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A Community of Love and Life

May 18, 2015

“A Community of Love and Life” 1 John 5:6-12 © 5.17.15 Easter 7B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

We sing about it. We may talk about it with our families and friends, even total strangers. Writers pen both scholarly and popular books and articles about it. We want it. We would like to believe we have it. We hire and trust people with special credentials to help us find it and assure us it is ours. We may sometimes argue with others about how we get it and keep it.

In case you’re wondering, “it” is eternal life. But what is this that occupies us so, both corporately and personally? What does it mean to say we have eternal life?

Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when someone speaks of eternal life is a very long span of time. Passages from older Bible translations, as well as the Apostles’ Creed, leave such an impression as they speak of "everlasting life." We come to believe that we will live forever, that the promise of God is immortality.

Such a concept lies behind a number of depictions of eternal life in films, TV shows, and books, which in turn influence our concept in subtle ways. There’s Nicholas Flamel, the 14th-century scribe who was later said to have been an alchemist who discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and achieved immortality. Or how about Adam Monroe and Claire in the TV series “Heroes” from the last decade? The former lived 600 years, while the latter healed instantly and couldn’t die. Today, though I haven’t watched it, there’s a show called “Forever.” And of course who can forget “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”? In that installment of the series, the archaeologist is hired by a collector of antiquities, a Mr. Donovan, to find the Holy Grail. Donovan believes that youth that doesn’t fade will be granted to the one who drinks from the true grail, the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper and that captured his blood at the crucifixion. For Donovan, that would be eternal life.

For others, eternal life means spending the millennia in heaven after we die, praising God with multitudes of angels and redeemed humanity. We will go through pearly gates and walk streets of gold, maybe even take up the harp. Perhaps we’ll live in that mansion we always wanted and, as someone said, have a swimming pool we never had in this life. In the meantime, we must endure trouble and sorrow as we move through this “veil of tears” until one day we’re released from the prison of our bodies, and our souls like birds fly free up to God and bliss forever. This, in various forms, is the hope of many. Indeed, most Christians in this nation, especially in the South, see getting to heaven as the whole point of Christianity. The key question for them and to their neighbors is “Where will you spend eternity?”

What do we say to these ideas? Certainly longevity is a positive value in the Bible, and, I would imagine, for the author of 1 John. We need but think of the heroes of the Old Testament like Methuselah, who we are told lived almost 1000 years. The author of the epistle himself is called “the Elder.” And it would have been wondrous in the ancient world, when so many barely lived past what we call middle age, to have encountered someone who was “fourscore and ten,” as a version of Psalm 90 puts it. It must have been similar to the Dave Matthews song in which a man lives to 103, which to his great-grandchildren seemed “forever” (“Gravedigger”).

And indeed, we’re promised that we will be with God and he with us in a heaven glorious beyond description. For those who have suffered indignities, injustice, deprivation, and heartache, with no relief or respite, the hope of a place where there is no death and where righteousness reigns sustains them.

But the mere piling up of years, whether on this earth or in another plane of existence, is not eternal life. Nor must we wait until we die to begin experiencing what God has for us. Eternal life for our author and the tradition in which he stands means life of such richness and fullness that it can only be called the gift of God, what Jesus termed “abundant life.” The Greek words typically translated “everlasting life” or “eternal life” mean literally “life of the ages,” something beyond imagining. It’s not merely quantity, but quality as well, for the former without the latter is only survival, not real life. God gives us that which lasts and satisfies. And, because the one who is life itself has come among us, we may and do have this life here and now. It’s ours today, this moment, not just “when we all get to heaven,” as the classic gospel hymn puts it.

Let me put a little flesh on that bare-bones description. When we talk about a quality life, if we take our cue from the John tradition, we mean the experience of relationship with God and with each other. Someone has said “All real living is meeting.” The Elder would agree. We have all sought fulfillment and meaning through buying and owning, working and achieving or any of a number of other means. But we know at root that what really brings the satisfaction we seek is not what we have or what we do, but the love we give and receive from others. There are plenty of people who have all the stuff they could possibly want, but are still miserable.

A number of years ago, Susan and I were at dinner with some friends after a wedding. The conversation turned to choices we make. One of those gathered at the table commented that the regrets you will have at the end of life will be that you took too little time with your family or that you never met that person you admired from afar. You will not complain that you spent too little time at the office. Relationships. They are what make life worthwhile and abundant.

How tragic it would be to live forever apart from others! Yes, sometimes when you or I would give anything for some time alone, to do what you or I want with no demands, no deadlines, no lists, that sounds pretty good. But to be exiled, to be separated from community, to live without love comes as close to hell as anything we could think of.

