No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (Revised Standard Version)
The following reflections are based on the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday after Transfiguration:
Is John 3:16 the Gospel in a Nutshell?
For years, many Christians have quoted John 3:16 as the Gospel in a nutshell, the best summary of why Jesus Christ came to earth and what it means for the world. Made famous at sporting events, you may have witnessed fans hold up an occasional “JOHN 3:16” banner as a tool of evangelism, hoping onlookers will look up the verse in the New Testament and immediately discover a (close to) perfect summary of the message of Christianity. But is John 3:16 the Twitter version of the Gospel? That is, on its own, does John 3:16, as wonderful and profound as it is, encapsulate the fullness of the Gospel?
Consider the context in which we read John 3:16, a conversation between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who visited Jesus by night in order to privately inquire as to who Jesus is. During their encounter, Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God,” which the Church has always interpreted as a reference to Holy Baptism. Then, having made mention of baptism, Jesus proceeds to the source of it, that is, the Cross, which is where we find John 3:16. It should go without saying that the fullness of the Gospel cannot be summarized in any one verse, but to simply quote John 3:16 and ignore the essential connection that baptism has with salvation is a gross error and omission.
Moreover, the Gospel is not a message or an idea, something to merely think or talk about. We are not saved by the message of Jesus Christ, we are not healed by an idea, and we are not baptized into a story. The Gospel is a person; it is someone to be encountered – the person of Jesus Christ. He is the “Good News” of God coming to earth to share his divine life with us, to redeem all of creation, the entire cosmos. The eighth-century Armenian theologian and Church Father, Stepanos Siwnetsi affirms the Gospel as embodied in the person of Jesus Christ when he writes,
For it is not a minister who pronounces the Gospel, or even an angel, but the Lord of heaven and earth himself, saying, ‘I came from the Father and have come into the world.’
Although we live in a culture that values the skill of getting a message across with a minimal amount of characters, the fullness of the Gospel is not reducible to a bare minimum. As John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the cosmos,” we cannot reduce the Son of God, his entry into the world, into our very lives, his redemption of the universe, and how we are to respond to him with holy living in one verse or several words.
This is not to say that John 3:16 is less meaningful, but actually to raise its significance. We often have flippantly reduced baptism to a badge of membership and Scripture reading to quotable proof texts. What we cannot further afford to do is reduce the Gospel to a few lines from Scripture as holy as they may be. Otherwise, we have become out of touch with the fullness of the Gospel, with who the Gospel is and what the Good News teaches.
If the Gospel is Jesus Christ, flesh and blood, and Scripture tells us to “preach” the Gospel, then we should live like Jesus Christ. If we have truly encountered the Gospel in the person of Jesus Christ, then what other way can we live? As a parish community, as individuals on a daily basis, wherever we find ourselves, do our lives preach Jesus Christ to the world so others can encounter the Gospel as well?
Have Faith and Look to the Cross
John 3:16 says whoever believes, or has faith in Jesus Christ, will not die but have eternal life. James the Just, the first bishop of Jerusalem in his New Testament letter, teaches us about the harmony of faith and works, that invisible faith is no faith at all, that faith without works is a dead faith and does not save. He makes a distinction between faith that is alive, working itself out, and a false version of faith that only adheres to a creed or a set of beliefs. He writes, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.” (James 2:19)
What do we think of when we hear the word “believe” or “faith?” Clearly, to agree to and recite a set of beliefs is not much more than what demons do. So faith must be more than mental assent to the Creed or teachings of the Church. Perhaps it’s helpful to look at living examples of demonstrated faith.
