I always have a mixed reaction when I see a passage from the Gospel of John appear in the lectionary readings. On the one hand, John has some of the most beautiful and familiar verses in the Bible. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” is how the book begins. Still in the opening paragraph we read, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” I like to read that at funerals. John, and only John, has the story of Jesus changing water into wine, which happens to be a favorite of some of my best friends. In John, and only in John, does Jesus say, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” All of those memorable verses and stories are in just the first three chapters!
On the other hand, oftentimes what’s going on in John requires some sorting out in one way or another. For example, in the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, he asks her for a drink, whereupon she replies, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” John then inserts a parenthetical note saying in effect that Jews and Samaritans don’t like each other. Jesus answers her question by saying, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” Huh? Living water? How did we get from well water to living water, whatever that is? Such is the consistent challenge when reading John. Jesus says stuff like that all the time.
So when we get to readings from John’s gospel, I usually think, “O goodie!,” and then I cringe a bit.
Today’s verses are a perfect example. We begin with verse thirty-five in chapter six, “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’” Ok…it’s obviously a metaphor, Jesus says he is “the bread of life,” meaning that in some way he satisfies our hunger. But what hunger? Hunger for what? And then he adds that those who believe in him will also never thirst. What are we thirsty for?
See what I mean? In the beatitudes in Matthew, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” But John leaves us hanging. At least at this point in his story. I suspect it’s one of those cases where the author expects us to read the whole thing, so that we get the complete picture.
So forgive me this morning for taking just one snippet from his writing. In fact I want to look at a very small snippet, because today’s lectionary reading has enough material to keep us busy for the rest of the day, and I want to take Jax hiking this afternoon.
Just to give some context, some of the folk who have been hearing Jesus speak and seeing what he has done are saying, “Bread of life? He’s not the bread of life! He’s the son of Joseph and Mary! He says he came down from heaven? He’s from Nazareth!” Like that. And it’s always important to remember that when John says “the Jews,” he’s obviously not talking about all the Jews in Jesus’s time and place. Jesus and all of his closest followers are Jewish. John is referring to the likes of the scribes and Pharisees who are feeling threatened by Jesus’ popularity.
Jesus responds in typical Jesus-in-John’s gospel fashion. He says, “Don’t be complaining. It’s God who brings people to me. God and I work together. In fact we are together.” Then he says, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” That word seems to come from out of the blue. What does it have to do with the relationship between Jesus and God? What does it have to do with the complaints against him?
It’s the gospel of John and in John it can be a challenge to keep up with Jesus’ train of thought. Jesus seems to always be one step ahead of the people with whom he is conversing. It’s like he always wants to take the conversation to a different level – a spiritual level. In this case, he’s not interested in talking about who his parents are. He’s interested in talking about how God is at work, and then what those who believe in him, in who he really is, can expect. And what he says is, those who believe in him can expect eternal life.
He never elaborates on what he means by eternal life. Jesus never talks about pearly gates and streets of gold and such. All of that is in the book of Revelation, and is a description of the new Jerusalem, not heaven. See Revelation chapter twenty-one. And incidentally, Revelation says there is only one street in the new Jerusalem. In the fourteenth chapter of John Jesus does say, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were no so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
You probably remember that Jesus goes on to say, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” That’s another passage I like to read at funerals. But notice it doesn’t give a lot of detail. Assuming Jesus is talking about an afterlife, and even that’s not a slam dunk for sure something, it really doesn’t tell us much, does it? Just that there’s plenty of room “In my Father’s house.” Not a word about whether there are cots or plush, pillow-top mattresses. Nothing about available heavenly golf courses and getting tee times online. Nowhere in these verses do we find the word “heaven” or the phrase “eternal life.”
So it may be that much of what comes to mind when we hear the words “eternal life” is various stuff we have gathered from here and there, maybe not even from the Bible. So do take a look at Revelation twenty-one. Notice that there’s no mention of housing arrangements or what one does in the new Jerusalem.
You might also want to look at First Corinthians, chapter fifteen, verses thirty-five through fifty-seven. In these verses Paul talks about the resurrection of the dead. He says we currently have a physical body, but later we will have a “spiritual body.” He doesn’t describe this “spiritual body,” except to say that whereas the physical body is perishable, the spiritual body is imperishable. And he gives no further description of life after death.
Still, in Jesus we have eternal life. He tells us, promises us, that we have been given this gift because we believe in him. And in spite of what we don’t know about eternal life, and there’s a lot more we don’t know compared to what we do know, there are some things we can be confident about. First, eternal life starts in the here and now. Luke’s gospel records this brief but important story: “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, there it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’” There’s a footnote in the New RSV which says the word translated “among” can also mean “within”.
Whichever of those words we chose, Jesus’ meaning is clear. The kingdom of God, which is our new life, our eternal life in God through Christ, already exists. It is already present, among us, within us; I tend to think both. It is both in our midst and an essential part of who we are because we are followers of Jesus. No doubt there is more, much more, to eternal life than what we experience in the here and now. But at the very least, our new life in Christ begins in the here and now.
Additionally, here and there we get glimpses, hints of what eternal life is like. Revelation twenty-one says God will be with those in the new Jerusalem, and will “wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” Revelation was written to Christians who were facing persecution and suffering. What hope and comfort those words must have brought them! Just as they bring hope and comfort to us.
Among the many images of the kingdom or reign of God Jesus uses is that of a banquet. He tells a parable about a king who throws a banquet and the first set of people invited make excuses and don’t show. So he sends out his servant with the instructions to invite“the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” What a guest list! The servant reports back and says those folks are coming, but there’s still room. So the king says, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.”
A full house for a banquet, where everyone is welcome. Jesus says that’s what God wants. That’s what God intends. That’s the invitation Jesus brings to us. That is the promise he holds out before us of how eternal life begins in the here and now. In Jesus we have eternal life. Amen.