“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” These must be the most recognized words of the gospel in the United States. We see John 3:16 everywhere: on bumper stickers, t-shirts, in cartoons, in the eye-black under Tim Tebow’s eyes. I once saw a coupon that offered $15 dollars off a full-service oil change if the customer could quote John 3:16. I saw a church sign for a church named “John 3:16 Church.” If it were a Byzantine Catholic parish, I suppose it could be named something like, “Christ the Lover of us all,” but only in America could you see it named after the chapter and verse.
At some point, almost everyone in America has probably looked up this verse. I once heard a priest quip that maybe it’s time we start writing John 3:17 everywhere. Then, after a while, we could move on to John 3:18, and so on. That way, maybe, before they die, people would make it through a whole chapter of scripture.
We quote John 3:16 in our Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. You’ll hear it just after the “Holy, Holy, Holy….” These words have been popular among us Byzantines since before there were chapters and verses to cite. (We liked it before it was cool).
And they tell us that God loves the world. We hear these words so often that maybe they go in one ear and out the other. We might begin to lose a sense of their significance, even of their scandal.
The word for “world” here in Greek is κόσμος. God so loved the cosmos. This word is potent and loaded in the Christian tradition, and particularly in John, who uses it more than anyone. Its meanings are complex and varied and seemingly contradictory. The lexicon gives it no less than eight definitions.
Today we hear from Jesus that God loves the world. But John tells us in another place “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” And, “If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). This may be confusing. We’ve just heard that the Father loves the world, but now we hear if we love the world we do not love the Father?
And anyway, how can God love this world? In this world, some children are murdered before they’re born and others are abused. In this world, men crash airplanes into skyscrapers and kill thousands, as we remember from twenty years ago yesterday. In this world, we drop nuclear bombs on our enemies, and their families and children. The ruler of this world is the devil. We see this wickedness all around us and we don’t love it.
At the root of all these evils is our passions. St. Isaac the Syrian writes that “The world is the general name for all the passions. When we wish to call the passions by a common name, we call them ‘the world.’” The passions, you know, are like greed and sloth, lust and vainglory, envy and resentment, and so on.
When we say that God loves the world, let’s be clear that we are not saying that he loves these things. He does not love the passions and the horrors that impassioned people carry out. God forbid the thought. The word “world” carries many senses, then. And we must carefully consider what is meant.
Jesus is not of the world but is above the world (John 8:23). He creates the world and yet becomes of the world to save the world. We are taught both to love the world and to hate our lives in the world (John 12:25). The devil is the ruler of the world but Jesus is the king of kings and lord of lords. The world brings up these parallels and opposites. And only Jesus Christ and his cross can reconcile opposites.
It’s like we have two worlds here. And I think that’s it really. We live in two worlds at the same time. There’s the world as God creates it and there is the fallen world, enslaved to sin. We must be aware of both worlds – both the cosmos and the chaos – both the way of life and the way of death.
God enters into the midst of both of these by becoming man. By his humanity, he saves, redeems, glorifies, and brings us humans into unity with God – us and also the cosmos, the world. By his incarnation, Christ is cosmically present to the universe. And the whole universe stands in need of his salvific presence, because the whole universe is disordered and suffering from destruction and death of many kinds.
And, make no mistake, death is what we’re being saved from. That’s the whole point of all this here. God gave his only Son so that we would not perish but have eternal life. Death is an evil. Some of us are accustomed to thinking about moral evil only and we forget about physical evil. We sometimes fail to understand physical evil as evil. We even call it good.
And it has been made good in Christ and in his cross. But we must not forget that this is a paradox, lest we forget all our Lord has done for us. In Christ, all things are new. In Christ, death becomes the means of life, because in him, life goes into the place of the dead, into Hades, so that there is nowhere God is not. Hades was thought to be the place where God is not, the place of the dead. “Will the shades stand and praise you?” asked the Psalmist (Ps. 88:10). He may have thought the answer was no. But now, God is even where God is not.
God is impassible, yet in his humanity he suffers the passion. God is immortal, yet in his humanity he dies. God creates the cosmos, yet in his humanity he is created in the cosmos. God loves the world.
The world is the whole cosmos that God creates. Yet the world is also the passions, the sins, the suffering, and the death. So it gets convoluted sometimes when we’re talking about “the world.” We see the passions and the weakness, the suffering and the death, all of which is evil, and it gets hard to see what’s good about the world.
All of this is reconciled only in the cross. We exalt the cross when we say that we love the world. When we say that God loves the world – that can only make any sense in the context of exalting the cross. God is making the sign of the cross over the whole world. He is blessing us with the cross.
The cross unifies opposites, you see. There’s a vertical bar and there’s a horizontal bar, intersected. The divine intersects the human, in Jesus Christ. Heaven comes down to earth. Life enters into death. Unified, death becomes the way to life through resurrection. The cross is the cosmos as it really is. All of it, in all of its senses, unified. Opposites are made one in the cross, this wonderful and holy sign.