Gospel For Today: Holy Trinity


I was not raised Christian.  I was first introduced to the Catholic faith my senior year in college.  Growing up, no one in my family ever went to church.  Sunday was just the last day of the weekend, and I certainly never read the Bible.  But I had the great fortune of growing up in the south, in what many would call the “Bible belt,” and so there is one Bible verse that I was certainly familiar with: John 3:16.  You couldn’t escape it.  You’d see it painted on homemade signs nailed to telephone poles.  You’d see it on decals on the backs of pick up trucks.  You’d see it scrawled across the bare chests of sports fans at football games.  John 3:16 was (and is) ubiquitous.  

“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.”  For perhaps most Christians today, if you only have one scripture verse memorized, this is the one.  And it is an awesome verse.  God does love the world that much, which is an amazing fact of our faith.  But it’s not the only fact of our faith.  
I was having a conversation with a student recently and we were discussing how most Christian heresies start by taking a truth and emphasizing it to the point where it becomes isolated from other truths.  At that point the truth becomes distorted, and that leads to heretical ideas.  It’s easy to see that dynamic plaid out in the “John 3:16” phenomenon.  If you just look at this single verse in isolation, it all seems so clear and simple.  Believe in Jesus, and you’ll have eternal life.  That’s all you have to do.  No need for a Church.  No need for pesky Commandments to follow.  Just believe in Jesus.  Sign me up!  It all sounds so easy.  And so we have the rather wide-spread belief among many Christians today that if one recites “the sinner’s prayer” accepting Jesus as Lord and savior, you are from that moment on forever “saved.”  Nothing else is required of you, really.  You’ve made it!
Now, in practice, it’s not expected that you pray one little prayer and go about your merry way.  It is expected that a sinner who really is sincere about accepting Christ’s forgiveness will amend his ways, repent of his sinful past, attend church services, try to live a better life, and all of that.  But those things are not generally stipulated as requirements for salvation.  Rather, they are expected to happen as fruits of salvation and signs of the sincerity of your conversion.  As a matter of theological doctrine, many of these evangelical or fundamentalist Christian groups will assert that “belief in Christ” is by itself sufficient.  Ever since Martin Luther, sola fide has been the motto of the Reformation.  That Latin phrase means “faith alone” and expresses Luther’s teaching that we are saved only and sufficiently by our faith in Christ.  Another common phrase among Luther’s theological descendants is “once saved always saved,” which expresses the belief that once we have made that profession of faith in Christ, no action on our part can ever jeopardize our salvation.  
John 3:16, read on its own, seems to support all of this.  But this view of salvation is repudiated by the Catholic Church.  What’s the problem?  The problem is that John 3:16, as true as it is, is not the only verse in the Bible.  The Bible also speaks of faith without works as being dead (James 2:17), of St. Paul working out his salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), and of Christ judging us according to our deeds of service — or lack thereof (Mt 25).  The teachings of the scriptures, taken as a whole, paint a somewhat different picture than the zealous fan with “3:16” painted on his chest.
Our other readings from today’s Mass also indicate that how we live is as important as what we believe.  In our second reading, St. Paul speaks of the importance of mending our ways and living in peace with our neighbors (2 Cor 13:11-13).  Our first reading has Moses climbing Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets (Ex 34:4b-6).  One does not have to be a Charlton Heston fan to know what those tablets were for.  Mt. Sinai is where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Jesus, as He Himself states, did not come to do away with the old law (Mt 5:17).  In fact, if you have been following along with the gospel readings from the daily Masses this week, the Church has been working her way through Matthew chapter 5, where Christ basically is saying, “I have not come to abolish the commandments, but to make them more strict!”  He points out that divorce and remarriage was allowed under Moses, but no more.  Now, anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery. Not only that, if anyone even looks at another with lust, they commit adultery.  Murder is likewise forbidden under the old law, but now Jesus says not to even hate another person.  Many of the old religious observances of the Jewish people are no longer binding on Christians because the purpose they served has come to a completion in Christ.  But when it comes to the moral law, if anything Christians are now held to a higher standard.

So where does John 3:16 fit into all of this?  Well, when John says everyone who believes in Christ might have eternal life, we believe that is 100% true.  But we also believe that when James says “even the demons believe — and shudder” (Jas 2:19), that is also 100% true.  It all comes down to different levels of belief.  The demons James speaks of believe in Jesus.  That is, they understand that He exists, and who He is.  They have an intellectual belief.  But they lack faith.
We can also have an intellectual belief, yet lack faith in Christ.  The belief that John speaks of is a deeper belief, one that leads to the supernatural gift of faith.  For when one believes in Christ and has faith that He is the Son of God, the divine Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and that He has redeemed mankind out of generous and perfect love, well then that belief demands action.  One does not stand in the face of that belief and not do something about it.
That belief dictates that one pay attention to this Jesus and what He did and said.  Things like establishing a Church (Mt 16:18), and giving that Church the authority to administer certain sacraments, for our spiritual benefit.  That belief ought to spur one to want to be united with that Church, which is the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27).  That belief ought to make one seek out the Apostolic faith given by Christ and the Holy Spirit to the Church.  That belief ought to make one strive to grow closer to Christ by being obedient to His word; after all, that same Christ said, “he who loves keeps my commandments” (Jn 14:15).  And Christ commanded us, among other things, to love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mk 12:30), and to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).  
God did not send His only begotten Son into the world to tell us, “I know you are all abject sinners but I’ve decided to let you into heaven anyway if you just believe in me.”  God sent His Son into the world for our good, because He loves us and wants what is best for us — and that means becoming holy men and women.  A tall order?  Perhaps?  But striving for holiness, challenging as it is, becomes a joy for one who is in love with Christ.  That’s the kind of belief John 3:16 references.  That’s the way to eternal life.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723