This is our second annual “Throwback Sunday,” where we look at a theological concept that many of us might have grown up with and where we also engage in gastronomic rituals that many of us may have grown up with. This year, we’re having a jello salad extravaganza! And I’ll be talking about eternal life. I also have to say that this passage from John is written in a context where the Jews who follow Jesus and the Jews who don’t are starting to have much more conflict and hostility between them, and you can hear that antagonism in much of John and certainly in the passage we just heard. Let’s remember these words from John are not justification for anti-Semitism today; how could they be? They are recording an intra-Jewish conflict, for the most part.
So, for many of us who grew up in church, that last verse we heard read— John 3:16 — was the most important verse in the Bible. It summarized the essence of our faith: that we are sinners who should be condemned to death because of our sin. But God, out of love for us, decided to send a substitute — his Son, Jesus, who was sacrificed on our behalf. And now, if we believe in Jesus – believe that Jesus is God’s son and believe in his saving work on the Cross – then we can avoid the fiery pits of hell and go to heaven after we die and be there with our beloveds in the faith who have died before us. We can have eternal life. Sound about right?
In my upbringing, this promise of eternal life was not only preached, it was sung. The last verse of many of our favorite hymns was about eternal life. In its first two verses, “How Great Thou Art” is a hymn of love to creation and to the One who created it — the stars, the rolling thunder, the forest glades, lofty mountain grandeur; the third verse pivots to Christ bleeding and dying on the cross to take away my sin; and the fourth verse ends with: “When Christ shall come with shouts of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.” “Be Thou My Vision,” which is a favorite hymn of many of us, follows a similar structure. The first four verses talk of how God protects, guides, and empowers us in this life; the last verse is: “High King of Heaven, when victory is won, may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s sun!”
This promise of eternal life in heaven has comforted and inspired Christians for centuries; I am convinced my Mom died so peacefully because she had believed and sung this promise her entire life. She knew where she was going when she died, and she knew who she was going to be with. And eternal life, so thought of, is problematic for many of us. It is hard to accept a theology that suggests some people will end up living eternally in a place of bliss while others are condemned to the eternal torture of hell. And many of us believe that the promise or threat of eternal life has mainly served to turn Christians’ attention away from this world, with its beauty and brokenness and need for our passionate care, to the one to come.
So what does the Bible really say about eternal life? If you do a search for the phrase “eternal life” on biblegateway.com, you’ll see the term doesn’t appear at all in the Hebrew Scriptures because ancient Israel did not believe in life after death. There was no concept of an afterlife, really. The idea didn’t become important in Judaism until the end of the 3rd century BCE, after Jews began to have contact with a Persian culture that did emphasize the afterlife — later contact with Greek culture also reinforced this idea. As this concept of an afterlife began to be developed, Jews imagined the “survival of the soul after death as an opportunity to reward the righteous and punish the wicked.” (From The Jewish Annotated New Testament). Though the book of Daniel doesn’t literally mention the term “eternal life,” it is one of the first books in Scripture to talk about this concept. Daniel was finalized around 167 B.C.E., during a time of terrible persecution of the Jews, in which King Antiochus orders them to give up their ancestral faith or die. Many chose to be martyred rather the renounce their faith. At the end of Daniel, it says that all Jews who now “sleep in the dust of the earth” will “awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:2) In other words, those faithful Jews who were martyred rather than renounce their faith will have everlasting life; the others, not so much.
This concept of the afterlife as the place of reward and punishment for actions in this life continued to grow within Judaism so that, by the time of Jesus, it was the dominant view. However, there was a major contingent of Jews in Jesus’ time — the Sadducees — that did not believe in the resurrection of the body. So, the concept was by no means monolithic. However, because of the experience of Christ’s resurrection by Jesus’ earliest disciples, eternal life — the idea of life beyond death — did become an essential part of Christian teaching.
Even so, the phrase is barely mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels (that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke) and almost always in conjunction with one story that appears in all three of them — that of the rich young man, who comes to Jesus and asks how he might obtain eternal life. Jesus tells the man to not only keep the commandments but to also “go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor… and then come, follow me.” The young man turns away, shocked and grieved for he had many possessions. Whereupon Jesus says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who are able to follow Jesus, however, he says, those who leave “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields” for the sake of Jesus and the sake of the Good News will receive even more houses and fields and family, he says, along with persecution. And, in the age to come, Jesus says, they will also receive eternal life.
Clearly, eternal life in the future is the reward for faithfully following Jesus in this life. But let’s also note how different this promise of eternal life is from the one many of us may have grown up with — eternal life comes not from having this intellectual belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior but from having followed in the way of Jesus, through faithfulness to living out the Good news. Eternal life is a reward for discipleship.
