What is “eternal life?” A poem by May Swenson; and the lessons for Sunday, May 13, 2017

See the source imageSEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER/ASCENSION OF OUR LORD

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Psalm 1
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious and glorious God, you have chosen us as your own, and by the powerful name of Christ you protect us from evil. By your Spirit transform us and your beloved world, that we may find our joy in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” I John 5:11.

In common parlance, “eternal life” is taken to mean life that never ends. But that is misleading on a couple of fronts. In the first place, no life that has a beginning can be considered eternal, even if stretches on indefinitely. Life that is eternal has no beginning just as it has no end. Thus, even assuming that we could somehow achieve immortality, we would not be in possession of eternal life.

Second, life that is merely an extension of our present existence is not “life” in the sense John uses it here. The “life” which is eternal is more than mere existence. It is life in God’s Son. The previous chapters of John’s letter and the parallel readings from John’s gospel have been emphasizing the relationship between “abiding” in Jesus and the commandment for the disciples to love one another. The two are actually one in the same. One knows love through the self-giving of Jesus who first loves us. I John 4:10. Reciprocal love for God on our part is expressed toward our sisters and brothers. I John 4:11-12. This love is eternal because it is grounded in the Trinitarian life of love between Father and Son. John 17:21. To have this eternal life is to abide in Jesus. In sum, it is quality, not quantity that distinguishes eternal life from life that is not eternal.

Eternal life does not lie somewhere in the distant future. It is present in the here and now where self-giving love is practiced among disciples within the church and beyond as those disciples are consecrated and “sent” into the world just as Jesus was consecrated and sent into the world. John 17:21. It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus that Trinitarian love is released into the world and abides there through the church and its mission. When we live in the confidence of God’s love and forgiveness, we are living eternally. When we pour out our lives in service to our neighbors, we conform our existence to the eternal nature of God, which is love. I John 4:8.

None of this is to say that eternal life lacks a future dimension. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s pledge that life in him cannot finally be extinguished. Yet precisely because the “fruit that lasts” grows from life rooted in Jesus Christ (John 16:16), it is critical that each moment be lived in relation to Jesus. Otherwise, it is eternally lost. Thus, a robust belief in eternal life does not produce indifference toward the present in favor of “pie in the sky.” To the contrary, it impresses upon us with ever greater urgency the eternal significance of the present moment. To “have eternal life” is to be acutely focused on what matters eternally, that is, love.

Once again, the love of which the evangelist speaks is not to be confused with mushy sentimentality or a generalized good will toward humanity in the abstract. Love takes the concrete shape of our neighbor’s need, not our own craving for affection. Such love can be difficult, painful and disappointing. Sometimes it requires sacrifice. It might even require the surrender of life itself. But love is never wasted, even when it does not appear to produce results. Even when unrequited, genuine love brings joy because it unites us to the eternal nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Love, it turns out, is the one thing that matters.

Here is a poem by May Swenson about what matters.

What Matters

It may be that it doesn’t matter
who or what or why you love.
(Maybe it matters when, and for how long.)
Of course, what matters is how strong.

Maybe the forbidden, the unbelievable,
or what doesn’t respond—
what grabs all and gives nothing—
what is ghoul or ghost,
what proves you a fool,
shrinks you, shortens your life,
if you love it, it doesn’t matter.
Only the love matters—
the stubbornness, or the helplessness.

At a certain chemical instant
in early youth, love’s trigger is cocked.
Whatever moves into focus
behind the cross hairs, magnifies,
is marked for target, injected with
magic shot. But the target doesn’t matter.

Source: Poetry, February 1988. May Swenson (1913-1990) was born in Logan, Utah. She attended Utah State University, Logan, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1934. In 1935 she relocated to New York, where she remained for most of her life. Swenson has authored dozens of poetry collections for adults and children. Her honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur Foundations, as well as a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She was honored with the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Bollingen Prize from Yale University, and an Award in Literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. You can read more about May Swenson and sample more of her work at the Poetry Foundation Website and Poets.org.

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

For those of you who will be celebrating the Ascension of our Lord this coming Sunday, I refer you to my post of June 1, 2014 for the appointed texts and my comments on them.

How does the church go about selecting an apostolic leader? The method chosen for the replacement of Judas appears to be a combination of communal judgment and a coin toss. Two capable leaders, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, were put forward, presumably after some deliberation. But rather than choosing one of these two men by vote, the disciples proceed by casting lots. There is, of course, precedent for this means of deciding matters in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Leviticus 16:8Number 26:55. Still, I find its use puzzling in this context. If God can be trusted to choose between the two finalists, why can’t God be trusted to select the right leader in the first instance? Why not place the names of all the disciples in a hat and hold a drawing? That would give God a much wider selection.

