Let the Scriptures Speak
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. (Gospel)
For many, approaching Trinity Sunday as the Sunday after Pentecost is both logical and daunting. It is the logical “next step” after the celebration of Pentecost: having moved through Lent and Easter, a movement climaxing with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, it makes sense that we should step back and acknowledge the unity of Father, Son and Spirit that lies behind the sacred history that the Liturgical Year has just unfolded. But such a perspective is also daunting: like the incarnation, the Trinity is precisely one of those parts of our faith that escapes reason's grasp. How to pray and preach about so full a mystery in a single celebration? As always, the selections from Scripture give us points of entry that can freshen mind and imagination as we revisit this part of the heart of our faith.
John 3:16 (Gospel) is possibly the most familiar chapter-and-verse citation in the world. In North America at least, we meet "John 3:16" on billboards, bumper stickers, and even on placards appearing at major sports events broadcast on national television. It is easy to understand why. “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”—as a one-liner, this is a powerful summation of the Gospel. Yet, powerful as it is, the single verse requires its full context to be fully understood. John 3:16 is very much part of the fabric of the Fourth Gospel. Let us restore the verse to its setting and see how that setting helps us hear those words more clearly.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son … ” This is not a word spoken on the way to the cross. The import of those simple words describing the action of God—“loved” and “gave”—surely derive from the post-Easter perspective that dominates the language of the Fourth Gospel. The Father “gave” the Son not only in the incarnation but also in the giving over to death by crucifixion. Commentators have observed that the language of a father giving an only son resonates with the Jewish memory of Abraham's readiness to give his only son in sacrifice. It also catches the divine self-emptying celebrated in the hymn that Paul quotes in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself … Phil 2:6-7.
As in John's prologue, this hymn addresses the whole movement of divine self-revelation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
“ … so that everyone who believes in him … might have eternal life.” Eternal life [zoen ionion] means more than our spontaneous contemporary understanding of these words suggests. In John's vocabulary, “eternal life” is not simply unending life after death. It means literally “the eon life”—or the life of the “age to come” already begun. It is precisely the new “born-again” or “born-from-above” life that Jesus had just been discussing with Nicodemus earlier in this third chapter of John. To have eternal life is to enter or see the kingdom of God by being born of “water and Spirit” (Jn 3:4-5). The rest of the Gospel of John leads us to see that to believe in the Son is to accept Jesus as sent by the Father to show who God is and demonstrate what life with God is all about—laying down our lives for one another as Jesus lay down his life for us. And the gift of the Spirit of God is what enables us to live that “eternal life” here and now. Eternal life is the baptized person's participation in the life of the Trinity, both before and after our biological death.
The reading from Exodus 34—with its precious description of the Lord God as “slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity”—is another helpful starting point for reflection on Trinity. John the Evangelist alludes to those very words in his prologue: “While the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (Jn 1:17). “Grace and truth” echoes “kindness and fidelity”; both phrases reflect the same Hebrew expression describing God's covenant love in Exodus 34:6. John speaks here of one gift replacing another. First God gave the gift of the law through Moses, but the fullness of covenant love was finally given through the incarnation of the eternal Son as Jesus of Nazareth.
Finally, Paul's blessing of the Corinthians reminds us that the normal peace and harmony of Christian community is a matter of collaboration with the Trinity: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the holy Spirit be with you all!”
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University