B Cycle – 4th Sunday of Lent 21
The inspired words of John given to us in John 3:16 are undoubtedly the most recognized passages of scripture. In fact, they clearly state the gospel message without using hyperbole. 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. Can our attaining eternal life be as simple as believing? We Catholic easily connect this verse with evangelists like Billy Graham and easily dismiss it as protestant thinking. Yet, here it is in the bible, the Catholic Church declared as inspired by God and without error. Perhaps we should listen to our own evangelist like Pope Paul VI who wrote this verse from John is the central theme of all the scriptures.
This opens the question for us about how belief in Jesus Christ should impact us and lead us to a life of discipleship versus a life of faithfulness. By faithfulness, I am referring to conforming to a perceived standard of how a believer lives their life. That standard of life we have learned is proper and it is rigidly adhered to and yes even judged by others who guard the norms of faith established by righteous believers. Jesus warned us about the Pharisees and how they lay heavy burdens on others. Remember the parable where the Pharisees question Jesus about why the disciples broke the laws of purification by eating without washing their hands.
Jesus responded to their question by reminding them it is what comes out of your hearts that make you unclean not what goes into you. God has always made faith a choice for us to follow his plan or our plan for righteousness. His plan changes how we interiorly respond to God while our way is based on conforming. Conforming makes us feel good about ourselves because we believe we have a clear understanding of what is required. One we can understand and one we can shape our lives around. If we fall, we simply start over after a period of repentance, but it does leave us uncertain about our status with God. We always wonder if we have done enough to receive the reward of eternal life.
Ministering to people at the end of life, that very question is on the minds of most individuals. When told yes because of the mercy of God, the response is “I hope you are right.” Hope is certainly not belief as John was inspired to write. We have spent so much time teaching our people how to be faithful Catholic’s we have failed to teach them about the heart of the gospel message. That God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to pay the price for our sins. That is the message of Lent and the final chapter is Easter Sunday.
So, if that is true, it leads us to another question: does God send anyone to hell. The answer is no He does not, he gives us all up to the moment of our death the opportunity to choose to believe. If hell is in our future, it is because we choose like the people in the first reading to ignore the words given to us by God. In that reading, the people of God, ignore the constant call of God to listen to Him. They had conformed their lives to a different standard and God warns them constantly, but they ignore his pleas to turn back to him. They were comfortable with their faith as it was being lived. They obeyed the rules set but they also broke them because they had an out in the sacrifice of atonement. They ignored the words of God, telling them he desired their hearts not their sacrifice.
In the end the Babylonians destroy the city of Jerusalem, demolish the temple, and take them into captivity. Did God send this destruction upon them. No, he warns them it was coming if they failed to respond. The destruction came because they made a choice not to listen and God wept because they walked away from his offer to change their hearts.
Eternal life of eternal damnation is in our hands to attain and as Joshua tells us we need to make a choice, life of death. Why would we walk away from such a simple offer, believe, and obtain life or keep trying to attain it on our own. In the end it might be as simple as we just have never been told clearly what our options are. We can keep trying to attain eternal life on our own or invite the Spirit into our lives to guide us to true righteousness before God. In the end, it could be we are just unwilling to uncover the real self to others. The self that struggles with sin, with doubt, with a lack of trust in God. We would rather keep up with the image we have created about how good we are and how well we serve others.
Or it could be we are good and because we are good, we think that is enough and we deserve to be rewarded. Mercy from God is not a reward for our goodness. It is given to us because of God’s love for us and because he is merciful. But if we have learned nothing in all our years of faith formation, we certainly have learned that we will not receive anything until we ask for it. Jesus told us to ask, to knock and to seek what we want from God. Yet, if we decide to keep doing it our way by our acts of piety earn eternal life, God will not intervene to stop us. We like those in the first reading will wonder why God is not responding.
If we believe we deserve eternal life we will miss out. If we believe in the promises of God, we will fine the path of discipleship is one of the most rewarding journeys offered to us by God.