You may already know that the word “Gospel” means “good news.” It comes from the Old English word “godspell,” which was around long before the Broadway musical. So every Sunday when we say, “The holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to” whoever, we’re saying “the holy good news.” We’re saying that this is what it’s all about: the Bible, Solemn Mass, prayer, you name it—everything falls into place when we hear the good news, the Gospel.
I remember learning in high school that we could find “the Gospel in a nutshell” in just one verse, John 3:16. “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.” Maybe you learned that verse too. Probably in the King James version. In fact, people know it so well that often you see it on billboards or on a makeshift poster held up at a football game. Not the words, just the reference: John 3:16.
You could do a lot worse. If you’re looking for a quick summary of the very heart of our faith, it’s hard to find one that says so much in so few words. In the eyes of John’s first readers, to give your only son is to put all your hopes and dreams for the future into the hands of somebody else. John 3:16 tells us that God loves us enough to put all God’s hopes and dreams for the future into our hands, knowing full well how much grief that’s going to cause. God doesn’t just love us; God loves us extravagantly, outrageously. That’s incredibly good news.
And do note: it really is all about love. To hear some Christians talk, you’d think that the reason God sent Jesus was because God was so angry that somebody had to be punished before God could get over it. But John 3:16 says the opposite: God sent Jesus because God loves us. Period. God doesn’t need to punish anybody. God loves us already, in advance of whatever we do. Sure, it causes God immeasurable grief to keep loving us when we keep hating. That’s why God’s love really is a kind of sacrifice. But make no mistake, God doesn’t need to punish anybody. It’s all about love.
John 3:16 points to a growing picture of God that was starting to emerge over time among God’s people. They started out thinking of God as a much more exaggerated version of us—more powerful, more knowledgeable, more demanding, more merciful, more temperamental, more everything! So you’d better watch your step, or else. This is the sort of God who might send a snake to bite you on one day, then offer to cure you on the next day, all because you complained about your diet (Numbers 21:4-9, also in today’s readings). Maybe there were other Gods, but this temperamental king was the God they promised to follow. At least for starters.
Later God’s people began to realize that this might be the only God there is—not just more than us but more than anything, not just more powerful but all-powerful, not just more knowledgeable but all-knowing, not just more demanding but all-demanding, not just more merciful, but all-merciful, not just temperamental but utterly unpredictable. God wasn’t just another version of us. God was beyond comparison.
It was a more sophisticated picture of God, but it was more puzzling too. If God is all powerful, why do we need to be commanded to obey? Can’t God just make it happen? If God is all-knowing, why do we need to talk to God at all? It’s not like God didn’t already know what we were about to say. If God is all-demanding, how can we ever measure up? If God is all-merciful, that’s wonderful, but how can God be all-merciful and still be all-demanding? If God is utterly unpredictable who knows what disasters might be looming? God might just lose it altogether. You never know. It’s a picture of God that’s popular even today, and there are brilliant thinkers who have come up with intricate ways to solve all of its puzzles, but sometimes you wonder if the picture comes at too high a price. Maybe we’re paying God more compliments than God ever asked of us.
But what we might fail to notice is that this picture of God didn’t stop growing. Our own imagination might have stopped, but God kept provoking it. Prophets like Isaiah, Hosea and Jonah could make God look pretty terrifying. But there are also passages where they all agreed that God’s mercy always outweighs God’s demands. Listen to Hosea: “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (11:9). The picture kept growing. Then Jesus came along and gave the picture a whole new frame.
Though we often deny it in our lives, we Christians have officially said that we can’t really appreciate who God is until we can see all of God expressed in the life, death and risen life of Jesus of Nazareth—“God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God.” It’s not the only picture of God, and it’s a mistake to try to prove that our picture is better than anybody else’s, but when we call ourselves Christians we’re saying that this is where we have to start. The only God we know is the God who acts like Jesus.
You want to talk about God’s power? Look at the kind of power that welcomes and heals but doesn’t fight back. You want to talk about God’s knowledge? Look at how Jesus grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52) and let foreigners teach him about his own mission (Mark 7:24-30). You want to talk about God’s demands? Try walking in love as Christ loved us—that’s demanding enough. You want to talk about God’s mercy? Look at how Jesus let us do our worst, and yet keeps coming back to offer life at its fullest. You want to talk about God’s unpredictability? What could be more unpredictable than this God who wins by losing? You want to talk about God? Start with Jesus. Don’t let any other picture of God get in the way of that picture.
The all-powerful God is the God whose “power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). The all-knowing God is the God who shares hopes and dreams with us and doesn’t even want to have it all planned out. The all-demanding God is the God who demands that we welcome everybody into an all-welcoming life. The all-merciful God is, well, just that—all-merciful. Period. There’s no temperamental God hiding behind that picture. What’s utterly unpredictable is the extravagance of God’s love. The only God we know is the God who acts like Jesus.
That’s the God who sent Jesus not to condemn the world but to reconcile it. That’s “the Gospel in a nutshell.” God loves the world, us included, so outrageously as to keep giving all of God’s hopes and dreams into our hands, no matter how often we make a mess of them.
And we do make a mess of them, of God’s hopes and dreams. We always have. One of the first messes we Christians introduced is when we tried to make God’s love conditional on what you think or say about Jesus. We talked about unconditional love and then tried to take it back. God loves you, period, we said, but God might take it all back if your doctrines aren’t all in perfect order. We even quoted passages like today’s Gospel—if you don’t believe just the way we do you’re condemned already.
So we relegated whole continents full of people to eternal punishment just because they hadn’t heard what we believe, or else weren’t too impressed after they did hear. We split into factions ourselves and relegated each other to the fires of hell too. So why should we be surprised that the people who don’t identify with any religion are the fastest growing population in today’s America?
John says that the light that enlightens everyone came into the world in Jesus. That light is no enemy to anybody who does the truth. It’s no enemy to anybody who honestly seeks enlightenment, whether they do it on our terms or not. But still, says John, some people preferred darkness to light. Some people preferred self-deception over doing the truth. God didn’t have to consign them to hell—they made their own hells entirely on their own.
We know people like that. We don’t have to go far to find them. There are plenty of them all around us. One of them is writing this reflection, telling you about a love so extravagant that it actually scares the bejesus out of him. He’d rather write about it than live it. “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.”
And even so, God still loves the world, us included, so outrageously as to keep giving all of God’s hopes and dreams into our hands, no matter how often we make a mess of them. When you hold out your hands to receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, what else do you think is happening? All of God’s hopes and dreams are placed into your hands. Try not to make a mess of them, but when you do, it’s not the end of anything. It’s just time to start over—again and again and again.
God so loves the world—still.