Eternal Life in the Middle of the Mess
Sermon on John 6:35, 41-51
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (John 6:47)
It’s a familiar statement isn’t it? Maybe even so familiar as to become a bit of a formula. Believe in Jesus = get eternal life. It’s a pretty standard summary in Christian theology.
Well, I have a question for everyone for whom this is familiar: What is the verb tense in that statement?
(you can look back and check?)
It’s present tense. “Whoever believes HAS eternal life.” Right now.
So, is present tense what you expect when we are talking about eternal life? I have to admit, it’s not for me. I hear “eternal life” and my mind automatically jumps to “eternity.” To the far-off fantasy future. To promises of resurrection, and seeing God’s glory in heaven, and having every tear wiped from my eyes.
That hope is one of the ways that I handle all of the tears now: trusting that this present reality is NOT all there is, and that all of the pain, and suffering, and brokenness in my life and in the lives around me will one day be healed. I have a habit of hearing “eternal life” as the great cosmic payoff. “Get through this life, and then, THEN you will get to enjoy eternal life.”
But the present tense verb in Jesus’s statement disrupts all that – whoever believes HAS eternal life. Jesus isn’t talking about the future. He’s talking about NOW. And suddenly – it gets a lot harder to understand what Jesus is talking about … and maybe even harder to believe. Because the evidence of NOW does not look like what I expect eternal life to look like.
It’s not that life is all bad, but rather that the good and bad are mixed together. What Luther liked to say about people – that we are all, simultaneously, saints and sinners – has a parallel more generally. Grace is real, but so is the brokenness of the world. Simultaneously.
I feel like I kept running into examples of that reality this week. This week’s anniversary of last summer’s fatal Charlottesville demonstration leaves me both aching and hesitantly hopeful. The clear evil of white supremacy that was highlighted that weekend, and that continues to find public expression is deeply disturbing. At the same time, it has triggered more public discussion about the realities of persistent racism in our society; discussion that has the potential to advance understanding, and maybe even to move the majority culture past white fragility to actually engage the challenge of our nation’s struggle with prejudice and inequality… Or maybe not.
I see evidence of both grace and brokenness, and I’m not sure which has the upper hand on this question.
Then I spent my Friday night and Saturday at the Board retreat for the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry. It was inspiring to pray and reflect together with my colleague about Christ’s transformative call on our lives and our communities, and it was energizing to work together on plans for how to equip the saints for the work of God’s kingdom here on earth. But it was also overwhelming to grapple with the realities of how much need there is; and with how difficult it is to engage the saints in gospel-driven advocacy without triggering political divides that distract us from our common call to care for and love each and everyone one of our neighbors.
We are most aware of the need for grace when we encounter brokenness, but that can also be the hardest place to practice it.
A third example is closest to this community. It comes from the chance to come alongside the struggle and faithfulness of Monika, the seminary graduate who preached for us two Sundays in July. Monika and her boys have had a tough month since she was here. They did not get the apartment they were hoping for and ended up having to put their possessions all in storage, send the two youngest boys to stay with relatives, and sleep on friends’ couches for a few weeks. Thanks to the help of this congregation and others, and to Monika’s drive to find not one, but two jobs, she signed a lease this week and she can have her family together in their own place again. She told me that she is preaching this week on how God provides bread in the wilderness. But it’s not a perfect story. The primary job she had to take to support her family is not in ministry – not in the calling she just spent three years in seminary to pursue. She is carrying the responsibility of single-parenthood and discipleship and sometimes they pull in opposite directions.
Grace and brokenness mixed together.
I know that you all could provide your own examples of the mixed nature of this present life; of the way that pain and blessing mix together; of the way that what we are most grateful for comes with the lessons born of struggle.
And I want to complain, along with the people of today's gospel, about the violation of my expectations: this is not what “eternal life” is supposed to look like, is it?
Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor – in a sermon on the story of manna in the wilderness that has been woven through the last three Sunday’s gospel readings – reflects on this same disconnect between our expectations and God’s provision. In the manna in the wilderness story, if you remember, the people of God were grumbling about their hunger, and God provides food. But it’s not food the people would have expected. It’s a pale, flaky substance that melts in the heat of the day and attracts worms if stored overnight.
Investigation of the food of the Bedouins who still live in the area suggests that this “manna” is probably the flaky substance that comes from plant lice, who over-feed on the sap of local tamarisk trees because it is poor in nitrogen, and then excrete the excess carbohydrates and sugar. That’s right: manna is probably bug excretions!
In her sermon, Taylor reflects on the challenge of letting go of our expectations in order to embrace God’s provision:
“If your manna has to drop straight out of heaven looking like a perfect loaf of butter-crust bread, then chances are you are going to go hungry a lot. When you do not get the miracle you are praying for, you are going to think that God is ignoring you or punishing you or – worse yet – that God is not there…. Meanwhile you are going to miss a lot of other things God is doing for you because they are too ordinary – like bug juice.”
Or, in my own words, I'm going to ask: eternal life cannot possibly look like this ordinary, mixed grace-and-struggle life, can it?
I guess it really depends on what we expect “eternal” to look like. According to the Outline of Biblical Usage, the first meaning of eternal is: “without beginning and end, that which always has been and always will be.”
With a time-frame like that, I guess it’s actually pretty obvious that eternity includes now. But then, what does it mean for those who believe in Jesus to “have” eternal life? What does possession of this eternal life look like? It’s clear that it doesn’t mean freedom from physical death, because everyone who heard this discourse died about 2 millennia ago.
So what in the world does it mean to have eternal life?
I think the answer comes from the last verse of our gospel reading, and from the first verse of John’s gospel:
Jesus says: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven...” (John 6:51),
John says: “In the beginning was the Word…” (John 1:1)
To have eternal life is to have the One who is Life – the One whose very self is the nourishment that gives life and that is itself living.
To have eternal life is to have the One who is Eternity – the One who has been from the beginning and who will never end; the One who “always has been and always will be.”
To have eternal life is to have Jesus. To be in relationship with Eternal Life. Which means that to NOT have eternal life, to die, is to be separated from the One who is Eternal Life.
And this life or death happens now – it happens in the middle of all the ordinary life that doesn’t fit our expectations of eternity. Eternal life happens in the middle of the mess. Because our relationship with Jesus happens in the middle of the mess.
Which brings us back to that confounding promise that “whoever believes has eternal life.” Last week I walked you through the original Greek and my reasons for translating this phrase not as “whoever believes,” but rather as “whoever trusts.” With that translation, Jesus’ claim becomes “whoever trusts has eternal life.”
That is Jesus’ promise, and his call: to trust in the one who IS Eternal Life. Because when we can trust in Jesus, when we can stand in the middle of the mess and know that HE is our bread, and HE is our eternity… that’s when we know that the GRACE is always more powerful than the struggle.
It’s not the fantasy future that I long for come to earth. It’s not every tear wiped away when there are still reasons to cry. But it is a life transforming promise. Because it is the reassurance that here and now, in the middle of the mess, we are never alone.
And the one who accompanies us has been the source of life in every moment that has ever been and will continue to be the source of life in every moment that will ever be. And if that is the source of our life, then grace can never be defeated.
Thanks be to God.
 “Bread of Angels” in Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels, Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1997.
 Ibid. p. 10.