Continuous God

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We live in a world that is fraught with challenges and unpredictabilities. We think of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the continued challenges of the people of Palestine and the various conflicts in Africa. We think in South Africa of increasing unemployment, rising inflation, the upcoming petrol price hike. We think of loadshedding and the ongoing challenges of Covid. We think of the water crisis in Nelson Mandela Bay and the devastation of the floods in KwaZulu-Natal. The world is unpredictable. Our lives are often unpredictable. Sometimes, we may feel disoriented and anxious because of the many challenges that we face at personal, national and global levels.

In these times, it is reassuring to recognise that while life may be unpredictable, God is consistent. God persists. God has always, continues to and will always engage with us. When life feels chaotic, we have a God we can rely on.

Today’s reading from John 14:23-27 is particularly strong in reassuring us of God’s continuity. Jesus starts in v23 with himself: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” And then he immediately continues, “My Father will love them.” Here is the first affirmation of consistency – between God the Son and God the Father. Jesus draws the immediate and strong link between himself, his Father and us – rooted in love – our love for Christ and the Father’s love for us. And he continues with these amazing words, “and we will come to them and make our home with them”. I love this use of ‘we’ and ‘our’ – here Jesus is referring to himself and his Father as operating together, as a partnership, and of coming dwell with us as a partnership. What a great reassurance of the continuity between the Father and the Son. And Jesus continues further, “These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” – yet further reassurance of continuity and consistency between God the Father and God the Son.

Jesus then continues, introducing the Holy Spirit as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name”. In this short phrase we have Father, Son and Holy Spirit, collaborating together – the Father sends the Holy Spirit in the Son’s name. And the role of the Holy Spirit will be to “teach you all things and [to] remind you of everything I have said to you”. Here again, we have continuity and consistency – Holy Spirit does not start a new work in us, but rather continues the work of the Son, by reinforcing his teachings in us.

The result of all of this continuity from the Father of the Old Testament, the Son of the Gospels and the Spirit of the New Testament church is peace. Peace! Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” We can breathe out, we can rest in God, we can trust that God has been consistently and persistently at work throughout history, from the creation until now and into the future. Do not be troubled. Do not be afraid. Be at peace.

And these reassurances of God’s continuity extend into the future. Revelation 21:10 and 21:22-22:5 paint a compelling image of the heaven. John is taken by the Spirit – the same Spirit Jesus has spoken about in John’s Gospel – and sees the new Jerusalem, the Holy City coming down out of heaven from God. It is a glorious sight! There is no temple there, because God (the Father) and the Lamb (the Son) are its temple. God’s light shines out brilliantly. The gates of the city are always open. There is a river running through the city, with the water of life, and the tree of life, with leaves for the healing of the nations. We can see God’s face.

John’s vision is a deep reassurance of God’s continuity – what have seen in the Father throughout the first Testament, what we have seen confirmed in the life of the Son in the Gospels, and what we have been promised and experienced in the coming of Holy Spirit in the early Church and continuing until today, will continue into the future, until the day Christ returns.

We can rest deeply into the continuity of God, into God’s steadfast faithfulness and persistence. We can hold onto a God who is faithful, even when our own faith is frail or when life’s burdens overwhelm or depress us. We can hold fast to God’s continuity.

Featured image: John of Patmos watches the descent of New Jerusalem from God in a 14th-century tapestry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Jerusalem)

Risen Christ

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Jesus meets his disciples in their rooms twice after his resurrection, according to John 20:19-32: first on the night of Easter Sunday and again a week later – this evening, the second Sunday of Easter. The first time Thomas was not there, and the second time, Jesus speaks directly to Thomas. In both accounts, there are three points of overlap:

  1. Jesus appears in the midst or among the disciples (vv 19 & 26).
  2. He greets them with the words “Peace be with you!” (or Shalom aleichem, in Hebrew) (vv 19 & 26, and indeed a third time in v 21).
  3. He shows them the wounds or marks in his hands and side (vv 20 & 27). With Thomas, he not only shows his hands and side, but also invites Thomas to put his finger or hand into Jesus’ hand or side.

What is the meaning of these three actions, which are repeated almost exactly on these consecutive Sunday nights?

Jesus appears in the midst of or among the disciples. Literally, Jesus appears in the middle of them. This is the most appropriate place for Jesus be – in the middle: in the middle of ourselves, in the middle of our family, in the middle of our church and in the middle of our community. In our church, we usually read the Gospel from the middle of the church and all those attending will turn to face the centre. This is to help us feel the presence of Christ in the centre of everything we do. In our church today we also baptised five children, and after the baptism we give each child or family a candle, with the words , “Christ, our light”. This to symbolises Christ as the light in the centre of our personal and collective lives, in the church and in the world. Our lives revolve around the risen Christ.

