This week we are back to Jesus’ discourse on The Bread of Life, which starts with the Feeding of the 5,000 – we heard that story a few weeks ago.As I thought about today’s Gospel reading, I found myself thinking about life based on these 3 concepts:
– Physical life – what we know here and now
-Life after death – which we can’t even imagine; and
– Eternal Life, which I always want to write in all capital letters LIFE
I have known many people who believed that this physical life is all there is. My Father referred to death as “the big sleep”. I suspect he is now one very surprised eternal soul! Many others, including many who follow the teaching of Christ, see this physical life as something to be endured before we can enter heaven, when the good / marginalized will have eternal bliss and the others eternal punishment. We see this in the songs of oppressed people; such as in African American spirituals “the river is deep and the river is wide. Milk and honey on the other side”. Other people imagine life after death as rather like life here bur without the difficulties we endure now. You hear them at funerals saying things like: “Uncle Fred is now playing golf with my Dad on the great golf course in the sky.” To others, life is a 2 stage event – one life here and quite different one hereafter, perhaps sitting on a cloud playing a harp – who knows?
What is Eternal Life?
But what Jesus is offering in this discourse isn’t a two stage life – Eternal life isn’t the same as life after death. Eternal Life starts here and now. “Having eternal life” is mentioned four times in this discourse and in every case, the verb is in the present tense!. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” and “I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” Not will have, has. Eternal life starts here and now, and won’t be terminated by the death of the body. Eternal life is not ‘pie in the sky bye and bye when you die.’ It’s not something that you have to wait for till you die. For John and for us, eternal life is something that begins in the now. Eternal life is life now in Christ, (as Paul calls it) and John asserts here that believers have eternal life now in Christ. Jeus came that we might have life and have it abundantly.
So what is this life that Jesus gives, this eternal life? John Wesley once wrote, that religion (I think we’d probably use the word faith today) is not the mere saying over of so many prayers, morning and evening, in public or private, but “a renewal of our beings in the image of God, a recovery of the Divine likeness, a self-increasing conformity of heart and life to the pattern of our most holy redeemer.” Wow! Sounds heavy. If I could put it in other words: Wesley is saying that True religion or faith is a transformation; it’s a new way of living. It’s – well, as Wesley said, becoming more Christ like, recovering the divine likeness that is in us. Saying a few prayers, taking part in a few rituals, believing a few doctrines … we could call that Fast food Christianity – is not true faith; we may feel full for a time, but fast food, popcorn and pretzels, or even a hot dog and fries is not very nutritious. Christianity isn’t even fine dining, although that’s part of it; it’s an ongoing, sustainable healthy diet, day in, day out. And to Jesus’ listeners in 1st century Galilee, that meant bread. Jesus is the Bread of Life, the Bead of Eternal Life.
Life flowing out from God to us
The more I study the Bible, the more I feel a need to understand the words used by the writers, and what happened to them in translation. What’s the difference when I read everlasting life and eternal life? Well, none. The same Greek word is translated sometimes as one and sometimes as the other. But according to Greek Scholars, neither word really conveys the sense of the word John and other NT writers used, which has more of a sense of flowing – life that flows. It connotes a quality of life, tether than a quantity (length) of life, although the quantity isn’t absent. Jim Finley says it’s “Infinity (God) giving itself away”. A lot of the medieval mystics, especially women, use this language of God flowing out toward them and through them (Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingem, Teresa of Avila to name a few). For Christians it means we are part of the Trinitarian flow of God’s love and life in us, through us, with us, for us—and usually in spite of us.
The same idea is found in 1 John 1:1-4 which the message translates “eternal life” as “The infinite Life of God himself … this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ”! There you have it, The Life which Jesus brings is this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. It’s ours here and now. Christianity is an experiential religion, not a religion of dogmas and rules. The way we live flows out from our experience of the divine, as we in turn, are part of the flow, where love, compassion and forgiveness that flow into us from God flow out of us to others. God doesn’t give us rules for living king of like the “Seven habits for highly successful souls” . Instead, God lets divine Love flow through us and out to others.
God’s Gift to Us
Jesus makes it very clear in this passage from John that this life, the ever flowing, eternal life is not a result of anything we do. “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” and “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me”. Our eternal life is a gift from God. God, or as Jim says, Infinity, takes the initiative,
But we have to respond with belief – not believing with our intellect certain propositions about God, Jesus or our faith, but the kind of belief I show when I tell my child, maybe as he branches out by himself, I believe in you. I have faith that you will do the right thing, I trust you. Jesus said: “whoever believes has eternal life.” God makes the offer; but we have to respond. If you come to my birthday party and bring me a beautiful and valuable gift, and I don’t take it from you, I don’t have it. In the same way, God offers to each one of us the gift of Eternal Life, and we have to accept this gift by believing, by trusting, by following the one who offer this life. God’s love is constant and unconditional; our part is to be open to it and let it transform us. There is absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us more than God already God’s; and there is absolutely nothing we can do to make God love us less. The only difference is between those of us who allow that and those who don’t, but we all are equally and objectively the beloved. Those of us who allow God’s love in our lives just enjoy it and draws ever-new life from that realization. As RR says “God doesn’t love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.
How Jesus Defines Eternal Life
So what is this Eternal Life? I spent a lot of time this week trying to put into words (or find words written by others) to express what it feels like to live in Christ. I fall back on the words of Jesus: In his prayer before the crucifixion recorded only in Johns Gospel, Jesus refers to Eternal Life saying: “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” And Jesus prays for all of us, who didn’t know him but have believed through the words passed down from the first disciples over the years: he prayers “for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us“ Unity with God, the triune God, Father , Son and Holy Spirit – and participating in the flow us divine love -this is the gift of Eternal Life, and it’s ours now.
God Walks with us in Good Times and in Bad
What a gift! But, please don’t misunderstand me, it’s not the gift of ease and comfort. It doesn’t isolate us from the problems of this world, sickness, unkindness, quarrels, money problems – they will still plague us. But God walks with us in good times and in bad – just read Psalm 23. And there will still be times when it feels as if God has deserted us. Just read the lives of saints and mystics! St John of the Cross called these experiences the Dark Night of the Soul, and they are times that God is letting us grow, like a bird pushing her chick out of the nest, or a snake sheading its skin for a new bigger one. Very often, we think of faith as a feeling or an emotion, an experience, and it is easy to become addicted to this feeling, and to measure how close we are to Jesus by the intensity of the emotion we feel. We become spiritually addicted to this emotion. Mike Glenn, a Baptist pastor, believed that he had a contract with Jesus: if he obeyed Jesus teachings, in return, God was obligated to do something in return for him, namely stop bad things happening to him. Then he was diagnosed with Cancer. He writes: “I lost [my faith]. No, that wouldn’t be correct. I didn’t lose it. That means you put it somewhere and then, when you went to look for it, you couldn’t find again. I didn’t misplace my faith. Jesus took my faith from me. He stripped it away. Jesus will never tolerate the presence of idols or falsehoods in your life, even when we call that idol ‘faith.’”. Love must sometimes be tough live and growth is rarely comfortable. There are two primary teachers (maybe they are the only two teachers) that move us ever closer to this unity with God. They are Great Love and Great Suffering.
A New Life – Sharing the Life of God
So, is it worth it? Oh yes! I want to leave you with the words of Richard Rohr: “I think [this] is the central positive theme of the Bible. It is the Divine Unmerited Generosity that is everywhere available, totally given, usually undetected as such, and often even undesired. It is called grace and has been rightly defined as “that which confers on our souls a new life, that is, a sharing in the life of God Himself”