7th SUNDAY OF EASTER
When someone speaks of “eternal life,” what does that mean to you? For me, it calls to mind a statement from long ago like, “Jesus died for our sins so that we might have eternal life.” In the church of my childhood, this meant that God won’t punish us for our sins because Jesus took them on himself. And so our spirit will go to heaven when we die and live there forever, whatever that means. Another approach is that only at the second coming of Jesus will we be resurrected in our bodily form and live from then on forever.
Just the words “eternal life” summons pictures of angel choirs and sitting on a cloud playing a harp, streets of gold, and meeting St. Peter at the gate to heaven. All these things are part of our culture, not just what we learned in Sunday school, but also from jokes and cartoons and the Sunday papers.
OK. Can you now put such images on the shelf for the next few minutes? Pretend you’ve never heard of heaven or eternal life before. Let’s look at what Jesus has to say about it.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is praying to God to look after his disciples and followers after he leaves them. This is also a prayer said aloud for the benefit of the disciples, still trying to explain to them the nature of God. He begins like this: “Father, the hour has come; 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.”
Jesus claims that God has given Jesus authority over all people (and what part of all don’t we understand?). And furthermore, that Jesus is supposed to give eternal life “to all whom you have given him.” It sounds to me like that is to all those over whom Jesus has authority,” which he has just claimed is all people.
Then comes the key statement. “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Wow. How different a definition from what I thought I knew!
Jesus says that eternal life is to know God and to know Jesus Christ. I suppose one could argue that since we can’t “know” God because we are human and flawed or limited, that such knowledge of God can only come after we die. But that’s not what Jesus says, is it? I think the implication here is that we can know God in this life, and that we can know God because we can know Jesus. If we know what Jesus was like, then we know what God is like.
Clearly John makes other statements throughout his Gospel that identify Jesus as the human image of God, and Jesus claims to be one with God. Beyond that he also claims that his followers may be one with him and that makes them one with God.
What sort of God can we know, if we study Jesus? Well, Jesus loved and cared for everyone. He was forgiving. He did not seek vengeance. He worked cooperatively with his disciples, training them to do what he did, and claiming they could even do more. He wants everyone to live an abundant life, living in peace with one another. He promises that we will be accompanied in life by the Holy Spirit.
To know God is not the same thing as to believe in God. I believe is a statement of doctrine. I know is a statement of experience. “I know that my redeemer lives” means I have had an experience that convinced me this is true.
To know God is to trust God. And, according to Marcus Borg, this is what “I believe in” used to mean.
In Alcoholics Anonymous and the other 12-step programs similar to it, there are two particularly central concepts. One is the recognition of a higher power than yourself. That might be God, or Allah, or Jehovah, or just a higher power. If someone doesn’t have any belief in such a thing, they are encouraged to pretend that they do. The dictum is to fake it until you make it. Because the second central concept is that you cannot control of your own life.
Giving up control and turning your life over to your higher power, what we would call God, is essential for recovery. I believe it is also essential for all of us and it is through this that we can experience both a resurrected life and what I think Jesus means by eternal life.
You’ve undoubtedly heard people say, “Oh just let go, and let God!” I usually want to strike the person who says it, but that does not mean it isn’t good advice. The problem is that most of us are control freaks to some extent or another, and I’m worse than most. Besides that, our culture sends us an unending stream of messages that encourage us to take charge, to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, to take control of our lives because it’s all our responsibility and we are all rugged individualists.
So to actually turn your life over to God or your higher power is not easy. It is a choice you can make, but you also have to work at it, because it is so easy to fall back into old patterns. To really let go and let God means no longer trying to control your life. It means accepting the bad things that come your way and giving thanks for the good things.
Use the serenity prayer, as used by AA, to remind yourself about who’s in charge.
It goes like this:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Repeat after me. . .
The huge advantage to trusting God and turning your life over to God is that this allows you to let go of fear and to experience peace of mind. That strikes me as the beginning of eternal life.
First Timothy tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil. It seems to me that fear is the root of all evil. We want money and come to worship it because we think having it will keep us safe. Trying to control our lives and/or the lives of others is based on a similar fallacy. There is no such thing as security in this world. It is always some form of fear that drives us to worship false idols.
Trusting in a higher power and accepting that we cannot control everything leads to the possibility of living a kinder and more peaceful life, without being driven by fear. Eternal life begins in the here and now. Allow your spirit to rest in God. AMEN