I suppose this episode reflects the uncertainty that is always involved with making choices like these. In the first instance, we make our best judgment. But judgment only takes you so far. A friend of mine who is involved in admissions for a fairly prestigious college once confided in me her discomfort with the selection process. “It’s easy to spot the truly brilliant applicants,” she said. “It’s also easy to weed out the bad apples. But after that, you are left with a large stack of applicants with high SAT scores, good grades and glowing recommendations. We can accept maybe a fourth of them. At this point, the selection process is pretty arbitrary.”

So it is for the church. I do my best to identify young people who I think might be called to ministry in the church. Seminaries and credentialing committees do their best to assist aspiring ministers in discerning their calls and to screen out persons clearly unfit for leadership in ministry. Congregations and pastors struggle in the call process to determine whether there is in fact a call to ministry for a particular individual to a particular church at a given point in time. But when all is said and done, we don’t really know what we are doing. The process can become arbitrary and sometimes grossly unfair. I have seen some promising leaders rejected by credentialing committees and congregational call committees that have gone off the rails. Similarly, I have seen more than a few persons sail through the process with flying colors only to crash and burn in ministry settings. When it comes to selecting our spiritual leaders, we have not come very far since the selection of Matthias to replace Judas.

We don’t hear anything about Matthias in the New Testament after he was enrolled with the apostles. The traditions about him are scarce, conflicting and, in my view, unreliable. That is unfortunate because I would love to know how he made out. Was he accepted as a full partner? Or was he treated as a second class apostle, given that he was not actually selected by Jesus himself? Where did he go and what did he do? Was he the “right” choice? Or would the disciples have done better selecting Joseph Barsabbas?

I suppose that, at the end of the day, we are always standing at the precipice of our ability to discern the will of God. When push comes to shove, we can only do our best and trust the Spirit to guide us and help us clean up the mess when we misread the signals. Thankfully, the Spirit has done that for us faithfully and well. The church has often chosen fools and scoundrels to lead us and has sometimes passed over fine and gifted people who might have contributed much. Nonetheless, the church has muddled along over the centuries managing to preach good news to a broken world and care for the souls of the faithful. That is comforting for me, particularly on those days when I doubt my own calling and wonder whether I am really where I belong. At times like that, it is good to know that I can pray, “Lord, I might be ill equipped, wrongly motivated and unsuited for ministry in this parish. But somehow or another, I wound up here and until you replace me, I’m all you’ve got. So help me out here!”

Psalm 1

Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and as such makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.

Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication, then, is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.

By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.

Ascension faith asserts that God accomplishes judgment through Jesus, who is God’s right hand. Consequently, we must reinterpret the nature and meaning of divine Judgment through the lens of Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. To employ Johanine terminology, the promised Holy Spirit “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.”  John 16:8-11. It is impossible to understand what sin is apart from the world’s rejection of Jesus. So too, it is impossible to know the heart of the Father without recognizing that this rejected one is the one sent by the Father to give life to the world. The “ruler of this world” or Satan is overcome through the forgiveness of a God that will not be sucked into the vortex of retributive justice.

1 John 5:9-13

The Greek word for “testimony” found throughout this passage is “martyria,” from which we get our word “martyr.” From very early in the church’s history, testimony to Jesus as Lord included a willingness to die for such loyalty. Martyrdom in the early church demonstrated the depth of a disciple’s commitment to Jesus and so lent credence to his/her witness. Thus, if the community is strengthened by the witness of its own who have suffered for their testimony, how much more should the community be strengthened by the witness of God in the suffering and death of Jesus. It is in the sending of the Son and the Son’s willingness to die that God “witnesses” or “testifies” to the depth of God’s love for us. Our own suffering as a consequence of our witness is but a pale reflection of God’s sacrificial love. Yet in so testifying to Jesus, the believer “has the testimony in himself.” Vs. 10. Disbelief in the testimony of God to Jesus is not simply the denial of a doctrinal principle. It is a refusal to believe in God’s faithfulness to God’s promises and God’s deep love for the world. Such refusal makes God a “liar” and God’s promises unworthy of our trust. Vs. 10.

