“The Most Holy Trinity” – God is Love – by Fr Pascual Chávez Villanueva
Lectio divina on John 3,16-18
In his dialogue with Nicodemus, the devout Jew who came to him by night, Jesus made a fundamental observation, namely, that salvation depends on faith. The author of the gospel has put on the lips of Jesus the conviction of the early Christian community. Jesus said to Nicodemus what the Christian community was proclaiming to the world: God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. Anyone who believes and knows that he is loved by God will be saved by the Son and will have eternal life. The Father who sends, the Son who gives his life, and the Love which is revealed, are one in acting for the salvation of the world that believes. Everything depends, therefore, on the personal acceptance of this God by a faith which consists, above all, in gratitude and love. Faith is knowing that we are included in God’s choice and feeling obliged to respond to it. Faith and salvation which consist in knowing that we are loved by God in “three forms” should not be difficult or painful.
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Read: understand what the text says, focussing on how it says it.
Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus (3,1-21), a teacher in Israel, is the occasion for the first discourse of Jesus in the fourth gospel. It is a discourse in which it can be hard to distinguish between what Jesus said and the comments added by the evangelist. Nicodemus does not play a prominent role in the conversation with Jesus and, in fact, he will soon be forgotten (apart from 3,9). Jesus begins a long sermon in which he reveals the truth about his Father (3,11-21).
Our brief text is an integral part of the first section of the discourse (3,12-18). It comes after the words of Jesus on the need to be ‘reborn’ from above, that is, from God, in order to reach eternal life. Eternal life comes from God who loves, gives and sends (3,16-17), three actions which have the sending of the Son as proof and guarantee. The Son is given and sent (3,16.17.18), he is the only-begotten (3,16.18), he is sent to the world (3, 16.17.19). If it is possible to be reborn, it is only because the Son is sent. If there is eternal life for those who believe, it is because the Father sent the Son. This is how God’s love is revealed: God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son (3,16).
John uses the verb ‘to love’ especially to express the relationship between God and Jesus (3,35; 10,17; 14,31; 15,9-10; 17,23-24.26), between Jesus and the disciples (11,5; 13,1.33.34; 14,21; 15,9.12; 21,7.20) and the relationship of the disciples with one another (13,34; 15,12.17; 17,26). It is therefore significant that here he uses it in reference to the world, the whole human race (3,17). The love of God comes before everything else, even the story of his Son. Jesus is the gift of God to the world. Whoever accepts this gift is freed from perdition and receives eternal life.
The gift of the Son and his being sent to the world are in order to save the world. Whilst the Father’s love and the mission of the Son were given freely, his acceptance is not free. God’s saving will must be accepted by faith. Faith is the acceptance of the divine gift and the way in which it is given, through death on the cross. Acceptance of God’s love or its refusal are decided on the basis of faith in Christ. The encounter with Jesus is decisive and precedes this acceptance. Perdition is inevitable for those who do not know that they are loved through the gift of the Son.
Jesus says to Nicodemus what the Christian community believed: it is not enough to be loved by the Father to be saved by the Son. We must believe in him and accept that we are loved and saved by him. This is the faith that renders God’s love and the mission of Jesus to the world efficacious.
II. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
If we examine this short text carefully, we see that it does not speak about the Trinity, the central mystery of our Christian faith which the Church celebrates today. It speaks rather of two divine persons who are totally committed to our salvation. The gospel passage affirms the existence of the Father and of the Son. We are loved by them to the point of being saved. For Christians, the truth of the Trinity is closely linked to our salvation. When we discover that we are saved, we discover also three divine persons, each in his own way involved in our salvation.
But what difference does it make for us today to believe that there are three persons in God, when we find it hard to experience God close to us?
God is greater than our capacity to understand him. He is beyond our knowledge. It is of the essence of God not to be understood by men, and it good that we do not comprehend him with concepts or images, nor define him within our limits. There will always be Someone beyond our capacity and our knowledge. Thanks be to God, he is always beyond our reach, where our faculties cannot arrive and where our possibilities end.