The book in the New Testament that mentions eternal life the most, by far, is the gospel of John. It’s a central theme and is mentioned dozens of times as the goal of faith — in the same way that “kingdom of God” is used in Matthew, Mark and Luke as the metaphor for the ultimate goal of faith. In those books, the “kingdom of God” refers to living life in this world as if God were really in charge, with all of the spiritual and relational and economic and political implications you might imagine as a result of that. The only time John mentions “the Kingdom of God” is in our story for today. The rest of the time, he talks about eternal life; in John 20:31, says that the whole reason he wrote John is so that his readers may have eternal life. But what does he mean by that?
In John 17:3, he states it very clearly: “This,” he writes, “is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God and Jesus whom you have sent.” For John, to have eternal life is to know God, and to know Jesus. In both Hebrew and Greek, the verb “to know” is used not merely for a kind of intellectual knowledge, like we know our multiplication tables. It’s more embodied and relational than that. To know something means to come to an immediate sense of that something as affecting oneself. Thus, one could “know” illness, childlessness, punishment, peace, another person. To know God in this way means to experience the Divine Presence in our everyday life in a real, immediate sort of way. And clearly, for John, this knowing is something that happens now; it’s not something you get after you die. Every time the phrase “eternal life” is used in John, it is used with a present tense verb – usually “have.” As one Biblical scholar said, eternal life denotes more a quality of life than it does endless time. It’s a quality of life, a kind of life, that we can know now.
What is that quality of life, that kind of life that can be known now? What does it mean to know God and Jesus in this immediate way in our lives? I’m going to phrase that another way: What does it mean to be attuned with the Divine Presence, to be connected to the Spirit of Life and to experience Jesus and his Good News now? Where do we experience that?
- On silent retreat, I experience eternal life. The words of “How Great Thou Art” are spot on: “When through the woods, and forest glades I wander and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees; when I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur and see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze, then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, how great though art!” Not only do I feel in communion with creation and Creator there, I feel in communion with the people I am with, a communion made all the more deep by recognizing that it is not based on words. I also experience a communion with myself. Life slows down, my thoughts slow down, and I settle into my breathing and into my body in a way that feels very grounded and connected to my heart, which also helps me be more attuned to God, the Divine Presence, and to communion and communication with that Presence.
- Joanna said in a recent sermon that she experiences a connection to the Divine when she meets with the Latina elders and youth of Faith in Action: “In the energy we bring to the work,” she said, “in our connection across lines of difference, and with our vision that we can actually bring about transformation in this city” Joanna experiences God.
- A friend of Joanna’s and mine, Tim Nafziger, went to Standing Rock several years ago, and I was on a phone call with him right after he came back. He said that his experience there was amazing, unlike anything he had ever quite experienced before. It had to do with the way the Standing Rock Sioux tribe grounded everything in prayer and ceremony; for the way that reverence and relationship with creation was embodied. It had to do with the kind of community created there, the reverence and respect for each other, the shared leadership. Tim witnessed police using tear gas, rubber bullets, and fire hoses on the unarmed, non-violent protesters, but he came away from the experience with a feeling of peace and awe. That sounds like eternal life to me.
I invite you to reflect in the coming week on how you experience eternal life right now. My guess is that eternal life will have something to do with right relationship, with righteousness. Righteousness literally means right relationships. When the scriptures call us to righteousness they are calling us to right relationship with God, with Creator; with ourselves; with other people; and with creation. That’s what the kingdom of God is, too — right relationship in that fourfold understanding So, to experience eternal life now means to experience right relationship.
I was going to end the sermon there, but I realized this morning at 5:30 a.m. that some might be frustrated that I would end a sermon on eternal life without ever mentioning heaven! So, here’s we go… in the last few sentences of this sermon. There’s this wonderful British Christian thinker, activist, teacher named Noel Moules that Tim Nafziger brought to a Mennonite convention several yers ago to do workshops. I went to one of them, and still think about what he said. He’s a very Biblically based teacher. During that workshop, he said, “You are not going to heaven.” (I think he liked saying that for a bit of shock value, although he meant it. He meant, we aren’t going to some place else up in the sky after we die where we will be disembodied spirits.) “You are not going to heaven. The biblical vision,” he said, “is that this earth — this universe — will not be destroyed (or transcended), but will experience re-creation. It will be renewed, not replaced; creation and humanity will be completely fulfilled and transformed by God’s shalom (or right relationship). Our destiny, then, is as a resurrected community, a resurrected body on this earth. When people die, they are with God — whatever that means — and they are waiting for this resurrection.”
Another sermon. May we be attuned to the Divine Presence now and in the age to come; may we be connected to the Spirit of Life now and in the age to come; may we experience Jesus and his Good News now and in the age to come. May we know intimately, immediately, God’s shalom, God’s right relationship now and in the age to come. Amen.