May 20, 2012 Easter 7 John’s Sixth Big Idea: Eternal Life

Lately the world has been, it seems to me, particularly beautiful. All the trees have leafed out now into their fresh new shades of brilliant, almost fluorescent green, and flowering trees are covered with clouds of fragrant blossoms, like our lovely crabapple Ruth planted beside St. Philip’s years ago. The grass grows as fast as Bekk can cut it, but it is sprinkled throughout with purple and white violets and wild strawberry blossoms so that even when it is shaggy it still looks bright and cheery. There are baby geese on my neighbor’s lawn and baby starlings in my attic, and a nest of robins in the maple tree in front of my house. It feels like the world is bursting with life, and especially on bright sunny days it really cheers my heart to look around at it all.

Those of us who have been around for awhile know quite well that this is just one part of the ongoing cycle of the seasons, that these glorious springs are always followed by the rich growth of summer, and that, in turn will be followed by the autumn, when the world wraps up its labors in one final blaze of glory before it fades into the silent sleep of winter. I love the seasons; I love living in a part of the world where each season seems to play itself out to the fullest. But there are days – especially those days when circumstances seem especially wearying and sad  –  when the neverending cycle of the seasons becomes more of a burden than a joy, and it  becomes just a reminder to us that our life is fleeting, that we can never hold onto those good things or good people that we love, and that eventually life always ends in death.

We can be philosophical about it all, and just resolve to live each day with gratitude, and that is a wise and healthy way to live. But deep down, there is something in each of us that can’t quite make peace with that. There is something in us that really can’t look at death and find beauty or appreciate the rightness of that balance of life and death. Some of us have done a very good job of coming to terms with the way this broken creation works, but at our core we all know that death is an outrage. We all know in our hearts, even if we have pushed it out of our minds, that we were created for life, not for death. The writer of Ecclesiastes put it this way: “He has put eternity into man’s heart”

We’ve spent the last six weeks looking at some of the Big Ideas in the writing of the apostle John, especially in his first letter. We looked at how fundamentally important the Incarnation is to us: that as creatures of flesh and blood we needed God to reveal himself to us in a way we could really see and hear and taste and touch, and that we his body need to keep on revealing him to the world by “fleshing out” the truth of his good news. We looked at how God reveals himself to us in the creation of Light and Darkness, and how those elements assure us every day that he will always be victorious over all evil. We looked at what it means to abide in God, to sink our roots deep into his love and strength and how he then in turn abides in us, making his home in our hearts by his Spirit. We looked at love – that God himself is love, and that all that we do in him is a reflection of that perfect love. And now, the sixth and final Big Idea – though I certainly haven’t plumbed the depths of John’s letter even yet – the last Big Idea is Life.

The world tries very hard to see the beauty in “the circle of life”. There are more and more children’s books about coping with death so that the death of their grandfather or aunt or friend or pet won’t make them too sad. New Age thinking embraces the whole cycle of life and death, but even plain old people have found ways to sanitize and dress up the inevitability of death. We build attractive nursing homes so that we won’t be “a burden” in our waning years, and then we build even more lavishly ornate funeral parlors, we spend many thousands of dollars on satin-lines caskets, and we try to make the horror of death a little less horrible. But still we know in our hearts that death is wrong.

We do find peace in the death of an elderly relative who has lived a long, full life; we console ourselves in the death of a friend who had a deep faith in God, knowing that they are safe and well in his loving hands. But we are horrified, and rightly so, at the death of a child or young adult, and we even find ourselves falling all to pieces when we have to put a beloved dog or cat to sleep. In the end we know, deep down, in our heart of hearts, that we were created for life, not for death.

John wrote in Greek, of course, and in his one short letter there are three different Greek words that are translated “life”. There is the word “bios”, that we get our word biology from: it just means the life of this world, this “circle of life” where birth and growth always end up in death, around and around and again and again, John uses that word just once in his letter, when he is talking about the things of this world, the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life – bios  – that these things are not from the Father but from the world. Here John is just talking about the “stuff” of the world, not true life but those possessions we try to hold onto in this world.

The second word that is translated “life” is psyche – we get the word psychology from this Greek word. And John only uses that word once, too. Psyche doesn’t just mean life, it refers to a person’s soul, to everything that makes a person who they are. It means “self”, in the deepest possible way. And so John uses that word where he speaks of Jesus, when he says “Here is how we know what love is – when we see that Jesus laid down his life – his very self, all that he is – on our behalf; and so we ought to lay down our selves for one another.”