Shalom aleichem. Three times Jesus greets the disciples with these words. Often when Jesus meets with people, and when angels meet with people, they use the words “Don’t be afraid”, for example when Gabriel appears to Mary at the annunciation (Luke 1:30). Jesus’ words here (“Peace be with you”) are not another way of saying “Don’t be afraid”. The word Shalom or peace means far more than the absence of conflict. Rather, it means the presence of wholeness, completeness, balance, order, goodness, rightness. It is a rich words that speak of the fullness of life, as ordered by God. Through Jesus incarnation, life, ministry, death and resurrection, God has brought about peace with humanity, peace between God and us, order and wholeness. We might not always feel or experience this wholeness – life is often fractured and difficult – but the potential for shalom is there and made possible by the risen Christ.

Jesus showed his hands and his side. We don’t under what kind of body Jesus was raised with. In some ways, it seems like an ordinary body, and in other ways it seems more like a spiritual body. But whatever it was, the marks of his crucifixion are still visible, so much so that Thomas is invited to put his finger into the holes in Jesus’ hands and his hand into the hole in Jesus’ side. These are clear evidence that this is indeed Jesus who hung on the cross. His is whole and restored, but also marked by his sacrifice for humanity. Jesus is quite willing, in both appearances, to provide evidence to his disciples for who he is. He provides evidence that he is the risen Christ.

We live on this side of Christ’s earthly life. He is the risen and resurrected Christ, who invites us to join him in the resurrection life – a life that is more than just an ordinary human life, a life centred on and lit by Christ, a life of peace and wholeness, and a life that celebrates everything Jesus did for the salvation of humankind. We are a resurrection people. In our church today, we celebrated this with baptisms, a sign of dying to self and rising again in the new life of Christ. We share with Christ in his risen life.

Featured image from https://www.jesuits.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/easter-original.jpg

God’s self-revelation

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Today we celebrate the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), where Jesus reveals his divine nature to three of his disciples. This event, which in our church we celebrate with the colour white, falls after a period of ‘ordinary time’ in the church calendar, which we celebrate with green, and Lent, which we observe with purple. This celebration is thus well placed as a link between a period of ordinary growth in the church and period of intensive penitence and critical self-reflection.

Furthermore, the transfiguration is located in our church calendar almost exactly at the midpoint between Christmas (two months and two days ago) and Easter Sunday (10 days less than two months from now). Each of these events – the birth of Christ, the transfiguration of Christ and the resurrection of Christ – are moments of God’s self-reflection, or epiphanies. God shows God’s self for who God is, in these key moments in the life of Christ.

Christmas focuses on the incarnation of God the Son in the form of the human Jesus. It is God’s emptying of God’s self – the kenosis – in which God immerses God’s self into human life and comes to live among us as one of us. It is also a story of the birth of a child – of hope, of new life, of a baby. The Christmas self-revelation emphasises the light and life of God in our midst.

The transfiguration shows us that Jesus is more than ‘just’ a teacher, more than ‘just’ a healer or miracle worker. He is revealed in all his divine splendour, as the Son of God, even more, as God the Son. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Jesus. Most of the time it is hidden from sight. But in the transfiguration, Jesus kind-of drops his human skin and reveals his divine nature to Peter, James and John. The transfiguration self-revelation emphasises the power and divine majesty of God in our midst.

Easter focuses on the discipline and love of Jesus for his Father, and for humanity, leading him to walk a path that he knows will lead to his humiliation, suffering and ultimately, his death. He knows this is a path of suffering, but he also knows that it is a path towards the salvation of all of humanity. Jesus’ Easter resurrection is God’s self-revelation of profound and reckless love for humanity.

These revelations of God’s self – of who the triune God truly is – as our focus as we enter Lent. God is the child that brings life and light. God is the divine being, filled with power and majesty. And God is our saviour, filled with love and compassion. It is into this God, this Christ, that we immerse ourselves during the coming period of Lent.

Featured image: JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. https://www.workingpreacher.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Mafa_Transfiguration_710.jpg

Fall and rise of faith

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 32-minute message. Or watch the video on Facebook (the message starts at about 24 minutes). Or read the summary below.

