My favorite stadium evangelist is the anonymous football fan with the hand-drawn placard which reads “John 3:16”. Whenever the camera pans the crowd and picks up his witness, millions of Americans join in prayer: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” Though just twelve words, God the Father is mentioned three times. “God”, “He” and “His” refer to the author of all being, who could have created things otherwise. But God created this world of roiling chaos and serene order, to be filled by us in flesh and blood, and He chose to love it even foreseeing our Fall, even to the point of the sacrifice of His beloved Son.
When Chesterton described America as “a nation with the soul of a church” he wrote of “the only nation in the world founded on a creed”, rather than ethnic blood and soil. But it could be added that America is a nation sanctified as an altar of sacrifice. Among the millions who see a hand-written “John 3:16” on televised football, thousands have given their own sons – not merely to protect their own blood and soil, but for the liberation of the oppressed and the protection of freedom. Since its founding America has been a holy nation and a priestly people, like Abraham willing to offer Isaac to the Lord.
But it has also been idolatrous and murderous, sacrificing tens of millions of its own preborn children on the altar of the very American sexual revolution and the cult of the autonomous self. How it will be judged is cause for fear and trembling. But at least until now, American continues to be renewed in holiness even as it continues in defilement.
It is interesting to note that the great gift of John 3:16 was made necessary by the effects of the Fall, described in Genesis 3:16:
“To the woman he said: ‘I will greatly intensify the pangs of your childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall be your master.’ To the man he said: ‘because you have listened to your wife and ate from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat, cursed be the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat of its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you, as you eat of the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground, from which you are taken; for you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.”
In this short, frightening passage, we are given the three archetypal tensions which characterize our fallen natures. We are to work out our salvation estranged from each other, estranged from nature and estranged from ourselves.
There is no human love greater and more self-sacrificing than that of a mother for her child, and so if even this love is now to be greeted by pain, then all human relationships shall entail pain. The fallen world is characterized by insecurity and tension between us; man vs. man. The ground formerly blessed, is now cursed, and in toil and the sweat of the face shall we eat. Nature is no longer the submissive servant, even the plants rebel in thorns and thistles; man vs. nature. Finally, though we had been fashioned by God from soil and the breath of God, we are now dirt, and to dirt we shall return. Our being is confronted by dawning non-being, and we shudder in the face of it. Death, the separation of body and soul, is man vs. himself.
But even these punishments carry blessings. Scientists attribute the extreme pain mothers experience during childbirth to the obstetrical dilemma. The large size of a human baby’s head is a difficult fit through a mother’s birth canal. For easier childbirth mothers would need a bigger pelvis, and so it would seem that this would be a natural adaptation over time. But because humans are bipedal, a sufficiently large pelvis for easy childbirth would make it difficult to walk or run efficiently. So it is baby’s big brain which is the material cause of the punishment for sin. But the curse of the big brain carries with it the blessing of reason which is our principle likeness to God. God now bestows blessings through hardships.
Another uniquely human trait is our very slow development and very long period of dependency. The incapacitating pregnancy of the mother and then the very long period of dependency before a child’s maturity requires the laborious exertions of a providential father. It doesn’t take much to provide for oneself, but nature resists a triple portion. Providing for a family requires toil and sweat. But the sacrifices required by the struggle of man vs. nature also contain blessings. The provider husband/father is punished with struggle but at the same time blessed with gratified satisfaction through work. And his struggle to provide becomes a tangible and evident testimony of love. Man is given purpose as husband and father, he is made indispensable.
The third effect is death, the separation of the body and soul, man vs. himself. Though all living things die, only man knows that he will die, and is deeply disturbed. As Woody Allen said: “It is impossible to experience one’s death objectively while still carrying a tune.” Most men spend most of their lives busying themselves so as to avoid thinking about death. One of the great consolations of the second effect of sin – work, is the distraction it provides. The tranquility of the Garden is replaced by existential anxiety. But our mortality also provides urgency and focus. Samuel Johnson said: “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.” But not merely in our modern way of knowing more and more about less and less. We are small children when we stand before death, looking up with fear and hope with spiritual eyes opened to the Paraclete, which brings us to Colossians 3:16.
Writing to an early Christian community struggling with temptations St. Paul wrote: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” The body is not a contemptible obstacle, neither is it a thing of indifference, a corruptible temporary housing for the soul. It is not mere packaging for our souls as spiritual temples. It is our bodies which are temples of the Holy Spirit. Temples exist firstly to give glory to God, but also, and indispensably, to bring God to man and man to God. It is as bodies that we witness the Lord to each other. It is as bodies that we live, love each other and do the work that God assigned us and thereby give glory to God. And our bodies are not just for 29,000 days, this side of the veil, though that is all we can know for now.
The Gospel of St. John is often abstract and mystical, but John 3:16 is very much about our redemption in the flesh. It does not say “for God so loved creation…”, rather it is much more specific and concrete. God so loved the world, this world, and to flesh and blood men and women in this world “…He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Genesis 3:16, John 3:16 and Colossians 3:16 seem to stand together as a sort of triptych, depicting our fallen natures, our redemption in Christ and our sanctified calling.