•2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23 • Ephesians 2:4-10 • John 3:14-21•
Scripture Readings: Fourth Sunday in Lent
Gradually Francis of Rome is restoring the possibility of openness and honest discussion within our Catholic household of faith. I consider his actions and words genuine reflections of the life and teaching of the historical Jesus. I see him as a man of love whose personal trust in the Spirit is so evident. Some call this the “Francis effect.”
However not all of our peers are motivated by Francis. In college a young woman walked out the door, determined never to return. Touched by the “Francis effect” she decided to return. After several weeks she sought the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It was a disaster. The confessor yelled at her and scolded her. So much for the Francis effect!
I speak of her experience because there is a lesson for us in that confessor’s deplorable behavior. Scripture texts are a primary vehicle through which the Christ Mystery is communicated to us. I suspect that for most of us our only exposure to scripture is our liturgical lectionary. Our current lectionary often removes and isolates scripture passages from their larger context. So I caution you. Always remember there is a larger context without which such texts are easily misread and misinterpreted.
We see this today in the passage from the gospel of John. This text can be correctly understood only if we remember it is the conclusion of a discussion between Jesus and “a leader of the Jews, a Pharisee named Nicodemus.” The words attributed to Jesus, “whoever does not believe stands condemned” are strong words. If removed and isolated from the larger context the text is easily misread or misinterpreted. A confessor who yells at and scolds someone as “condemned” has apparently read this text out of context.
Many scholars agree that the gospel of John was written in different layers by different authors over a period of about thirty years. Each layer reflects distinct episodes in early Christian history. In the initial layer, Jesus is seen as the promised Jewish messiah. The second layer reflects the rising hostility between the followers of Jesus and the leaders of the synagogue. The final layer reflects the struggle of those early Christians to live apart from Judaism.
Our task always is to search through those layers of the written gospels for the “good news.” That means pondering each text within its larger context, which for this passage is Jesus teaching Nicodemus that God’s mercy extends beyond Israel. “Whoever does not believe stands condemned” is a forceful statement. If read out of context, it is not “good news!”
John’s Jesus was telling Nicodemus, “God loved the world” as it is and people as they are. He is saying God infuses and envelops the world and all people with love. That includes you and me and all of our perceived enemies, with no condition or pre-requisite!
His teaching continues. God’s purpose is “not to condemn the world, but to save the world.” The phrase “to save the world” is ambiguous, raising the question– from what? Not from “sin” since the text does not mention “sin.” Within the larger context it becomes clear that “to save” means drawing, pulling, assimilating us into more and more life — “eternal life!” That is good news!
We live in an evolutionary world and each of us are incomplete works in progress; capable of the best and the worst; struggling with internal and external conflicts and contradictions; threatened and confused by terrorism, epidemics and destructive storms. We all need and hunger for “good news.” The “Good News!” is this. That Gracious Mystery we name God loves us, breathes life into us, pulls and draws us into ever fuller and more complete life.
Now carry this one step further. As Lent moves us into Easter, remember that we ordinary men and women are “The Living Body of Christ.” Christ lives in us, acts through us, loves through us. Nothing can, nothing should stop us from bringing a little love into the world. Day after day our words and actions, like those of Francis of Rome, are changing the world with love.