I would be very surprised if any of you remember the 1980s Ron Howard film “Cocoon.” It’s another one of those sci-fi movies about eternal life. In it, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy are one elderly couple among several who have been invited by friendly aliens to travel on a spacecraft to another planet, where they will not age, get sick or die. Cronyn’s character had been suffering from cancer and would have soon died had he not been rejuvenated by swimming in the aliens’ pool. Tandy is not inclined to go on the journey, since she’s furious with her husband for returning to his old habits of unfaithfulness after he was cured. If Cronyn remains on earth, his illness will return, and he will have but six months to live. He visits his estranged wife to ask for forgiveness, and comments that given the choice of living forever without her or spending his remaining time with her, he will take the latter. He knows that an eternity filled with loneliness is not life, only existence.

But not only is eternal life the experience of rich and satisfying fellowship with other people here and now and presumably in heaven. It’s also, and even primarily, a relationship with God, made known in Jesus Christ. What God gives us in his Son is not something but someone. According to the Gospel of John, our Lord described eternal life as “knowing God and Jesus Christ, whom [God] has sent.” For his part, the Elder observes that everyone who “has” the Son has life. He doesn’t mean that we “have” Jesus as we might possess a car or a piece of furniture or electronics we bought, though I’m afraid that’s how some Christians see things. Rather, he’s ours as gift.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that we quite often have different attitudes toward something we possess which we bought and something we received as a present, especially if the gift is given by someone close to us. Behind that special something is the relationship that prompted the giver to think of us as he or she was browsing through a store one day or started cooking a special dish or creating a piece of art. More than an object is given; all the love and respect of the person is ours as well. The best gifts, those we remember and cherish, are not those we know someone has given out of some sort of obligation, but freely. They come as a surprise, like the time your mother baked your favorite cake, and it wasn’t even your birthday; or when your friend brought back that special jar of jam or a bottle of wine from a trip, with the comment, “I saw this and thought of you”; or the flowers sent with a card “Just because I love you.” That’s the sort of gift God has given us in his Son.

Out of no other reason that his own compassion for you and me, he gave us Jesus, who embodies life. He gave us Jesus, who grants that life to all who believe in him, which means not assenting to a doctrine about him but rather to love him, give ourselves over to him, be committed to following him. God gave us Jesus, who died and was raised that we might live in love and light.

And still God gives us his Son. To experience eternal life in the here and now is to be centered on this One in whom we have all we need. It’s to enter into a new dimension of being as the presence of God permeates all our days. It’s to find today and every day transformed by faith and hope, so that our relationships are characterized more by love than fear, understanding than suspicion, fulfillment than disappointment. To have eternal life doesn’t mean that we encounter no more problems or concerns, but rather that we have new resources to face them and move through them as God keeps giving us his Son.

We keep receiving Jesus as gift in a number of ways. We know his love in the caring and concern of a community of believers. In the embrace of sisters and brothers in Christ, we feel our Lord’s loving arms. In the ministry of one to the other in sorrow or in joy, we experience his care. We’re also granted this one who is life itself in the inner assurance of the Spirit. From somewhere deep within, we know not where, there comes peace, courage, joy. That’s the indwelling Spirit of Christ giving us a gift of life, even in the midst of death.

But one of the most important ways we are given the Lifegiver is in the celebration of Holy Communion, as we will do next Sunday on Pentecost. This way of looking at the sacrament sees it not as a memorial to someone who is dead, a time to grieve and be sorrowful. Instead, it’s a real meal, a joyous feast, a time of celebration of and in the presence of someone we love.

This emphasis is particularly strong in the John tradition. Rather than have a Last Supper, John depicts Jesus himself as the Bread of an ongoing spiritual life, the drink pressed from grapes of the True vine. Our Lord spoke enigmatically of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. In highly metaphorical language, Jesus is talking about the need for food to sustain our souls. We keep our bodies going by eating three meals a day, being nourished by a proper diet. We also need food for our eternal life. If faith fails, is we feel empty, if we have no energy for prayer, witness or mission, could it be we are starving spiritually? Or at least, as is true with too many Americans and their daily meals for their bodies, we are not getting the right food to nourish our souls?

Those traditions that celebrate Holy Communion weekly have it right. We’ve learned from them, so that now such frequent observance is the recommended practice in our Book of Order. Preaching, singing, praying are all vital, but they’re not enough. We deprive ourselves of an essential nutrient if we don’t gather very often at the Table.

In every congregation I’ve served, including this one, issues of practicality have prevented celebrating Communion more frequently than monthly. I understand that. And over the years, I’ve heard the comments that weekly observance makes the meal seem less special. But theologically, we need the sacrament every week to sustain us for eternal life. Word and sacrament belong together.

Let’s end this morning with the question we began with: what is eternal life? Length of days? Yes. Being with God in heaven? Certainly. But it’s more than either of those. It’s living those days in fulfilling relationships with other people and especially with Jesus. It’s to begin experiencing right now and here what God promises us in the hereafter and the not yet. Eternal life is the knowledge of God, the assurance of his presence with us even in the toughest times. It’s the rich sense of his love that surrounds us every moment. This life is sustained and nourished by community, by inner peace, and most of all, by worship focused on Word and sacrament.

We sing about it. We long for it. We believe in Jesus we have it. Eternal life.

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