Jn 3:16-21 Caught in the Twilight of Belief and Nonbelief
Syndicated from Fr. Alfonse on April 30th, 2014
Wednesday of the Second Week of Easter
By Benedict Augustine
“Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light,because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.”
Normally when people consider the gospels, they immediately like think about John 3:16 and recall that one beautiful statement, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” In this one verse, it seems like the whole faith of Christianity is summed up in a simple formula that promises salvation: believe in Jesus, and you go to heaven. People have made this verse a bumper sticker, and some churches have gone so far as to make this one verse the bulk of their theology. Next to this great declaration made by Jesus himself, no other piece of scripture seems necessary. Indeed, if belief is all that one needs to have, even the idea of a church seems rather superfluous—unless one wants to socialize with other believers from time to time. Without the church, without the rest of the Bible, without all those rigorous spiritual rigorous like constant prayer and fasting, one can make a leap of faith, in a verbal confession or checking a box on a spiritual questionnaire, and he will have a place in heaven, end of story.
Unfortunately, things cannot be so simple. Jesus does not say this as a summary of the faith, nor should anyone take it as such. Rather than leading someone to put his inquiries aside, Jesus’ promise of eternal life as a reward for one’s belief in Him should invite that person to go deeper. Common sense will prompt even the most impatient person to first ask some very fundamental questions: What is belief? Who is Jesus, that a person may believe in Him? What exactly is eternal life? And, how exactly does one believe in Jesus? None of these questions have a short answer, and many skeptics would doubt that they have an answer at all. Furthermore, no one except Jesus Himself can answer them, and His answer requires the whole span of the Bible to provide an adequate response. Finally, the Church, the institution that Christ establishes with Peter must work to preserve, interpret, and defends Jesus’ answers to the questions of belief and what it entails.
Fortunately, one does not have to read every book in the Bible, all the commentary on those books, and study all of Church history, to believe in Jesus. After all, the early Christians did not have access to such resources, but they believed and often died for their belief. They did not base their belief on various words in Scripture, but allowed themselves to experience the Word Himself. They allowed themselves to go deeper in their faith and opened their hearts to Jesus. They experienced Him; they walked with Him; they loved Him. Catholics have the same opportunity to experience Jesus this way in the sacraments and following Jesus’ teachings. Once the disciples believed, both then and now, they stopped thinking of the reasons that started their belief, but started thinking of the goal of belief: eternal life.
This goal inspires Peter and the John to go and preach yet again in the face of certain punishment. Their belief puts them at odds with nonbelievers. However, the prospect of eternal life of Jesus dwarfs the petty wrath of the Sadducees. Belief in Jesus and His reward consumes Peter, yet it makes him whole. The eternal life already starts to manifest itself in him as he performs miracles and establishes the Church in face of such adversity.
Knowing quite well the dangers that will come from the Sadducees and the Romans, Jesus does not fail to elaborate on the perils on nonbelief as well as rewards of belief. In stark terms, He says that the one who believes in Him will live in the light, but the one who does not believe will live in darkness. Either a person will love the goodness of God and his light, or prefer the wickedness of the evil one and his darkness, depending on his belief. Sin will creep in the life of a skeptic, paralyzing his progress toward God and blinding him to the truth, as with the Sadducees who put their hopes in politics rather than God. Hope and Love will fill the life of a believer, propelling him toward God and empowering them with wisdom, as with Peter and John. Thus, as the apostles win more souls for Christ, the Sadducees sulk in the darkness, hesitating because of the crowds.
As he hears this, Nicodemus, the original audience for this teaching of Jesus, stands at this crossroad that many Christians face. He may step into the light of Christ and believe, or stay in the dark—he has this conversation at night, in both a literal and metaphorical sense—and keep finding reasons not to believe. The passing twilight, like a human lifetime, does not last forever, so he must choose soon. Once he see this choice set out so plainly, it is no wonder that he, and all true believers, make the choice for life and leave death behind him forever.
This meditation was written by Benedict Augustine, an English teacher who works in the DFW area. He has taken on the pseudonym, Benedict Augustine, to honor his two favorite Catholic thinkers: St. Augustine and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. (264)
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