“God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that those who believe in him might not perish, but might have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)
A favorite of everyone, this certainly is one of the most quoted verses from the Bible. It is often referred to as “the gospel in miniature,” for it captures the very essence of the gospel and of the bible, for that matter. In one line, it summarizes “the greatest story ever told” – the story of an unrequited love, spurned and betrayed, yet continues to pursue so that the beloved may be saved and live, even at the cost of the lover’s life.
Francis Thompson was a bright boy who once wanted to be a priest but eventually led a miserable life when as a medical student he became addicted to opium. He ended up living in a slum and survived by shining shoes and selling matches. Once, he sent some of his poems to an editor, who immediately recognized a genius behind the work. The editor searched for the writer, helped him rehabilitate and introduced him to other poets. Later, Thompson would tell the story of his own flight from God whose love finally caught up with him in his celebrated masterpiece, “The Hound of Heaven.”
The story of Thompson is the story of every man and woman. It is the story of God’s personal love for you and me. As St. Augustine puts it: “God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love.”
What an awesome love! St. Paul tells us, “Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Rm 5:7)
God’s love contradicts commonsense and defies logic. We are taught that the object of the will is the good, and that the target of love is the loveable. Not so with God. For him, one does not have to be worthy to be loved. We can only be grateful for his gratuitous love and learn to be as gratuitous with our own. And this is precisely what he asks us to do, “A new commandment I give you. Love one another, just as I have loved you…” (Jn 13:34) In this light, we now understand why Jesus asks us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us.
Thomas Merton comments, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business, and in fact it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
Today’s gospel recalls the bronze serpent which Moses lifted up in the desert so that those bitten by the poisonous snakes (punishment for their sins) would be healed by looking at it. Jesus uses this incident in Exodus to reveal the saving mystery of his own lifting up on the cross. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
To gaze on the cross and be saved means to believe in the crucified Christ. This belief is more than just intellectual assent; it entails total trust and surrender. We truly believe in “the Son of Man lifted up,” when we are willing to be united with him on the cross. Only then will we be redeemed and have eternal life.
God is a redeemer, not a rescuer. He does not ordinarily rescue us from pain, suffering and death, even as he did not spare his own Son. Instead, he redeems our pain, suffering and death by uniting us to himself on the Cross. As Christ’s passion turned to victory and his death to life, so with Christ will our brokenness turn to wholeness, our confusion to meaning, our weakness to strength, our bitterness to healing, and our hate to love. Thus, in Christ the serpent and the cross, once instruments of death, have become instruments of life.
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you. For by your Holy Cross, you have redeemed the world. Amen*