From time to time the cryptic notation John 3:16 shows up in odd places: on the bumpers of cars, hand-painted on walls, on bridges over the motorway, and at sporting events, among many other places.
John 3:16 is, of course, the first verse of today’s gospel, and it is still popular with Christian graffitists because it contains the essence of Christianity in just 23 words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but have eternal life.” The crucial doctrines of our faith are here, recalled in key words: love, give, believe, eternal life.
In their original context, they describe a circle: God loves us; God gives Jesus to us; we come to believe; we return to God. This is the message of many Protestant Christians who rely on “faith alone” for salvation.
However, in the Catholic tradition, we tend to look for meanings that give us direction in this world, that make our actions in this world a rehearsal for life in the next. In these few highlighted words, we can find that guidance too. We can read the list as a series of commands whose product follows naturally: love; give; believe; eternal life.
If we take Jesus to be our model, as centuries of spiritual masters encourage us to do, this series of commands is the deepest, truest meaning of St. John’s words. These three actions: loving, giving, believing, constitute most of our Lord’s public life. Our Lord leads us by that road to the goal: the culmination of our faith, and of God’s faith in us.