We are told in the sacred Gospel of John (3:16, 17), "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him."
These holy words are often used by some Protestants to teach that as long as you "believe", in the simplest and most rudimentary sense, you receive, as consolation, eternal life. From the Orthodox perspective we would certainly agree that if you remember anything from this Gospel reading, remember foremost that "God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life." But we would, no doubt, elaborate upon the depth and breadth of God's action more so than man's. Yes, God's love for man is immeasurable and is manifest as the ultimate blessing upon humankind. Yet, to "believe" is more than an intellectual action, based upon potential gain.
So just how much does God love His creation? What does it mean that "God so loved the world?" Let's consider this. How much could you love a man who scorns your overtures of love, shows derision toward your acts of kindness, treats rudely and with ridicule your every overture of peace and friendship? How much could you love the woman who wrongs you at every opportunity and returns every loving gesture with contempt? How much could you love the person who resorts to the most ruthless violence against you who took you bodily and mocked you, and struck you, who tore out the hairs of your beard from your face, and whipped your back until you were at the very edge of death? This, of course is what was done to the Lord of Glory God in flesh Jesus Christ our Lord. And... He loved.
But what of the people, or perhaps we ought to say 'the beasts', who would do such a thing? Mankind the crowning glory of God's creation; the very pinnacle of the hierarchy of created beings. Man the reason endowed and rational being, who had become so distorted, so twisted and deformed; his soul so gnarled and inwardly contorted, that he would turn upon his own Creator with unbridled disdain and deranged brutality. That, my brothers and sisters, is the description of you and me, as a fallen people who no longer look toward our Creator with the soft and gentle eyes of beloved children looking to their Father... looking and seeing with eyes of love. Now there could remain only the dark eyes of desperate and tormented creatures who look at one others with lust, envy, and distrust, with a thirst for self-gratification what can this other one do for me? Fellows have become commodities to one another, fit to be used and discarded, fit to be utilitarian at best, and to be enemies if need be. And if one keeps another from indulging his passions, he is utterly and eagerly 'disposable'.
Fallen man is not a pretty sight. But he is particularly and astoundingly hideous in contrast to what he was created to be – in the very image and likeness of God Himself he was created. A God who loved even these self-distorted, ugly and vile creatures so much that he gave Himself out of selfless love as a ransom for them that's what it means when we read, "God so loved the world."
St. Paul says, "While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For [even though] one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners (while we were become such vile creatures), Christ died for us."
And now that we know just how much God loves us, that He loves us even though we were turned away from Him and the very most pathetic and hideous of creatures, we must certainly wonder why He would love us so?
He loves us so precisely because He is God! He created us from the very beginning in His own image, and in His own likeness to be "like" Him. And God has not left us to destroy ourselves in our sin, but He has reached down from heaven to man, and taken us by our unworthy and defiled hands, and raised us up to Himself – even to the heights of heaven. St. Paul says that we, the prodigal sons, have again become His children, and as such we are His heirs, partakers of grace; partakers of a heavenly calling; partakers of Christ and of the Holy Spirit; and if we hold fast the beginning of our faith He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, in order that by them we might become partakers of the divine nature itself, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. So now we may be restored, and once again look to our Creator with the eyes of a loving and trusting child, and at each other as brothers and sisters all the offspring of the King of Kings.
So, my beloved brothers and sisters, if we are restored in Him and to Him, if we are once more children of the King – how should the princes and princesses of the King of Glory conduct themselves?
God did not send His Son into the world to judge us. If there is condemnation to come upon us, it is the condemnation which we bring upon ourselves, our own acts testifying against us. No... Christ came to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us to Himself in that loving relationship which was intended from the very dawn of creation, that we might even rise to the heights of His own glory.
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From a Homily delivered September 13, 1998