During one of our Wednesday morning Bible studies, our group tackled the famous verse John 3:16, which reads: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Scholars have cleverly labeled this pericope the “miniature gospel” (le petit Évangile, in French), for the simple reason that it encapsulates the entire meaning of Scripture and God’s divine plan of salvation. If the entire Bible was lost and only this verse was retained, the core message would still be preserved in its fullness, with the remainder of the Bible serving as an extensive “color commentary.”
However, in this key passage an equally significant message resides among the words, but it is plainly hidden from sight, a mystery to the unsuspecting, superficial reader. What is it? John 3:16 houses the secret of true life in God, a life that is made manifest to us when we participate in three central activities of the Orthodox Christian Church: love, faith, and sacrifice. Life in God is different from biological life, which is understood in its horizontal dimensions — that is, in our relationships with other human beings. The life in God is far more intense because it boasts of a vertical dimension, defined according to man’s stance before the Lord. In this life, God’s power and wisdom are infused in man, so man’s existence becomes not only more meaningful but indicative of a presence that heals and saves. St. Paul confesses this life when he writes: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). The life in God is, quite simply, God’s healing and saving presence in man.
To have this life within us, we must imitate the life in Christ in these aforementioned three areas. First, we are commanded to have a faith that is genuine and true, one that is not based on conditions or personal expectations. It means, as the saying goes, to “let go and let God”, to trust blindly when nothing makes sense, to take the first step even when you cannot envision the whole staircase, to quote the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Second, perfect faith must be coupled though with perfect love, out of deference to Christ’s commandment to “love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34), a love that far surpasses the limitations of human emotion. Perfect love is not simply to want or seek the good of the other, but to be pained over their welfare, to make the other priority over oneself, to be willing to suffer in their place.
Finally, faith and love are tested and perfected when the third commandment is fulfilled; namely, sacrifice, the “giving” of oneself. For us Christians, this sacrifice is the gift of time we give to the one who needs God through our presence, our words, and our actions; but it is most especially valuable when we celebrate the Eucharistic sacrifice together on Sunday. Put simply, if we believe in God and we love Him, our place is at the sacrificial altar every Sunday during the Divine Liturgy, in addition to the altar of every human heart that we encounter daily.
All three of these expectations are commandments of our Lord in the Scriptures; they are non-negotiable and they are not optional. More of one and less of another is not a solution. All three draw us deeper into the mystery of Christ’s life, which becomes our life when we assimilate our ways with His ways. To believe in one’s heart and love all people but refuse to be with them in worship is not enough, precisely because faith and love remain deficient. When physical illness prevents us from church attendance, that is one thing; but when spiritual illness that is untreated causes us to become selective in our philanthropy, faith and love become deformed into lies, catering to our own shortsighted desires and needs.
In this New Year, let our faith and love culminate in the sacrifice of service to God and one another in liturgy. In worship we see God’s life in action. Let us be infused with this life when we come together before the Lord, so that His life may be ours, and through us, may His life become the world’s. Amen.
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