March14, 2021 / 4th Sunday in Lent / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Numbers 21:4-9 / 2nd Reading Ephesians 2:1-10 / Gospel John 3:14-21
Living Eternal Life
What is it to have eternal life? The familiar words we heard today from John’s gospel extend this promise: “. . . everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” As a child I interpreted this verse quite simply: when you believe in Jesus, you get to go to heaven when you die. However, the thought of living on and on, for an infinite number of days actually made me dizzy when I thought about it. I couldn’t grasp what that would be like, so I preferred not to think about it. It just seemed better than being dead forever – and I left it at that. I think it is still quite common to think of eternal life as our reward for being Christians.
When a believer dies, we sometimes hear people say, “He or she has gone on to his/her eternal reward.” Certainly this is a positive and hopeful sentiment. Yet what if this is too limited a notion of what Jesus means by eternal life? Frederick Buechner offers this insight: “We think of eternal life as what happens when life ends. We would do better to think of it as what happens when life begins.” It is a mistake to draw a sharp line between our life with God in this world and our life with God in the world to come. Eternal life is not confined to “life after death”.
Later on in John’s gospel, at the Last Supper, Jesus gives some definition to eternal life. In his prayer to his Father, Jesus says this: “Glorify your Son, so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, THAT THEY MAY KNOW YOU, THE ONLY TRUE GOD, AND JESUS CHRIST WHOM YOU HAVE SENT.” (John 17:2-3)
Eternal life is not just going to heaven when we die. It’s coming into relationship with the true God made known to us in Jesus Christ. We misunderstand and misrepresent Jesus if we point to him as the means – the ladder if you will – by which we move from life in this world to life in the next. Jesus is not the means to some greater end. Jesus is himself the end, our ultimate destiny. We do not have to wait until we get to heaven to know Jesus or to be in relationship with Jesus. And this is what it is to have eternal life: to be in relationship with Jesus. Eternal life begins for us before we die – it begins when we live in Christ.
Think of eternal life as a joy that begins now and is brought to perfection in the life to come. Buechner says this: “To live eternal life in the full and final sense is to be with God as Christ is with God, and with each other as Christ is with us.” That sounds right to me. It’s another way of saying love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. To the extent that we manage to live in such a way, we are living eternal life. God’s purpose in creating humanity is for us to live in loving community with God and one another forever. Jesus is the perfect model of such a life. He embodied love for his Father, and love for all humanity.
You and I fall far short of such perfection – yet this is our destiny as children of God, and we manage at times to approach such unity with God and one another. When we do, we catch a glimpse of what eternal life is all about. It can happen at Holy Communion. Gathered at the Lord’s table, we can, for a moment, lose our burden of guilt and our preoccupation with ourselves and rest in the gracious love of God, being at peace with all those present at the same table. It is a moment outside regular time. Past, Present and Future meld together in a timeless experience of the fullness of time. We are joined with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven. Jesus prayed that we all might be one, as he and the Father are one – and we get a sense (however fleeting) of that reality. That’s eternal life.
I truly miss singing in worship, because for me it is the highest form of praise. Singing the great hymns of the church is a way to lose myself in adoration and be joined with the fellowship of believers. A verse for the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” describes this experience:
Finish then thy new creation
Pure and spotless let us be
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee!
Changed from glory into glory
Till in heaven we take our place
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.
When I am lost in wonder, love and praise, I feel I have had a taste of eternal life. There are times both happy and sad in our lives when we are moved to step outside the endless flow of daily routine. We can experience great joy, awesome beauty, profound sorrow, transcendent peace. It might be the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a wedding, an experience in nature, a moment of profound meditation. Whatever the occasion, for a time we are in touch with another plane, and we get a glimpse of what our lives are all about – what life itself is all about. We realize that we are created for more than just routine existence. We sense something essential above and beyond mere physical survival. We experience what is eternal – namely, God.
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Because God loved us enough to give us Jesus, because we have come to believe and trust in that love – we have eternal life. This gift is freely given to us at baptism. Baptized into Christ, we share in his death and in his resurrection. Luther reminds us of what this means for us in his Small Catechism: What does Baptism mean for daily living? It means that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance, and that day after day a new self should arise TO LIVE WITH GOD IN RIGHTEOUSNESS AND PURITY FOREVER.
Friends, we have been given eternal life, here and now. We know we are not always living this life that God has given us (which is why we need daily repentance). Our aim, our hope, is to grow up into Christ – to move closer to unity with God and with the people of God. How then can we actually go about living eternal life?