In his dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus refers to an event in the Old Testament in order to shed light upon what has prefigured his crucifixion on the world-saving Cross. While in the wilderness, following their escape from Egypt, the Israelites became impatient and complained to Moses and spoke against God. As a result of their sin, poisonous snakes began to bite and kill many people. (A murmuring tongue resulted in a poisonous tongue, i.e. their own sin was their death). Repenting for their sin against God, they asked Moses to pray to the Lord to remove the serpents. The Lord then instructed Moses:
Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it shall live. (Numbers 21:4-9)
St. Cyril of Alexandria commenting on the bronze serpent that Moses lifted in the wilderness writes,
The serpent signifies bitter and deadly sin, which was devouring the whole race on the earth…biting the Soul of man and infusing it with the venom of wickedness. And there is no way that we could have escaped being conquered by it, except by the relief that comes only from heaven.
In the same way that Moses lifted the bronze serpent in the desert so people could have something to see, believe, and as a result live, Jesus was lifted on the Cross so that everyone bitten by the disease of sin, which was brought into the world by the serpent in Eden, would have someone to whom they can look with faith and have life eternal (refer to the icon to the left in which the body of Christ is shaped like a serpent).
Again, what does it mean, in faith, to look to the Cross for renewed, eternal life? The saints have a deep, embedded presence in the Orthodox Church because their lives, visibly and tangibly united with Christ bear witness to the authenticity and truth of the Gospel. We strive to imitate their faith in order to fortify our own faith. Following the crown of martyrdom that Jesus wore on the Cross, they are living witnesses of the victory of Christ.
Examples of living faith: Shamouna
Although unnamed in Scripture, the story of Shamouna (Շամունա) and her seven sons, whom the Armenian Church venerates on Monday of the third week of Transfiguration, can be found in the Old Testament (II Maccabees 7:1-42). Shamouna watched each of her seven sons be tortured for refusing to defile themselves by pagan force. Each of these sons, also celebrated as saints, gave a speech before they died defending their faith in the Lord and his promise to raise them to new life. After undergoing torture, one of the sons addressed the king with his last breath: “You dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life.” In the same way, another one of the sons refused to deny his faith and said to the king, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him.”
Examples of living faith: St. Vahan
Venerated after the octave of Theophany is the eighth-century Saint, Vahan of Goghtn. After Arab persecution of the Armenians in 707, Vahan was taken captive and raised in the royal court as a Muslim. Some years later, due to the influence of the Catholicos, St. John of Otzoon, captives were allowed to return to Armenia. Vahan, preferring his Christian heritage, went back to Armenia, but following a change of Arab rule Vahan was sought after, so he left his home and family to escape recapture. While in exile, he became a monk, but eventually went to the new Arab Emir to justify his actions. The Emir offered him a high position, authority, and wealth, but Vahan refused, preferring his faith in Christ to personal comfort and glory. The Emir imprisoned and tortured St. Vahan before he was martyred on March 18, 737.
Examples of living faith: St. Anthony
Also venerated after the octave of Theophany is the third-century “father of monasticism,” St. Anthony the Great (or St. Anthony of the Desert). Deeply impressed by Jesus’ words, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me,” St. Anthony decided to leave all distractions and live in complete solitude in the Egyptian desert dedicating his life to God. His life in the desert consisted of praying, meditating, fasting, and staying awake for days in order to overcome temptation. As he underwent further spiritual struggles, he slept on the ground, had visions, spoke wisdom to visitors, and eventually his reputation attracted followers to whom he became a spiritual father. As counter-cultural as his life may sound, he sacrificed all distractions that would get in the way of communing with God. Even today, we are called to the same kind of dedication. To follow Jesus, whatever it takes.
What is seen by God and the rest of the world is our faith, our good works, which originate in God (John 3:21) as they are his works being done through us. Sts. Shamouna, Antony, and Vahan, and all of the other saints who were persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ throughout history find the origin of their faith in God. The lens through which they viewed their situations, their life, was the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Who do we choose as role models? Are we only inspired by the stories of the saints or do we strive to emulate them? How are we like or unlike St. Shamouna? St. Anthony? St. Vahan? Like them, we can also obtain the promise that was made to the world that if we have faith in Jesus we will not die, but have renewed, eternal life. Early in the Badarak, the choir sings, “You, the unchangeable One, became man and you were crucified, O Christ our God, and you trampled down death by death.”