The final chapter of Luke’s Gospel (chapter 24) tells us of the fall and rise of faith. Ordinarily in English, we’d talk about the ‘rise and fall’ of something, but in this narrative, the order is truly first the fall of faith and then the stumbling, feeble rise of faith. It is a story of the fragility of faith, and tell us about some of the key ingredients that help to build faith: walking, friends, scripture, fellowship, the Eucharist, and worship. It is through our encounters with these elements – in all of which Jesus is fully incarnated and present – that we discover faith. With all its ups and downs and faltering.

v1-10: The women visit Jesus’ tomb early on the third day, on Easter Sunday, and find it empty. But they encounter shining men, like angels. They rush back to tell the men.

v11: But the men “did not believe the women”. Just so. Perhaps a clear example of patriarchy, because Peter immediately goes to verify what they have said. Or perhaps a clear sign of the fall of faith.

v12: Peter finds the tomb empty, but is baffled. We goes away, wondering to himself what had happened. We applaud his thoughtful reflection. But there is a sense of Peter feeling disoriented and lost – wandering alone. His faith falters and falls.

v13: Still on that same day, two of the disciples leave Jerusalem to head to a village called Emmaus. It’s still Easter Sunday and already we see the start of a scattering of the disciples, a fragmenting of the fellowship that had sustained them for three years, and of a movement away from the centre of the Easter narrative – away from Jerusalem. Faith falters when we fall out of fellowship with each other and when we walk away from the church.

v14-18: As they walk a man joins them – it is in fact “Jesus himself” – but their eyes are kept from recognising him. So they engage him as a stranger, and we get insight into their true feelings and thoughts about current events.

v19: When they describe Jesus to this traveller, they use language associated with Moses – a great man, but just a man. A powerful prophet, but just a human prophet. All sense of Christ’s divinity and majesty, all the prophesies he mentioned, linking himself to the suffering servant in Isaiah, are forgotten. Faith has fallen.

v21: “We had hoped” they say – meaning the hope they had had, has now been lost. And they mention that “it is the third day since all this took place”. Somewhere they remembered Jesus saying that on the third day he would rise again. It was now the third day and there was no sign of him (or so they thought). Whatever shreds of hope – of faith – they had had were rapidly slipping away. Faith falls further.

v22-24. They mention the women – that the women “amazed” them – and confirm that the tomb was found just as they said. “But they did not see Jesus.”

v25-29: The traveller (Jesus, but still not recognised) then explains to them how everything in the first testament scriptures point towards Jesus. But still they do not recognise him. Though they appreciate him enough to persuade him to stay and join them for dinner.

v30: “At the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.”

v31: THEN!! Ah, this wonderful THEN! “Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him!” It was in this moment of sharing a meal together that they recognise him. No fanfare. No miracle. No sermon. No revelation. Just a simple meal, where Jesus took, blessed, broke and gave the bread, just like at any other Jewish meal. And then their eyes were opened. Faith surges!

v32: And though he disappears from their sight, they then remember that as he taught them from the scriptures, their hearts were burning within them. Faith rises!

v33: Two two rush back to Jerusalem, still that same Sunday night. They rush back towards the fellowship with the other disciples and the women. Back towards the ‘church’ – the gathering of the believers in Christ.

v34: Simon had, in the meantime, also seen Jesus, and the disciples were exclaiming, “It is true! The Lord has risen!” Jesus, no longer just a prophet, but The Lord. Faith rises some more! And the two disciples share their story with the group. Through sharing faith continues to rise.

v36: In that moment Jesus appears among them, with his familiar post-resurrection assurance, “Peace be with you.”

v37-38: Immediately, however, they are startled and frightened, thinking him a ghost, troubled and doubting. Faith so quickly falls.

v39: Jesus’ response is to provide evidence: “look, touch, see”.

v41: But “they still did not believe it”! When faith falls, it struggles to rise.

v42: Jesus provides more evidence by eating food, to demonstrate that he is no ghost, but flesh and blood. But still no faith response.

v44-49: Then Jesus teaches, as he taught the two on the road to Emmaus. And he “opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures”. We are not, however, told how the disciples received this and how it influenced their faith. Indeed, curiously, neither of Jesus’ teachings (in vv25-27 and vv45-49) appears to prompt a rise in faith.

v50-51: Jesus then goes out, blesses them and is taken up before their very eyes into heaven.

v52-53: THEN!! Ah, this wonderful THEN again! “Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” Finally! Faith rises. In v32, faith rose through the simplicity of a shared meal, friendship and the symbolic breaking and sharing of bread. In v51, faith rose through the lifting up of the Son of God and of the disciples’ eyes towards heaven – a visual lifting up towards God.