But the mystery of God is not something that belongs to him alone. Certainly we do not comprehend God, but we should feel that we are understood by him. If we believe in the Trinity, we renounce consciously any claim to understand God but we do not deny that we are known and understood by him. Believing means affirming something, but it does not mean that we understand what we believe. We must be ready not to understand God because he is beyond our understanding. This means beginning to respect him as God. To accept God as he has revealed himself means to love him, as he wants us to love him. This is what we gain when we profess belief in God and celebrate the mystery of the Trinity. His nature, his thoughts, his will are beyond our reach and our possibilities. We owe him gratitude and love, obedience and fear, faith and personal fidelity.
Even in our world, in human relations, the most personal things, the things that give us most satisfaction and peace, are not the fruit of our understanding nor our ability to reason. It could not be otherwise since we are made in the image and likeness of God. Love, trust and fidelity are given and received freely without full understanding and without all the certainty we might wish for. The more we give, the more we have. The more we receive, the more we are obliged to pay back. There is certainly something of the divine in the experience of human love and fidelity. Do we not feel ‘like God’ when we know that we are loved or trusted or when those who love us are faithful?
It could not be otherwise. God, our supreme Good, has left his imprint and his law in the good things we experience here on earth, so that we may discover that he is our definitive Good in heaven. God desired to give us so much, and to be involved so much with us, that he multiplied himself by three. The mystery of God is a mystery of love, of unselfish giving, of fidelity and permanence. We should be grateful. If it were possible, we should multiply ourselves to respond to him as he deserves. We should feel happy and proud to have so great a God that, in his desire to love us more, has decided to love us in three distinct ways. Who could ever imagine so great a God? Who could desire greater love from God?
We Christians are proud of a God who is our Father, the creator of the world and of mankind, a God who drew us out of nothingness because he wanted to share his life and his friendship with us. God is always rich in mercy, ever ready to forgive, and ever willing to forget our infidelity. So much did God want to become the friend and companion of his creatures, that he loved us to the point of sending his only Son. By becoming the Son of Mary he became like us, he became one of us, in human form and with a human heart. And like us, he had to learn to be human.
We are proud to have a God who is a man, Jesus Christ, who became incarnate for us, lived among us, knew our human limitations and had the same experiences that we have, with the same human sentiments and faculties. He died for us and was raised from the dead, to live and intercede for us with God. He did not leave us when he abandoned this earth. He left us his Spirit, and left us with a mission to the world.
We are proud to have a God who is Spirit and is with us always, even though we cannot see him. We feel him in our hearts, though we cannot touch him with our hands. He helps us to understand what Jesus taught and he prays for us when we stand before the Father. He is present in the Christian community as long as it works to make the world a school of Christ’s teaching and a place of fraternity.
How could we not be proud of a God like ours who has multiplied himself by three to attend better to us? The one God, trinity of persons, merits our faith, and the suffering involved, our love and the pain that goes with it, our complete trust even when we do not understand, and our fidelity no matter what it may cost. Who else can claim to have a God like ours, who has done so much for us, who thought of us and desired us and created us, who suffered for us and saved us, who is with us always and guides us constantly, even though we cannot see him or touch him? Who else can claim a God with such imagination and power, so much love and desire that his will be done?
The only response possible to the mystery of the persons of God is given, not by those who try to grasp him with their intelligence or touch him with their hands, but by those who know they have been caught by God and held in his arms. Thanksgiving and joy, gratitude and appreciation for having him as our God – these are the only legitimate response to the mystery of a God, three persons in one nature. Nobody could dream of being better loved than we are loved by the three divine persons. No one is dearer to God than those who are loved by the three persons in God. We Christians have many reasons for celebrating feasts, but we have only one God to serve and three divine persons by whom we are served.
Anyone who believes in the Trinity has at least three reasons to overcome all fear and live in hope. We come from a God, and direct our lives towards a God, who is three persons. We can, therefore, count on three different ways of relating to the three persons of our one God. We have been loved and protected, created and kept in being, by three distinct persons. We proclaim this truth today and it is only right that we celebrate it far and wide.