Trinity, Mt Vernon—I John 3:14-24, John 14:15-21
In my nearly thirty years of ordained ministry, I have found that presiding at a funeral—although always a solemn occasion and often accompanied by great sadness—is, among all the varied duties and responsibilities of a priest or bishop, the most personally fulfilling and spiritually rewarding. There is something about a funeral that cuts to the very heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. A person has died. Someone who was part of a network of love and esteem and shared experience is now, by all appearances, unplugged from that network. The whole purpose of the burial rites of the Church, then, is to call appearances into question, to cast doubt on what seems to be undeniably real, to shout “Wait just a minute! This isn’t really the end. Those who have been united with Christ in a death like his will also share with him in a resurrection like his. The gift of God through Christ Jesus our Lord is eternal life.” And so we read scriptures and sing hymns and offer prayers and hear sermons that articulate this peculiar hope that we have as Christians, this odd conviction that death is not what it appears to be, that it is not, in fact, the final word.
“Eternal life” —this is the central summary of the Christian hope. It is an expression that we take so much for granted, that we often forget that its use in the New Testament is confined to the writings traditionally attributed to St John—one gospel and three short epistles. The concept, of course, is found elsewhere, but the expression itself is only encountered in John’s writings. And as we read a lot from both the gospel and first epistle of John during the Easter season, it figures prominently in the Church’s liturgical worship during Eastertide, as well it should.
I would suggest that it’s safe to assume that, when we hear the expression “eternal life,” for most of us, the image that comes to mind is the proverbial “pie in the sky bye and bye.” In other words, eternal life is a future experience, something that we will know about, something that will happen to us, after life as we presently know it is over, after these mortal bodies have given out, and we’re into whatever comes next. Will we qualify? Will we make the cut? Will we indeed receive the reward of eternal life? Have we prayed enough? Have we done a sufficient number of good deeds and avoided a sufficient number of bad deeds? Have we been generous and unselfish enough to be found worthy of eternal life? Has our faith been strong enough? Have we believed the right things?
All these and a host of other similar nagging questions can haunt us right into the grave. They certainly lead to an inordinate focus on oneself—How am I doing? What does God think of me? Even what we do for others is ultimately a matter of enhancing our résumé, as it were, of accumulating accomplishments that look good on our record. Ironically, the notion of eternal life as something to be achieved in the future leads to a level of self -absorption that is itself counterproductive to “qualifying” for it.
Now, I am not one of those preachers who likes to exhibit his knowledge of New Testament Greek, mainly because my knowledge of New Testament Greek is pretty sketchy! But I do know a little bit—enough to see that we are confused about the meaning of Eternal Life mainly because we speak English, and St John did not. For one thing, there are two Greek words, both of which are rendered in English as “life.” One of these is bios, from which we get “biology.” Bios is life as we know it in the scientific technical sense—carbon compounds, amino acids, proteins, cells, organisms, and the like. When the processes that sustain bios cease, an organism dies.
The other Greek word for life is zoe. Beyond being a popular name for newborn girls for the last couple of decades, zoe has deeper implications, and is therefore difficult to explain precisely. It transcends the organic processes of molecular biology. It is life in a spiritual sense, not a scientific sense. Perhaps the expression “life force” may lead us somewhat into the meaning of zoe. At any rate, when St John uses the expression “eternal life,” it is eternal zoe that he is talking about, not eternal bios.
And the Greek noun at the root of the adjective which is translated “eternal” is aeon. Aeon speaks of infinity, of freedom from borders and boundaries. Normally, we think of eternity as infinity of time—time that is of infinite duration, that just goes on forever and ever, without end. But the meaning of aeon is a little richer and more subtle than that. It points us to a notion of eternity that is not merely time going on and on and on, but a dimension of reality that is completely outside of time itself, above and beyond time. Of course, as creatures who are finite, who are, in effect, prisoners of time and space as we know them, it is difficult—impossible, actually—for you and me to wrap our minds around such a concept. But I would suggest that to say God is “eternal” is to say that, to God, everything is “now,” what to us is “past” or “future” is always “present” to God. To have eternal life is to participate in God’s mode of being, to be set free from the prison of time.
