Jesus is Life
Scripture: 1 John 5:11-13
What is life? How would you define life? Here is one definition offered by Webster’s online dictionary: an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction.
But, I don’t imagine that most of us would find that to be a very helpful definition outside of a science lab. When a mother or father hold their newborn baby, they’re not likely to think “Oh look; an organism with the capacity for metabolism and growth.” Likewise, the first time that infant smiles in response to affection, it is unlikely that the one holding her will say, “What a wonderful reaction to stimuli.” In fact, life is not easily defined. Although some may simply accept what they’ve been taught or told, I imagine that the reason issues like abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty are so contentious and emotionally charged comes down to this very question: “What is life? And, how do we define it, measure it or qualify it?”
Well, this morning, I will not attempt to give you a scientific answer, nor one that will bring our political debates to an end. But I do hope to shine some light on our biblical understanding of life, especially as we find it defined in the gospel and letters of John.
One would be hard pressed to find anyone in America who was not familiar with John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.” Now, adjectives can make a world of difference and so, I would contend, as disciples of that one God sent, our attention is turned more specifically to the question of everlasting or eternal life.
In the early days of the Church, the resurrection of Jesus was a radical profession of faith. For many of us, being raised in America and in Christian homes, resurrection may not seem radical at all. But it was certainly a hard thing for the early Christians to wrap their heads around. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, said: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”[i] But I would venture to say that, today, resurrection – life after death or heaven – have become a preoccupation of contemporary Christianity. And so, I would contend, if it is for the life to come only that we have hoped in Christ, we are to be pitied because the gospel and letters of John make abundantly clear that the new kind of life, eternal life, now available to us through Jesus is not just for the by-and-by; it is also for the here and now.
As people of faith, we believe that all life begins with God; there would be no life apart from God. And just as God is eternal, the life we receive from God through Jesus also is eternal. In the writings of John, followers of Jesus are referred to as “children,” “children of God,” or even “little children.” I am a child of very short parents. If you had had the benefit of meeting my parents and other extended family members, you would know that the possibility of my being tall of stature would not have been considered. My parents gave me biological life and the life they gave was a life of short physical stature. Likewise, the life we receive from God the Father is a share in God’s life; it is like God’s life; eternal in quantity and distinctive in quality or character.
Now, my preaching up to this point has been rather philosophical. But it is communion Sunday and time is limited, so let me get to the heart of things by defining that eternal life of which John speaks, in context – both his and ours.
1st John was addressed to an early Christian community that developed in response to the teaching we label – today – as the gospel of John. It was the story of Jesus, God’s eternal Word made flesh, who came to live among us and to die for us as a radical demonstration of God’s love. The Jesus of John’s gospel explains to his followers – then and now – that eternal life is only made possible through death. Jesus willingly sacrifices his own life so that we might live and calls us to do the same for one another. His teaching to his followers is clear when he says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”[ii] So, the life which this Christian community has experienced and known can only be experienced and known within the context of relationship or fellowship. This is, we might say, the ultimate expression of contextual theology. This eternal life cannot ever be truly understood in theory only. It must be comprehended through experience. And so the writer of 1st John begins by encouraging and reminding his audience that this is the message they have heard and seen, known and perceived, directing them toward the goal of being in fellowship with God the Father, God the Son AND one another. And it is an important message for this Christian community because it is a community that has experienced a conflict so enormous that it has shattered their community. We read and hear today about churches that split. It may be a split over how finances are handled. Or, it may be a division over mission: how the church’s school is administrated or how its homeless shelter is financed.
Now, I will say a lot more over the next couple of Sundays about this schism, this division within this congregation. So, if you want to know, you’ll have to come back for the next two weeks. But this morning I want to focus on this idea that eternal life cannot be experienced outside of relationship or fellowship with God and the children of God. And it is the particular character of Christian fellowship that serves as the lens through which we define or evaluate eternal life. There are three things in particular, according to John’s teaching that give evidence of eternal life: love, peace and joy. I’ve already said a little about this love; it is a love so great that we should be willing to sacrifice our lives for one another. That is what it means to share fellowship in Christ. And I’ll talk more about what love looks like when it’s lived out in the Church in two weeks.
But eternal life in Christ is also evidenced through peace and joy that are not dependent on our daily variables in the world. True Christian joy can be a real part of our lives even if we slept through the alarm clock, even if our boss or our teacher said something critical, even if we struggle to pay our bills, even if the neighbor lets his dog poop in our yard, even if our teenager backs into a telephone pole, even if our spouse forgot they promised to pick up the dry cleaning and so on and so on. You get my point? The message of eternal life is a message of joy. First John begins with these verses…1 John 1:1 We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life-- 2 this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us-- 3 we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. Or, “our joy may be filled to the brim” is another way of putting it. The eternal life we live through our fellowship with God and one another is made manifest in joy. We are to be people of great joy…
And, people of peace. Now, to be honest, the word “peace” does not appear in 1st John. But it is an important concept in the gospel of John. On the night before his death, Jesus talks to his disciples at great length about peace. He contrasts it with the kind of fear and anxiety people have when they are focused on this world and the circumstances of life in this world. Likewise, in 1st John, the writer admonishes us to not surrender to fear but to trust in God’s love for us. Strife is the outward demonstration of an internal fear and anxiety. Conversely, peace is the inward and outward manifestation of trust in the love and grace of God.
Now friends, here’s where the rubber meets the road. Some of you may be sitting there thinking: “I don’t feel very peaceful or joyful and sometimes – quite honestly – I don’t even feel very loving. How will I ever experience this illusive eternal life?” Well, here is the good news. At the end of the day, love and joy and peace are not really about feelings; they are about actions; purposeful decisions we make to exercise trust and generosity and forgiveness. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, in a journal entry in 1738 shared the wise guidance he received from Peter Boehler who advised him, "Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”[iii] Catholic priest Richard Rohr writes: “We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living; we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.”[iv] Finally, preacher and author David Schlafer writes that it is the language of actions that validate where mere words cannot suffice.[v] In other words, my friends, we live our way in to eternal life. We live out our eternal life as God’s beloved children not by idly waiting for feelings of joy or peace or even love. We choose to overcome despair with joy. We choose to overcome violence with peace. We choose to defeat hatred by living out the love of Christ. The death and resurrection of Jesus is more than a “get into heaven card.” The death and resurrection of Jesus welcome us into the family of God and into a life that is eternal; an authentic experience of love, joy and peace that only Jesus can give.
[i] 1 Corinthians 15:19
[ii] John 15:12-14
[iv] March 30, 2016 online devotional, Bias from the Bottom, https://cac.org/changing-sides-2016-03-30/
[v] Feasting on the Word; ed. Bartlett and Taylor; Westminster John Knox Press; 2008; Year B, vol. 2; p. 54
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