Your faith, like my faith, like the disciples’ faith, rises and falls, falls and rises. It is seldom a nice smooth, continuous, upwards line. It ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, rises and falls. But we see in this narrative, with all the real humanity of humans, the important ingredients of walking, friends, scripture, fellowship, the Eucharist, and worship.

Featured image: “Supper at Emmaus”, by Caravaggio (1601-02) depicts the moment the disciples recognize Jesus, from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3a/Caravaggio.emmaus.750pix.jpg

He ascended into heaven

Click here to listen to the audio of this 13-minute message. Or watch the YouTube video below, or read the text summary thereafter.

Ascension day is one of those days that Christians can easily miss – it takes place mid-week (on a Thursday) and is not a public holiday in most countries. And many would be hard pressed to give a good account of why the ascension is important. Fortunately, there are several online blogs that speak to the meaning of Christ’s ascension, e.g.,

But I find that the reasons many give are really descriptions of what Jesus does after his ascension – such as sitting at God’s right hand and sending Holy Spirit to us – rather than explanations of the ascension itself. Luke includes a narrative of the ascension both at the end of his Gospel narrative (Luke 24:50-51) and at the start of his sequel about the Apostles (Acts 1:9-10). Clearly, Luke thought the ascension was important.

Let me offer a way of thinking about the theological and practical significance of the ascension.

Let’s go back to the incarnation. In the incarnation God inserted God’s self into human nature at the conception. We can almost thinking that God integrated divine DNA into human DNA to create a new entity – a God-man – Jesus Christ. Orthodox theologians see the incarnation as central to salvation. God redeems and transforms human nature. (Click here to listen to a sermon where I set out the centrality of the incarnation in more detail.)

Let me suggest that in the ascension there is a similar but inverse process. As Jesus ascends to the Father, and as the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is reunited in the ascension, God the Son brings with him some aspect of human nature, including his body, which is woven into the being of God.

What is the evidence for this? Perhaps most importantly, Luke emphasises in both narratives that Jesus ascended bodily, much as he rose bodily. When Jesus rises from dead, he rises with his body – he does not leave it behind and rise as a spiritual being. Of course, his body has been transformed – it has both physical and spiritual qualities. But the BODY is important. We affirm this in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe … in the resurrection of the body”.

So too, in the ascension, Jesus rises with his body – he does not slough off his body, to release his spirit, which rises up to heaven. He ascends with his body. The disciples are described as “looking intently up into the sky as he was going” (Acts 1:10). It seems certain that Jesus physically rose up into the sky until he disappeared in the clouds.

Let me suggest, cautiously, that before the incarnation God did not have first-hand experience of what it is like to be a human being. God is spirit; God transcends time and space. But in the incarnation, God becomes a human being, with all of its limitations. God the Son experiences the joys and the pain of being human. He experiences friendship. He experiences betrayal, torture and death. When God the Son ascends bodily, these experiences are woven into the being of the triune God. God no longer just imagines what human life is like; God now truly and experientially knows what it is like to be human, with all its ups and down.

What this theology offers us in our daily life, is a deep assurance that God really knows what human life is like and what suffering feels like. God is not watching ‘from a distance’ (as Bette Midler so nicely sings). Rather, God is deeply immersed in our human experiences. So, when you are going through dark times, we can be sure that God is fully present with us in the darkness, experiencing them with us, sharing our pain and distress.

God is immediately available and fully experiences all we go through.

2020.05.21_WilliamHole_Ascension

Featured image: Jesus ascending into heaven by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

God’s great forgiveness

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The Lord is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!! Alleluia!!!

During this past week, we have confronted the dark side of humanity and of ourselves. We have recognised that it is our sin – each of ours – that contributed to Christ’s death. Humanity, in its arrogance, attempted to murder God the Son! What greater sin can there be? One might imagine that a God of justice would wipe the earth clean.

Instead, God forgives humanity. God returns to us the very Son that we murdered! What greater forgiveness can there be? All the rest of our sins are caught up in God’s great forgiveness of this greatest of all sins. All God asks of us to acknowledge our sin – Father, I am sorry; please forgive me. God says “Yes!” to humanity. God says “Yes!” to maintaining and enabling fellowship with each of us.

Moreover, Christ’s triumph over death, he rising from the grave to new life, is God’s “Yes!” to life and “No!” to death. Particularly during the COVID-19 plague, which has already taken the lives of over 100,000 people, we are in need of this reassurance that God has already triumphed over death. COVID-19 will do its worst, but it will die, and humankind will live. God will triumph over death.

Almighty God,
this night explodes with the radiance of the risen Christ;
set us ablaze with the power of your love
and propel us into the world
to live and proclaim the gospel of the living Lord;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen

2020.04.12_El_Greco_-_The_Resurrection_-_WGA10530

Painting of The Resurrection, by El Greco, 1597-1600. From here.

