Gospel for Trinity Sunday (7 June 2020)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Photograph by SBA73 from Sabadell, Catalunya
“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 in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:16-18 – NRSV)
This text is part of a dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, “a leading Jew who came to Jesus by night” – see John 3:1-21. Jesus has spoken to Nicodemus about being “born from above”. He goes on to teach the teacher of Israel: “I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:5-6).
“The Nicodemus scene is our first introduction to the Johannine discourse. It is the first oral exposition in John of the revelation brought by Jesus, and in capsule form it gives the principal themes of that revelation.” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), Yale University Press, 2008, 135.)
loved: The verb is agapaō. “Agapē is not a classical word at all” (William Barclay, “Agapē, Agapan: The Greatest of the Virtues” in his New Testament Words, SCM Press, 1955/1964, 17-29). “Greek is one of the richest of all languages and it has an unrivalled power to express shades of meaning. It therefore often happens that Greek has a whole series of words to express different shades of meaning in one conception, while English has only one. In English we have only one word to express all kinds of love; Greek has no fewer than four. Agapē means love, and agapan is the verb which means to love. Love is the greatest of all the virtues, the characteristic virtue of the Christian faith” (ibid).
Raymond Brown adds further: “The aorist implies a supreme act of love.” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 133.)
the world: The common Greek word, kosmon (from kosmos) is used here, but with an entirely uncommon sense. In Helenistic culture, kosmos had a dual sense of order and beauty. John has a specific theological perspective: “Because of sin ‘the world’ sat in darkness and in the shadow of death (1:5; 5:24; 1 John 3:14; 5:24). Its main fault was that it did not ‘know God’ in the biblical sense of acknowledgement with thanks (cf Romans 1:18ff). God’s love takes the initiative (3:16). ..... The sphere of action of sin is ‘the world’. Once ‘sin’ is conquered, even the world will be overcome. Although this is a doctrine which belongs to the Pauline school (cf Titus 2:12) it is John who makes it his favourite theme. Jesus is the Light and Power who rescues the world from darkness and destitution in which it lay before the Incarnation (John 1:9; 3:19; 8:12;12:46f; 16:33; 1 John 4:17;5:4f). The Johannine Christ has therefore full right to be called ‘The Saviour of the World’ (1 John 4:14)” (Prosper Grech OSA, “Tradition and Theology in Apostolic Times” in A New Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, London: Nelson, 1969, 679h and 683f). The very emphatic statement of God’s love is accompanied by another emphasis, not usual in John: “Cf. 1 John 4:9: ‘In this way was God’s love revealed in our midst: God has sent His only Son into the world that we may have life through him’. Notice that in I John the love is oriented toward Christians (‘we’) while in John 3:16 God loves the world” (Raymond Brown, op cit, 133). The “world” is mentioned again three times in the next sentence as the particular object of God’s infinite love.
only Son: As in the Prologue – see John 1:14. “Literally the Greek means ‘of a single [monos] kind [genos]’. Although genos is distantly related to gennan, ‘to beget’, there is little Greek justification for the translation of monogenēs as ‘only begotten’. The OL correctly translated it as unicus, ‘only’, and so did Jerome where it was not applied to Jesus. But to answer the Arian claim that Jesus was not begotten but made, Jerome translated it as unigenitus, ‘only begotten’, in passages like this one (also 1:18, 3:16, 18). The influence of the Vulg. on the KJ made ‘only begotten’ the standard English rendition. (Actually, as we have insisted, John does not use the term ‘begotten’ of Jesus.) Monogenēs describes a quality of Jesus, his uniqueness, not what is called in Trinitarian theology his ‘procession’. It reflects Heb. yāhîd, ‘only, precious’, which is used in Gen 22:2, 12, 16, of Abraham’s son Isaac, as monogenēs is used of Isaac in Heb 11:17. Isaac was Abraham’s uniquely precious son, but not his only begotten” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 13-14).
believe: The concept of believing is always expressed as a verb – pisteuō – in John, never a noun. Pisteuo in one form or other – is expressed 97 times in John’s Gospel and 9 times in Johns First Letter. “To believe is the vital step required from man confronted with Jesus, the condition for receiving God’s gift of life.” (Dom Ralph Russell, “St John” in A New Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, General Editor Reginald C Fuller, Nelson, 1969, 799d.) To believe Jesus is to give oneself to him, trusting that he is the Son of God. Believing is not about doctrinal propositions, it is a relationship, a communion of life, it is an experience of mutual surrender. Though, such an experience will give rise to reflection, and out of the reflection will emerge content, convictions, statements of belief.
send: The verb is apostellein. Raymond Brown writes: “‘Send’ with reference to the mission of Jesus is expressed in John by two verbs without any apparent distinction of meaning: pempein (26 times) and apostellein (18 times). The Synoptics use apostellein for the mission of Jesus (except Luke 20:13); Paul uses pempein. For John Jesus is sent to the world; for the Synoptics Jesus is sent to Israel (Matt 15:24; Luke 4:43)” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 13.)
that the world might be saved through him: “The language of vv. 11–17 is typical of later Gnostic literature. The Son speaks of what he has seen (v. 11); the revelation of earthly and heavenly things (v. 12); the descent of the Son of Man (v. 13); the ‘lifting up’ of the Son of Man (v. 14); the Father sends the Son to save the world (v. 16), not to judge the world (v. 17). ‘It is this passage more than any other which supports Bultmann’s theory of adaptation from a pre-Gnostic source.... It is more reasonable to suppose that John presents what is basically Jewish and Christian teaching, in words that may be expected to be meaningful to a Gentile audience familiar with the ideas of Hellenistic religious aspirations’ (Lindars, Gospel 147–148). This passage is another fine example of the author’s use of language and ideas that tell the traditional story in a new way” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 101–102).
Love is a shy subject. How many attempts have been made over the centuries to express or describe love? St Paul, in a down to earth sort of way, has probably done better than most: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). Note how St Paul actually invites us, not to think directly of love, but to think of patience and kindness, and to think of what love is not.
Sooner or later we all feel compelled to speak of love. Even though we do have some inkling about what we want to express, when we come to finding the words however, we fall short. If the truth be told, we are typically embarrassed by the sheer inadequacy of our attempts to grasp and express the meaning of love. This embarrassment is itself revealing. It is this embarrassment, this experience of inadequacy, that speaks most powerfully of love. If we are willing and able to listen to it.
Today’s Gospel – John 3:16-18 – carries some of the most often quoted words of the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son .... ” These words present us with a certain danger. It is possible – even likely? – that in quoting these words we will find ourselves believing that simply because we have mouthed the words we have grasped – and communicated – their meaning. If this does happen, it is then possible – even likely? – that we will be bearing witness to something other than love.
“God so loved the world .... ” Before we press on, assuming that we actually understand what we have just said, pause. Listen. Slowly repeat the words. Let the words have a life of their own. “God so loved the world .... ” Let the words speak to you of the meaning that cannot be held by those words. Take time. This is potentially a moment of encounter, a moment in which we can experience Jesus Christ, the embodiment of the Father’s love.
St Paul concludes his hymn to love with a few sentences that flow from such an encounter: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 3:912).