
“For God so loved the world.” This is indeed a fitting verse for us to here as we prepare to Exalt the Holy Cross. This small phrase contains so much paradox and mystery. And the cross is the meeting place of all true paradox and mystery. Why do I call love for the world paradoxical and mysterious? Well, what is the world that God should love it?
When we say that God loves the world, that means everybody. Everybody. The doers of righteousness and the doers of evil. The wise and the foolish. His friends and those who make themselves his enemies. The just and the unjust, upon both of whom the rain falls and the sun shines alike (Matthew 5:45). The love of God is like the rain falling down upon us all this morning. It just like the sun that shines on us all. We can hide from it. We can keep ourselves unwatered by his nourishing rain and we can hide in the dark. Many do. “The light has come into the world but people prefer darkness to light because their works are evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come toward the light so that his works might not be exposed” (John 3:19-20). But his rain is falling and his sun is shining nonetheless. His love for us is not diminished even slightly by our lack of love for him or for others, all of whom he loves every bit as much is he loves us.
His love is total and all consuming. His love for us is patient and it is kind. He does not dwell on the evil we have done! He does not rejoice in the evil done to us nor that which we do to ourselves. He rejoices in the truth. He bears everything and endures everything. He is always faithful. His love for us never fails and it never ends (cf. 1 Cor 13:4-8). God is love.
John Three Sixteen is about God’s love for us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” That “so” does not mean “very much.” It does not precisely mean God loved the world “so very much” that he gave his only begotten son. Rather, it means “thus.” Thus God loved the world: He gave his only begotten son.” This is how he loves us. He gives us his Son.
This is cruciform love. It is self-sacrificial love. Who do we love with this love? For whom do we lay down our life? Perhaps our children. Perhaps our spouses or our friends. Such love for our friends is no small thing. Indeed, Jesus teaches us that “there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends” (John 15:13).
By the way, let’s pause for a moment there and notice how highly Jesus exalts friendship. And how low friendship has fallen in the esteem of our culture. It is regarded as well beneath familial love. Isn’t that what we say in our culture? Don’t many say, for example, that there is no greater love than the love of mother has for her child? Well, that’s not what Jesus says. He says, “There is no greater love then to lay down your life for your friends.” Remember when Jesus lifted up his friends to equality with his mother and his brothers. “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” he asked. And then he pointed to his disciples, whom he later called his friends, and said “Here is my mother and my brothers.” They and we make ourselves friends of Jesus by doing the will of his Father. (Matthew 12:48-50; John 15:15).
But what about strangers? Do you we lay down our lives for them? Our Lord laid down his life for strangers. What about our enemies? Our Lord forgave his enemies even as they drove the nails into his hands. Our patron Stephen forgave his enemies even as they stoned him to death. Our Lord not only forgave them but loved them deeply. He lay down his life for them, too. Our Lord loved Israel even as it was unfaithful to him. He was like a husband who went on loving an unfaithful wife, as prophesied by Hosea.
The Lord is faithful! He is the faithful one. He’s the one who remains true. We are not faithful. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). If you deny it, even your denial is a sin.
Bear this in mind as you listen to John Three Sixteen: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
I want to suggest a different reading here. I think it may be better translated, “whoever has faith in him” or “whoever is faithful to him.” “Belief” can mean anything from faith all the way down to mere assent or opinion. Merely opinion is not faithfulness and that is not what is meant here when Jesus says that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life. What is meant is faithfulness. Whoever is faithful to God will not perish but have everlasting life.
Who is faithful to God? Only one is faithful to God. Jesus Christ is the faithful one. Not me and not you. Jesus Christ is the faithful one. God is faithful. First Israel was unfaithful and God loved her anyway. And now us sinners who make up the Church are unfaithful and God loves us anyway. God loves the world.
What has been accomplished in Christ is that his love for the world, like a bridegroom’s love for his bride, has been consummated. It has become flesh. It has been incarnated. He has become one with us. And it is in him and only in him, the only faithful one, that it is possible for us to be faithful. Only when we have joined him on the cross, which is God’s supreme act of love for the world, will we know what love is, and what it is to be faithful, and what it is to live eternally.