Featured image: Resurrection of Christ, by Raphael, 1499–1502. From here.

Painting in the YouTube video: Resurrection of Christ, by Rottenhammer (1564–1625)

 

Dying to live

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I am still reeling at the destruction of Notre Dame through the fire yesterday. That cathedral was a symbol of God’s presence in France, and its burning reverberates powerfully with me. The burned church evokes images of Christ’s death on the cross. Like the cathedral, Christ is damaged and destroyed. Its devastation leaves an empty shell. We are shocked, dismayed. How is this possible?

But in John 12:20-36, Jesus talks about his own death, not as something to be avoided, and not even as something inevitable, but as something necessary, intended, perhaps even desirable. He uses the analogy of a seed, that must die in order to produce more seeds.

And he also says that we who follow him, must similarly die; that if we love this life on earth too much, we’re in trouble; that we need to hold on to it just lightly. Instead, if we follow him, through death, we will be with him in glory.

He raises the question of what we have to die to today. Of what in our lives needs to burn to the ground, so that something new can spring forth.

2019.04.16_Notre_Dame

Feature image: Interior of Notre Dame following the fire on 15 April 2019, CNN.

Resurrection Church

Click her to listen to this 25-minute message.

On the evening of that first Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to the disciples (excluding Judas and Thomas) in the upper room, where he showed them his wounded hands and feet. John describes this in John 20:19-23. This narrative is followed by the story of Jesus’ engagement with Thomas. And John ends the chapter with a reflection on his version of the Gospel – that he has selected from the numerous stories about Jesus these few, whose purpose it to facilitate our belief in Jesus, so that we may enjoy the fullness of Life.

John’s purpose in the John 20 narrative is to guide the church towards the end of the first century to be a resurrection church – a church that is centred on the risen Christ, empowered by Holy Spirit and focused on Christ’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation. But this is hard when you are 60 or more years away from the living Christ Jesus. Because of this distance in time (most of the eye witnesses had passed on) John’s message is of particular relevance for us who live two thousand years distant.

This is quite a long sermon for me and our parish – sorry about that! But I hope it moves quite briskly and provides some food for thought about a fascinating and rich passage in the Gospel narrative. To assist with the denseness of the message, I provided my congregation with a slip of paper with the nine points (yes, nine!) written down. Here they are:

  1. This is the start of Sunday worship for Christians – resurrection Sunday.
  2. Jesus’ body is still physical, but also transformed – it does not conform to the laws of nature.
  3. Christ stands in the middle of us, and is the centre focus of Christian life and worship.
  4. Jesus’ presence bring peace (Shalom) and is his central message.
  5. Jesus’ transformed body retains the wounds in his hands and side, and are assimilated into the triune Godhead at the ascension, so that there is now woundedness within the being of God.
  6. Jesus commissions his disciples (including us) to be his presence in the world – when people see us, they should see Christ.
  7. Jesus imparts Holy Spirit to us – we have Holy Spirit in us, not as power and gifts, but as the relational presence of God within us.
  8. We are given the ministry of forgiveness, which Paul calls the ministry of reconciliation.
  9. All of this culminates in a statement of faith – a creed – ‘My Lord and my God’.

Resurrection Life

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Click here to listen to the MP3 of this 18 minute sermon.

Today is the first Sunday after Easter and we centre our thoughts on the resurrection and what it means for us. In John’s Gospel, resurrection is virtually synonymous with Life, and so this sermon is about the Resurrection Life. Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life”. He also says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”.

I am including the readings from John (New International Version) so that you have them readily at hand.

Love, peace and joy
Adrian

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Resurrection and Life are intimately tied together in Jesus

  • Jn 11:25 – Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies;

Jesus repeatedly speaks as if he embodies Life itself

  • Jn 1:4 – In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
  • Jn 5:26 –  For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.
  • Jn 6:63 – The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.

Jesus repeatedly says that he IS Life

  • Jn 14:6 – Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
  • Jn 6:48 – I am the bread of life.
  • Jn 8:12 – When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jesus repeatedly says that we obtain Life through him

  • Jn 10:10 – The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
  • Jn 4:14 – but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
  • Jn 6:27 – Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
  • Jn 6:35 – Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.
  • Jn 6:51 – I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
  • Jn 6:54 – Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

Jesus repeatedly says that we must believe in him to gain eternal life

  • Jn 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
  • Jn 17:3 – Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
  • Jn 5:24 – “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
  • Jn 6:40 – For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”