I remember as a child watching the Super Bowl on television with my grandfather. The camera panned the crowd, and we saw a man with a poster reading “John 3:16.” When we looked up the passage, we read, “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.” My grandfather thought it odd that someone would bring such a poster to the Super Bowl, and at the time I agreed with him. Why that verse?
Acts 5:12-16, Ps 118, Rev 1:9-19, Jn 20:19-31
How has God shown mercy to you?
How has that mercy healed the damage caused by sin in your life?
To whom has God sent you with the gift of mercy?
What evil can you fight in the power of Christ’s Spirit?
I now realize the importance of that passage. John 3:16 is the thesis statement of John’s entire Gospel, explaining in one brief phrase the whole of salvation history. For John, the incarnate Son was God’s greatest act of mercy. God had forgiven humanity many times, but in Jesus, the human race received a complete and unmerited reconciliation to the divine. Those who believed in Jesus, and lived as he lived, received a portion of the very Spirit he shared with the Father. The Spirit would carry them past death and bring them to eternal life with God.
The church celebrates divine mercy on the Second Sunday of Easter in part because this Sunday’s Gospel recounts Jesus’ gift of the Spirit to his disciples. He gave it along with a mission to forgive sins. The church exercises this gift especially in the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation, but these sacraments are not the only source of divine mercy. God’s forgiveness has cosmic scope, as an insight from Raymond Brown, S.S., reminds us: “These [baptism and penance] are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel and negate evil and sin” (The Gospel of John, XIII-XXI). The gift and mission Jesus gave in this Sunday’s Gospel entails a struggle to isolate, repel and negate evil and sin.
Every act of forgiveness is thus a battle against evil, a battle that one can hope to engage and win only in the power of the Spirit. Christ also warned his disciples that they held the authority to “retain” sins. Although his precise meaning remains unclear, his words might have been intended to warn them against withholding forgiveness. Vengeance, retribution and pitiless justice only amplify the power of sin, as the bearer of each new grudge acts in ways that inspire ever more hate. In the very act of offering this warning, Jesus forgave his disciples for abandoning him and sent them out into the world not to avenge his death but to preach divine mercy, even to his killers. What sins could his disciple “retain” in the light of such an example?
Christ’s disciples today continue the Father’s mission of mercy. Too many of our brothers and sisters have lost themselves to hate, evil and sin. Our commitment to forgiveness and mercy is part of God’s plan to save them. “For God so loved the world that he sent his Son’s disciples so that whoever should believe in Jesus Christ through them might not perish but have eternal life.”