“This is the testimony, that God gives us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Vs. 11. Again, “eternal life” refers to more than just life’s duration. Life that is eternal is based on love grounded in the unity of the Trinity. It is as much qualitative as it is quantitative. Consequently, the disciples who live together in love such as the Father has for the Son are already experiencing “eternal life.” It bears repeating that such love is not an abstract principle or an inward disposition. It is expressed concretely in the person of Jesus-so much so that one who is without the Son is without eternal life. Vs. 12. Jesus is not an illustration, metaphor or example of eternal life or love. He is eternal life and love.

The whole point of John’s letter is to make his readers “know” that they have eternal life. Vs. 13. This “knowing” is relational. It has to do with knowing Jesus rather than knowing and accepting doctrines about him, though the latter have their place. It is finally through our relationships that we are shaped and transformed. To “abide” in Jesus is to know Jesus, to be a “friend” of Jesus as our lesson from the gospel would have it. According to John, we are ever “living into” Jesus, deepening our trust in him and our understanding of his very simple yet demanding command to love one another.

John 17:6-19

To get the full impact of this passage, it is essential that you read all of John 17. This chapter comes at the conclusion of Jesus’ “Farewell Discourse” in John 13-17. Beginning with the washing of his disciples’ feet, Jesus instructs his disciples how they are to live together in the same Trinitarian love that exists between the Father and the Son. This love that will animate the community of disciples is the Holy Spirit, the presence of the resurrected Christ within the church. Chapter 17 concludes this discourse with a prayer that this Trinitarian unity will find expression in the disciples’ love for each other. Jesus prays that they may be one “even as we [Father and Son] are one.” Vs. 11.

Some might object to my use of the term “Trinity” in commenting on this text. But if I seem to be imposing Augustinian Trinitarianism on the text, it is because I think Augustine got this right. It is so that the disciples might know the unity of the Father with the Son that Jesus was sent into the world. Vs. 11. The Spirit, which is sent to bind the community together and draw the disciples deeper into their relationship with Jesus and love for one another, does no less than offer to the disciples “all” that was given to Jesus by the Father which, in turn, is “all” that the Father has. John 16:13-15. The gift of eternal life to a dying world is the Spirit, the love that binds the Father to the Son and unites the community of disciples. It is through this unifying Trinitarian love that the world will come to know that the Father loves the Son who was sent into the world. John 17:21. Moreover, the world will finally understand the depth of God’s love for it when it witnesses the continued sending of the Son into the world through the disciples’ ministry, notwithstanding the world’s rejection.

The disciple’s loyalty to Jesus will provoke the same hostility that Jesus himself provoked:

“This community of Christians will be hated by the world, but Jesus does not wish to have them spared this hostility. So that the depth of his love might become apparent, Jesus himself could not leave the world without facing the hostility of its Prince (xiv 30-31). Similarly each of his followers must face the Evil One (xvii 15; cf. I John ii 15-17 on the allurements of the world) if eventually he is to be with Jesus.” Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1970 by Doubleday) p. 764.

Many commentators suggest that this anticipated hostility reflects the growing animosity between the Jesus movement and the Jewish Sanhedrin constituted at the end of the First Century:

“Thus the Fourth Gospel affords us a picture of a Jewish community at a point not far removed from the end of the first century. As we get a glimpse of it, this community has been shaken by the introduction of a newly formulated means for detecting those Jews who want to hold a dual allegiance to Moses and to Jesus as Messiah. Even against the will of some of the synagogue leaders, the Heretic Benediction is now employed in order formally and irretrievably to separate such Jews from the synagogue.” Martyn, J. Louis, History & Theology in the Fourth Gospel, 2nd Ed. (c. 1979 by J. Louis Martyn, pub. by Abingdon) p. 62.

However that might be, I believe that John understood the opposition faced by Jesus to be grounded not merely in the church’s dispute with the synagogue, but in a larger struggle against “the ruler of this world.” John 16:11. What transpires within the Jewish community is simply a microcosm of the cosmic battle with the evil one who coopts not merely the religious leadership but the imperial authorities as well. It is “the world” that finally rejects the Word by which it was made and that Word’s incarnation as the Son who is sent to give it life. It is the world also that is the ultimate beneficiary of the Son.

These lessons from John can help us focus on the significance of Jesus’ being at God’s right hand or, even better, being the right hand of God. We can dispel the notion that Jesus has gone away somewhere beyond the blue to return only in the distant future by pointing out that Jesus’ ascension makes him more intimately present to his church. Jesus is now God’s way of being in, dealing with and reigning over the world. The Incarnation is irreversible. God is and will ever remain human so that we might be made genuinely human.

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