When Jesus speaks of eternal life, he isn’t talking about forever.
Many of us learn this in seminary or when we read books about scripture. That this phrase Jesus uses*, “eternal life” doesn’t mean what we think it means. Or to be more precise, doesn’t communicate only the narrow understanding we take it for.
The “eternal life” many of us hear is a perpetual existence in the future. It is all mixed up with our understandings of heaven and a divine place somewhere else to which we all will ascend and live out eternity, robed in white, entering through St. Peter’s gate.**
Jesus’s eternal life as he uses it in that gospel is about living a vibrant, present life. It is a powerful metaphor that matches the Kingdom Now imperative of the rest of the gospel.
When Jesus talks about eternal life, he’s talking about vibrant, Kingdom living here.
That’s why it strikes me as odd that we don’t believe him.
We, as the church don’t seem to believe in eternal life. Either in the way we’ve created it to mean, with perpetual existence into the forever or in the vibrant, Kingdom living here. We don’t seem to think that Jesus’s work in the world: that the body of Christ: offers us eternal life. Because we are too worried about the church dying.
Right before I left seminary, one of my professors told me
We speak too much of the church dying. We need to speak of the church living.
This floored me.
People need to hear this, I thought; they need to hear the problems if they ever hope to change! They need to read the studies and interview the generations not in church to hear our story!
But I didn’t speak. For as much as I wanted to argue with him, I knew he was right.
The recent Pew report may be shocking to some. It is truly landmark because now “None” is one of the most populous religious groups. But those of us actually out in the world know that number is really soft. We know that there are millions of Christians hanging on by a thread. There are millions who identify as Christian and maybe still feel connected to a particular church, but we never see them. And millions more that are culturally Christian: who celebrate Christmas and maybe Easter with presents and family dinners, but they don’t go to church. And they aren’t atheists exactly. They are Christian by affiliation, rather than belief.
This frightens Christians to no end. All manner of Christian from the Coast to the Plains worry about declining church participation. Perhaps many fear a coming belief Armageddon and the total collapse of Christendom.
These fears give rise to those other complaints of declining Christian power and authority in the community. Such as those from our conservative brothers and sisters who have great concern for the declining acceptance of government-supported Christian symbols in public spaces: the Ten Commandments monuments and the nativity scenes outside court houses, for instance: and take it as a sign of some kind of religious persecution.
As for me, instead of death, I see life. Not bad news, but good news.
I see the church struggling with communicating our deep need for GOD in a time when people don’t see GOD in church. I see story and parable being acted out by the church. I cast the church in those powerful stories of Jesus’s:
- The pious young man
- The Prodigal Son(s)
- The fight over Sabbath
- “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s…”
And I see our constant need to become. To become more like Christ.
I see a church that is longing for a Christ-like future and a Christ that is longing for a church with a Christ-like present.
A church less worried about death because it is assured of eternal life.
*according to the writer of John.
**Of course Jesus says none of this. This is all church tradition added to the text.