Sunday 24 May 2018
I wonder what responses you would give if you were asked to describe exactly what you understand by the term ‘eternal life’.
I suppose you may have looked at the two words in the phrase to see what they both mean individually. The Oxford Dictionary says that ‘eternal’ means lasting or existing forever; without end. The most appropriate meaning for ‘life’ from the many given in the Oxford Dictionary is probably – the existence of a human being or an animal.
Putting these together, we might come up with a meaning for the term ‘eternal life’ like “the existence of a human being forever.” And quite possibly a part of this understanding is that it is something that occurs after our death. You may even think of it in terms of pertaining to heaven. And while there is an element of truth in that understanding, ‘eternal life’ as found in the gospel of John is actually a technical term and it has a far more expansive meaning than the literal one that we might get from a dictionary.
In fact, Jesus himself defines ‘eternal life’ in a shorthand way for us in the gospel text we read today.
“And this is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
The first thing that we might like to draw from Jesus’ words is that ‘eternal life’ is a function of knowledge. But not just any knowledge. It is to do with the specific knowledge of the one God and of Jesus Christ whom God sent.
And we need to be clear about what knowledge means in a Biblical sense. It does not have the narrow meaning of rational acceptance of information. To know is not to be intellectually informed about some abstract principle, but to apprehend and experience reality. Knowledge is not the possession of information, but rather its exercise or actualization. So when Jesus says that ‘eternal life’ is knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, he is talking essentially in relational terms. ‘Eternal life’ is to be in relation with the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. And clearly, this is not something that is restricted to our lives after death.
If we listen to the second part of today’s gospel reading with our ears attuned to the relational aspect of the word knowledge in the Bible, it is clear that ‘eternal life’ is something that is given this side of the grave.
“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me”.
Jesus is here saying that this knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ has been given to his disciples already. It has been done. In other words, they are already in possession of eternal life. In speaking this way, Jesus declares that the believer has already begun to experience the blessings of the future even before their fullest expression.
We recognise this fact in the very words that we use at the distribution of Holy Communion. “The Body of Christ, keep you in eternal life.” Notice: “keep”, not “bring you into”. We are already sharers in eternal life through Jesus Christ and the Baptism that we have received in his name.
We are already in deep and intimate relation with God and with his son Jesus Christ. This should be the cause of great joy for us. But I wonder how often we really take on board the significance of this fact. I suppose that is why we are encouraged to pray and to read the scriptures and to join together each week in public worship – so that we will keep this extraordinary relationship at the front of our minds all the time.
This is the core message that the bishop gives all baptised and confirmed Anglicans at the end of every service of Confirmation.
“All who have been baptised and confirmed are called to study the Bible, to take part in the life of the Church, to share in the Holy Communion, and to pray faithfully and regularly. We are called to share with others by word and example, the love of Christ and his gospel of reconciliation and hope. We are called to love our neighbours as ourselves, to honour all people and to pray and work for peace and justice. I invite you all to commit yourselves anew to this calling.”
If you like, this is something of a summary of what eternal life means for us. The gift of God to us is entrance in to eternal life, into loving relationship with the Father and Jesus Christ. This is the extraordinary character of the different quality of life that Jesus has made possible.
And if we enjoy this privileged relationship with God and Jesus Christ through our faith in Jesus, then what a marvelous gift we have to share with others – just as it has been shared with us by the saints who have preceded us through the ages, who have kept God’s word alive, once again through prayer, study of the Bible and gathering in worship.
Earlier on in John’s gospel, back in chapter three, we read the remarkable words that Jesus spoke: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It is a statement of primary purpose. Jesus came, sent by God, precisely so that we could enjoy the eternal life which each of us now shares in. Let’s never take it for granted and let’s do all in our power to share it with the communities in which we live our daily lives.
“And this is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen