A few years ago, I preached at the funeral of a permanent deacon who had worked for me at a previous parish assignment. After the funeral, a mutual friend asked if I would preach at his funeral. I said, “Of course I will. I have some free time next week. Shall I wait-list you?” He didn’t seem prepared for that response. There is a lot of truth in the old joke that everyone wants to get to heaven, but no one wants to experience the death that is required to receive one’s eternal reward.
The various statements about God in today’s Scripture readings might appear to be as conflicted as many people’s ambivalence about death and the afterlife. In the first reading, Moses prays confidently that God might accompany the People on their journey in the desert. (Ex. 34:9) The Gospel, on the other hand, seems to focus on the condemnation that awaits “whoever does not believe.” (Jn. 3:18) Typically, it is the Hebrew Scriptures that are caricatured as preaching condemnation and the Christian Scriptures that are credited with proclaiming mercy and redemption. The roles seem reversed here, but a common misunderstanding about God seems to be preserved, namely, that there are both a Good God and a bad god who are at odds with one another or, alternatively, there is one capricious god who is intermittently merciless.
The misunderstanding about God mentioned above is by no means the only way to misunderstand God. Today’s Scripture readings were chosen to elucidate the Church’s belief about the Trinity, the feast we celebrate today. The Blessed Trinity is very often the subject of misunderstanding. Some people view the Trinity as three separate Gods, while others collapse the three Divine Persons into a single amalgam. Countless books and treatises have been written which attempt to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, but there is something inherently deficient in them all.
The failure of the theologizing about the Trinity is that God is someone to be encountered rather than a hypothesis to be accepted as valid. God is the One who waits to be encountered every day by the faithful. John’s Gospel says as much; unfortunately, the translation of today’s Gospel reading covers up as much truth as it reveals. This deficient and impersonal misunderstanding of God leads to further misunderstandings of a similar sort. Salvation and condemnation are favorite topics of impersonal misinterpretation.
When John’s Gospel says that the result of faith is that “everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life,” the phrase “eternal life” doesn’t refer to a state of existence that hasn’t yet come to pass. The “life of the age to come” (a better translation of the phrase in John 3:16), is the new life promised to the baptized who remain faithful to Jesus. Rather than a reward withheld until a later date, “eternal life,” or “the life of the age to come,” is the new life that the baptized are granted now in this world while we await the consummation of history.
Unfortunately, salvation is commonly misunderstood as something akin to a consumer product that one can attain through a transaction with God or the Church. Salvation is not described in the Scriptures as being like dangling a set of car keys in front of a fourteen-year-old and saying, “This can be yours someday if you behave yourself.” On the contrary, the Scriptures describe salvation as a renewed life that begins with baptism, grows by one’s faithful life, and is made complete by bodily resurrection.
In a similar manner, the Scriptures do not describe condemnation as an unwelcome surprise that awaits some people after their death. For example, today’s reading from John’s Gospel says, “whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (Jn 3:18) This is a description of the immediate (that means: occurring during this life) consequences of faithlessness. Condemnation will not be something pronounced at the end of one’s life because it has already been pronounced by one’s own faithless actions in this life.
Santa has a naughty and nice list; God does not. The eternal consequences of our lives work according to the same general rules as the temporal consequences of our lives. If you know you’re having health problems but procrastinate about talking to your doctor, you have only yourself to blame when things work out poorly for you. Eternal life works in exactly the same fashion. If you live today the new life of baptism, you have already been admitted to God’s Kingdom. If you delay taking up the new life of baptism, you have no one to blame for the consequences but yourself, and those consequences are clearly visible in your life.
There is an adequate remedy for human nature’s inherent ambivalence about death and the afterlife; it is the remedy made available by a life of faithfulness to one’s baptismal vows.
In Moses’ encounter with God in the first reading, God provided a full description of God’s identity. God said, “”The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.” (Ex. 34:6) It would be cruel of God to make us wait to live in God’s presence, and foolish of us to choose to wait.