Every other time we see the word “life” in John’s letter – and we see it many times – he is using the word zoa – we get the words “zoo” and “zoology” from it. But in Greek, zoa means life in a fuller sense than any of the other words. Zoa is life that is both physical and spiritual, life that is both human and divine. Zoa is the life that God breathed into Adam when he first molded him from the clay. And zoa is the life that Jesus restored to us when he came to share our earthly existence for a time. Through the perfect love of the Father, Jesus came to us and took our poor broken life upon himself. Jesus became a dweller in the bios. He lived the whole cycle of our human life, he grew in Mary’s womb, he was born and grew up and he experienced all that the world has to offer us: illness and sorrow and loss as well as beauty and love and light. And then he died, he completed that whole cycle from birth to death.

And that’s where things got really interesting, because Jesus defied the bios. He didn’t stay in that tomb; in those dark days in the tomb his body didn’t decay and return to the earth and provide life for other creatures in that lovely circle of life – no, he broke out of that circle of life. The earth shook, and the heavy stone covering the grave rolled back, and for the first time since Adam and Eve sinned there was real life in this world, zoa, life that doesn’t end in death, life that doesn’t end. But the life that Jesus brought into the world wasn’t just long, it was abundant, it was life with power and joy, it was life that overcomes the world. Jesus had brought people back to life before, his friend Lazarus, and the widow’s son of Nain, and Jairus’s little daughter, but each of these people were raised back into the life of this world. Each of them lived again for a while, but then they all died again. This time was different – this was the firstfruits of the harvest of an entirely new kind of life.

And here’s what we might miss, if we don’t listen to John very carefully. The life that Jesus brought into the world isn’t just the doorprize we get when we get to heaven (if we are good); if our hope is in Jesus, it is ours now. We have that zoa life today. John wrote: “this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son does not have life.” Whoever has the Son has life; not whoever has the Son will have life.

Right now we live in the in-between time; we live with the now and the not-yet. We see by faith that Jesus conquered death, we know by faith that he calls us his children when we are baptized, we believe in faith that he is present with us when we share the Eucharist. We still walk in the bios, we still see our bodies growing older, we still grieve the loss of our friends, we still live out our lives within the cycle of birth and death. But once we belong to Jesus we will never fully belong to that cycle again, because we have within us the seed of new life, and it is growing and transforming us from within day by day.

Have you ever seen the ultrasound photographs of an unborn child? It’s hard to even recognize it is a human being most the time, but we know that will be our child, or our grandchild, and it fills us with joy to see it. Most of the time, our understanding of life in Christ is as fuzzy and unformed as those photographs. We have no idea what real life will be like. When Jesus’s disciples met him after the resurrection, even his close friends had a hard time recognizing him because there was an essential difference. He no longer belonged to the bios, but he had taken the bios up into himself and transformed it into zoa, abundant life, life that gives more life, and then he gave that life to us. And it is that life that is growing within each of us. Sometimes we can only feel a little flutter or maybe a kick or two. But the birth is coming. It is our own rebirth, but not only our own rebirth but also the rebirth of the whole creation, that we are awaiting.

But meanwhile, the life of Christ that will last into eternity is also ours today. The kingdom of God has already broken in upon the kingdom of this world because Jesus came from the Father into this world and pulled off the most glorious and successful rescue mission ever. John writes that we know we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren. In other words, as we grow to live like Jesus, as his Spirit teaches us and enables us to live in fellowship with one another, to lay down our selves for one another in love, we are growing kingdom life in this world. And just like a tiny acorn is destined to become a massive oak tree, so each small victory of love in our lives is destined to be part of the kingdom life that will last forever.

Because we have eternal life within us, everything we do in Jesus has significance for God’s new creation. We no longer build our lives just for ourselves if we are Christians, because we are building for eternal life. Each act of love or mercy or justice – even a cup of cold water, as Jesus said – is growing the kingdom of heaven here on this earth, because his eternal life is at work now, in us and through us. That’s what John means when he tells us that we are destined to bear fruit that will abide. We don’t know what that life will look like in the end – who would be able to guess from looking at an acorn what an oak tree looks like? But we know the One who has prepared this life for us, the One in whose kingdom we belong even now. We know Jesus, who is the Way and who is the Truth and who is the Life.

At the end of John’s letter he wrote this; “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.

We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.”

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