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)
See also: Matthew 8:23-27, Luke 8:22-25
The following reflections are based on the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday after Theophany:
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 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?
What about baptism?
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. 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.
What is the Gospel in the first place?
Moreover, the Gospel is not a message or an idea, nor is it reducible to something we think or talk about. In other words, 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 that the Gospel is 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.’
The Gospel has cosmic impact
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 or that reading the Bible is unimportant, but to raise its significance. We 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, i.e. Jesus, teaches.
Live the Gospel
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? In other words, if Jesus Christ is the Gospel, and if we live in communion (union) with Christ, then how do we embody or incarnate the Gospel to the world?
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 further makes a distinction between faith that is alive, working itself out, and a false version of faith that only adheres to a creed or set of beliefs. He writes,
You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.” (James 2:19)
But I recite the Creed…
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 is 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 (a murmuring tongue resulted in a poisonous tongue, i.e. their own sin was their death), poisonous snakes began to bite and kill many people. Repenting for their sin against God, they asked Moses to pray to the Lord to remove the serpents. The Lord 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)
The bronze serpent, a foreshadowing of the Cross
To this day, the serpent entwined on a pole is used by medical organizations as a symbol of healing. 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 (not just a message or idea) 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).
Look to the Saints
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.
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.”
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.
St. Anthony of the Desert
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.
Good works are not bad, but… good!
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 saints who were persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ throughout history find the origin of their faith in God the center of which is 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, to the cosmos, 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? How often do we love (prefer) 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?
Take the light
How often 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 the uniting peace of God reigns. 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).
Walking by Faith
Our union (communion) with God is experienced by faith; we interpret the world, the living moment through eyes of faith, without which creation would only be experienced “by sight.”
For we walk by faith, not by sight. (II Corinthians 5:7)
To be aware of the present moment through the eyes of faith is to experience his creation, the living moment as sustained by God, i.e. God-filled, as transfigured by the incarnate Christ, enchanted, sacred.
How do we as society, as the Church, or as individuals walk by sight, and not by faith? Do we regard matter, creation as something to be dominated, used? Do we have a utilitarian view of the world, relationships? Has our faith been reduced to obligations, rules, duties, ethics, moral behavior, mental assent, and blind obedience to a military model of hierarchy?
Is our repentance transactional rather than an expression of love born out of a union between creature and Creator? Do we repent to a priest who we believe is endowed with a special ability to wipe our slates clean, or do we repent, like St. Gregory of Narek, who couldn’t fathom the love God had for him despite his flaws, to a priest who reminds us, on behalf of the Church – the community and family of God – of God’s inexhaustible love that makes no sense?