So, when we look at the deep meaning of scriptural language, we are invited to go deeper than first impressions and common generalizations might take us. For instance, in the fifteenth verse of the third chapter of his first epistle, St John makes this rather bold claim: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Now, laying aside for the time being the startling implication about hatred harbored between siblings, let’s consider closely the final phrase of that verse: “…no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” John is speaking to situations and people that are of this world, of the present order of reality and experience. He’s not talking about “then and there”—he’s talking about “hear and now.” And in this context, he uses the present progressive tense: “…has eternal life abiding…”. Clearly, to St John, the expression “eternal life” denotes a quality of living, an inherent nature. It’s something we have—or not, as the case may be—now, in the present, not something we can only look forward to as a future reward, within the confining dimension of time.
To illustrate my point, let me make a comparison—a little far-fetched, perhaps, but hang in there with me—let me make a comparison between the institutions of the American presidency and the British monarchy. In November of 1952, there was a presidential election in which the two major candidates were Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower. As we know, General Eisenhower won that election, and he woke up on a Wednesday morning that November as the president-elect of the United States. It was a material certainty that he would be the next president. Yet, Harry Truman still lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. And with a war going on in Korea, if the North Koreans or the Chinese were to have made a significant move on, say, December 1, it would have been Truman, and not Eisenhower, who called the shots as to the American response. His term of office did not expire, and Eisenhower’s did not begin, until high noon on the third Tuesday in January 1953. Dwight Eisenhower had been duly elected President of the United States. The people had voiced their will. Yet, he had not one shred of presidential authority until the date specified in the constitution. When the Marine Band played “Hail to the Chief,” it was still for Truman.
Later the next year—that is, 1953—Elizabeth, the young adult Princess of Wales, was vacationing with her new husband, Philip, in a rather remote and somewhat wild area of east central Africa. It was while she was there that she got the news that her father, King George VI, had died suddenly. Before she was even aware of the fact, before the news had even had time to travel from England to Kenya, Princess Elizabeth had become Queen Elizabeth. Without any opportunity for a break-in period, she immediately bore the weight of the monarchy. The trappings, the protocol, the obligation of loyalty and affection on the part of British subjects that had been attached to her father, was now directed at Elizabeth. Yes, it is true, she had not yet been crowned. There was yet to be a formal ceremony in Westminster Abbey during which the Archbishop of Canterbury placed the crown of the realm on her head. But she was nevertheless queen even before she was crowned. The coronation was only a formal recognition and celebration of a condition that already existed, an experience that was already real.
Now, to connect the dots! The New Testament assures us that we are co-heirs with Christ of the kingdom of God. We may not have been crowned, but we have been baptized. Our status is a present condition, an experience in which we participate even now. We don’t have to wait for some future inauguration day at high noon before we can exercise the privileges that come with being a child of God and an heir of his kingdom, before we can enjoy Eternal Life, a “life force” without boundaries or limits. Our vocation, our calling, as followers of the Risen Christ, is to allow the gift of Eternal Life to “abide” within us.
Now, this is not just esoteric or abstract theology I’m talking about here; it has some very concrete and practical implications. One verse earlier in I John chapter three, the author tells us: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren.” The present experience of the gift of Eternal Life manifests itself in an ever-deepening love between those who participate in that gift. As we give Eternal Life permission to grow and flourish in our hearts, love grows with it. The two are inseparable. We become more dedicated to, more available to, more transparent to, other people, especially those who are of the household of faith. We become Christ to one another, we bear Christ to one another. This is the flowering of the gift of Eternal Life as a present condition— that we are drawn outside ourselves, beyond ourselves. We’re no longer worried or consumed with making the grade, attaining Eternal Life as some future reward. We’ve already known it. We are secure in our position as forgiven sinners, as children of God and heirs of his kingdom. We don’t have to worry about ourselves any longer; we are free to focus on others. We are free to let love grow, and multiply itself, until the whole creation is renewed, and all things are brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made. Alleluia and Amen.