The Gospel of June 11th, 2017: “The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity”
When I was a teenager watching sports on television in the 1980s, occasionally the camera operator would scan the crowd and pause on a fan holding up a sign that read John 3:16. Looking back I have great appreciation for those particular acts of evangelization because they planted seeds in me. Granted, they took a long time to sprout and take root. I was unfamiliar with this verse then and did not go to a Bible to look it up. However, the strangeness of placing a verse citation on a sign stuck with me and when I became an avid reader of scripture many years later, I paid special attention to this verse when I encountered it.
John 3:16 begins today’s gospel on the feast of the Holy Trinity and reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
The wisdom of those sign-holding fans is apparent to me now. There may not be another verse in scripture that so pithily captures the depth of God’s love for us and the beauty of His salvation plan for humanity. There is, however, a contingency that must be met before one can appreciate the profound implications of these words: one must accept that he or she needs saving.
The objection has been raised by many a non-believer and believer alike that asks why we should all have to pay for Adam and Eve’s original sin? If I am trying to be a good person now, why should I still be responsible for an act that had happened eons before my birth? Furthermore, if my sinfulness is inherited, it is not really my fault that I am a sinner anyways. Why should I be punished for it?
These are reasonable questions about deep mysteries. If I may inadequately purse them in this blog and others, I pray that it be for God’s glory only. To suggest a starting point for this answer, I would like to share a long excerpt from one of the great interpreters of theology for us non-theologians, C.S. Lewis. In The Problem of Pain, he explains our need to accept our sinfulness with the powerful analogy of the damaged foster child:
“Theoretically, I suppose, we might say ‘Yes: we behave like vermin, but then that is because we are vermin. And that, at any rate, is not our fault.’ But the fact that we are vermin, so far from being felt as an excuse, is a greater shame and grief to us than any of the particular acts which it lead us to commit. The situation is not nearly so hard to understand as some people make out. It arises among human beings whenever a very badly brought up boy is introduced into a decent family. They rightly remind themselves that it is ‘not his own fault’ that he is a bully, a coward, a tale-bearer and a liar. But none the less, however it came there, his present character is detestable. They not only hate it, but ought to hate it. They cannot love him for what he is, they can only try to turn him into what he is not. In the meantime, thought the boy is most unfortunate in having been so brought up, you cannot quite call his character a ‘misfortune’ as if he were one thing and his character another. It is he—he himself—who bullies and sneaks and likes doing it. And if he begins to mend he will inevitably feel shame and guilt at what he is just beginning to cease to be” (Kindle edition, pgs. 82-83).
Now I hope this quote is not taken literally as an indictment of all foster children, especially boys, by myself or C.S. Lewis. The foster child who is “a bully, a coward, a tale-bearer and a liar” due to his unfortunate upbringing is you and I, male and female alike, sinners all of us. The instructiveness of this analogy is not because Lewis found another way to point out we are all fallen creatures, but rather in his ability to help us attempt to see things from God’s point of view.
God is love, which is to say He wills His goodness to others. He created us not because He needed us, but because He acts with this love always. However, to share the gift of love with His creation, He gave us free will, so that we too could will the good of others and fully participate in His eternal love. For God the Father to create us without free will would be like parenting robots who could only simulate love through algorithmic programming. Such cyborg children would know no choices other than those permitted by their programming; therefore, they could not choose to love unselfishly because they would not know they had a choice to choose their own selfish desire instead. In such a state, they could never experience God’s love of choosing the others needs first.
Given this, we were created with free will. And once our ancestral parents chose their own will over God’s in the garden of Eden, the possibility of choosing selfishly, to deny God’s love, was born into the world where it became an option—or better yet, an irresistible temptation. And with each surrender to temptation, our hearts harden a little more to God’s love, creating the downward spiral of sin.
So what is God to do? Remember, He is the father of us damaged foster children who wills our good always. He must change our behavior so that we act like Him, with unselfish love, which is what we really want anyways because it is the only reality that will not disappear like other temporary pleasures. Only God is eternal. So He sends us Jesus, the perfect union of divinity and man, who loves unselfishly His entire life. He accepts it; He teaches it; and He models it perfectly. Jesus’ forgives His executors, conquers sin and death, and then sends us the Holy Spirit–the manifestation of God’s love—so that we may have hope for redemption and salvation. We cannot save ourselves because that would be a willful rejection of God’s gift of love to us, which is His son. In this awesome, mysterious theo-drama, God warms our hearts to choose His love, to choose His will that others may be only treated with good intent. In those moments in this life and after our deaths when we surrender to this will, we find peace and happiness with the perfect harmony of God’s love as it is manifest in the Holy Trinity. This is the Kingdom of Heaven that is at hand.
And so what are we to do? Accept the gift. To do anything else is to choose unhappiness. We were born in God’s love and our only peace is to participate in it. The fact the Jesus already came means it there for us now and it is there for us in the future, even after we forget that God’s way is the best way and choose selfishly. This inheritance of sin is not a set-up or an excuse to reject the Christian life. It certainly is not a sign of an uncaring or vengeful parent. It is simply a necessary reality so that we may be saved. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3: 17). There is such peace in that knowledge. The burden is no longer on me to save myself. I just have to surrender to God’s love.