To this day, the serpent symbolizes the disease of sin, evil, and death by which humanity, all of creation, has been bitten. It still exists, there is violence all around us every day causing fear and anxiety. There is division and unforgiveness. There is hopelessness and hatred. What is the cure? As Jesus tells Nicodemus, he also tells us: be baptized, look to the Cross and believe. Jesus has come to set the world right and the Cross stands at the center of the cosmos as the sign of healing, salvation, and eternal life.
But do we have a living faith or do we have the dead faith that James talks about? Do we love the darkness rather than the light, bringing punishment on ourselves, for to be without the light is to voluntarily cut one’s self off from God? Or do we look and run toward the Cross which illuminates the world, our very hearts? Consider drawing nearer to the Lord to take the light when we sing together,
Orhnyal eh Asdvadz… Blessed is God! Christ is sacrificed and distributed among us. Alleluia! His Body he gives us for food, and his holy Blood he bedews for us. Alleluia! Draw near to the Lord and take the light. Alleluia!
The image is clear: God is light. So when we “take the light,” it is a true sharing, participation, and communion with God, in his divinity, in his very life. But Holy Communion is not just the morsel of bread and wine placed on our tongues. When we walk in the light, sharing in the divine life of God, we have communion with each other. And in this walk of faith, there is healing and salvation, a bond of eternal love.
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship (communion) with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (I John 1:5-7).
What Do We Prefer? Light or Darkness?
Do we view Jesus as a God who saves or a God who condemns? The state of the world as it is, a contaminated world infected with sin, diseased with that which results in corruption of our selves and hindered communion with God and others hardly requires God to bring condemnation. In other words, we easily and welcomingly bring it upon ourselves by preferring, or believing something lesser over and above God and what he promises us if we believe in him. As John tells us in his Gospel, “He who does not believe is condemned already.” St. Irenaeus in the second century poignantly warns us:
Those who have blinded themselves or have been blinded by others are forever deprived of the enjoyment of light. It is not that the light has inflicted on them the penalty of blindness, but it is that the blindness itself has brought calamity on them.
St. Cyril of Alexandria similarly cautions:
Jesus says that unbelievers had the opportunity to be illuminated but preferred to remain in darkness. Such people, in fact, by failing to choose enlightenment, determine their own punishment against themselves and provoke their own suffering, which was in their power to escape.
Let’s put it this way: the world is in the crisis it is in because we, sinful humanity, run away from the Light that God brought into the world and instead run toward the darkness. Why? John tells us simply that we are not really interested in pleasing God. This is the tension of our faith: that we are created by a perfect God but tend toward sin, toward doing things our way. Thankfully, through the Church, we have a Savior who heals our inclination to depravity and saves us from that deficient status.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (I John 1:5-7)
We are desirous of the gift of salvation, but how do we open ourselves up to receive it? How do we walk in the light? The daily and unceasing prayer of the penitent Christian is as the Armenian Church repeatedly prays, «Տէր ողորմեա» (Lord Have Mercy). In what ways can we as a parish, as individuals struggling with our faith, open ourselves up daily, even momentarily in thought, word, and deed to receive God’s salvation from the crises in which we find ourselves? John tells us in verse 18, “He who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.”
One more word of caution. St. John Chrysostom, in his sermon on the third chapter of the Gospel of John, reminds us not to misinterpret the words of Christ and use them as careless license:
Lest any one on hearing, “I came not to judge the world,” should imagine that he might sin unpunished, and should so become more careless, Christ stops such disregard by saying, “is judged already.”
Again, the punishment has already come due to our own blindness to the light that is the Light of the World. John makes it clear throughout his Gospel who Jesus is and who we are in relation to him:
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. (John 1:9-10)
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
Do we prefer the darkness or do we prefer the Light?