John 3:14-21; 4th Sunday of Lent
Our old infirmary used to be called, well, that, “infirmary;” – Jesus M Lucas Infirmary, to be exact. When the new one got built, it was christened with a new name: Jesuit Health & Wellness Center. I then asked our Jesuit doctor, Fr Tex Paurom, “Why health & wellness center? Isn’t ‘infirmary’ shorter?” “A person may be healthy,” he said, “but he might not be well. Or well, but not healthy.” Someone’s numbers could be fine: like, cholesterol, blood sugar, PSA, etc. But if he’s working himself to death, or anxiety shortens his sleep, or he easily flies off the handle at work and feels dispirited overall, then, he may not be well even if he is physiologically okay. The reverse is also true. A person may be relaxed, cheerful, sleep well, have a great appetite. But he’s overweight, hypertensive, and diabetic. He may be well but he’s not very healthy. “So, this place is not just for the infirm,” Fr Tex concluded. “It’s for all of us who should be both healthy and well;” a place not just for cures, I realized, but also for fullness of life.
Nicodemus noticed that Jesus’ image of God was strangely different from what he always thought God was: someone, well, like them, the Pharisees; who demanded strict ritual purity and legal uprightness, on pain of sin, divine retribution, and condemnation. Like we say today, we become whom we worship. What Jesus told him though must’ve shaken him to the core, something we ourselves today often forget or take for granted: that God did not send his Son to us to condemn us, but to save us. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, member of a conservative, law-abiding, ultra-fastidious, God-fearing bunch of white-clad men. But while their faith seemed healthy, it was not well. Because if your obedience to every jot and tittle of the Law makes you self-righteous, patronizing, and worst, heartless, then you are not well. You might be a healthy law-abider, but you might not be well as a being who is human, or humane.
Don’t you notice sometimes, sisters and brothers, many of us have a particular image of Jesus, but another of God. We imagine and believe Jesus as loving, compassionate, merciful, gentle, forgiving. Yet, when it comes to God, it’s a little different. For example, we’ve heard ourselves ask: “Why does God allow this pandemic to happen?” But I’ve never heard anyone say, “Why does Jesus allow this to happen?” We say, “God is testing me.” But “Jesus is testing me”? “This is God’s will,” especially when we go through suffering. But we never quite say, “This is Jesus’ will.” We say, “God is merciful but just.” But “Jesus is merciful but just”? Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Why do we seem to have an impression that God as someone who keeps vigil for our next sin, and settles the score later on, with reward or condemnation? But we don’t think Jesus is like that, do we? So, while Jesus comforts us, his Dad makes us a little anxious.
When we have a bit of this split image of Jesus and God, I was thinking, maybe our faith could use a little more wellness, sisters and brothers. For sure, our faith in God is healthy. But with a bit more conviction, a bigger heart, we could still trust that God sent us Jesus not to condemn but to save. Both God and Jesus know that condemning is not saving and saving is not condemning. And in this, Father and Son are of one heart, one mind, one will, not two. “But, Fr. Arnel, a healthy fear of divine condemnation keeps us from being too kumpyansa, too self-permissive, pasasa.” It does, I agree. What I don’t understand, though, is why people who image God as legalistic, meritocratic, and condemning—they seem to be the very ones who could be quite harsh, and self-righteous, and reproachful of others. Ever notice that? That we become what we worship?
You know, sisters and brothers, I often think of my Jesuit professors, Fr Reilly, Fr Lahiff, Fr Joe Smith, Fr Meehan, and Fr Roche (who’s still with us). How I loved the way they impressed upon us that Jesus came into the world not just to call out sin, sin, sin, and to straighten out sinners, sinners, sinners, and to warn about hell, hell, hell. All of that is true and very crucial, yes. But that was only part of our Lord’s entire lifework. Unlike the Pharisees, however, Jesus understood that willful and heavy sinning was underpinned not just by malice, but also by deep, unresolved brokenness. ‘Yung pinakamadidilim nating kasalanan? Nakaugat ‘yan sa napakalalim na pagkasira, brokenness; pinsala, damage. That’s why Jesus also healed the sick, nourished the starving, strengthened the fatigued, empowered women, hushed personal demons. He also gathered a barkada, told comforting stories, played with children. He also prayed…in the wilderness, up a mountain, at night, at dawn. So that, coming back from his solitude, he could again soothe the cheerless, find the lost, and most fantastic of all, raise the dead. Salvation, sisters and brothers, is not just all about sin—although that’s a healthy understanding of salvation. But salvation is more than that. Salvation is about fullness of life, wellness, the whole of persons. The Lamb of God came not just to take away the sins of the world, but that we may have life and have it more fully. And you know, sisters and brothers, Father and Son are in this together, with one heart, one mind, one loving will. It is only right and just that we think of them together. It is only healthy and well.
As we move towards Holy Week, how would you answer this question, sisters and brothers: besides atonement for the sins of the world, what else do you think our Father and His Son desire that we see as we walk alongside Jesus on his Via Dolorosa &and as we look at him up his cross? It’s too automatic, too easy to say, “He died for our sins.” But is that all we are to him? Just sinners?
*photo by Deniz Altindas from Unsplash