At the Senior Center and at the Rockfish Grill, most people felt sure that there is a soul which continues to exist in some form after physical death, although we can’t be certain what it is or how it exists. People described their own near-death experiences, those of friends and those found in books and articles. They also spoke of being very sure of a deceased loved one’s presence at certain times. We don’t have proof, but we have first-person accounts from both sides – the dying and those who love and remember them.
This idea that a part of us somehow persists after death implies some sort of immortality, or eternal life, doesn’t it? I don’t think there are many cultures or religions which profess that a part of us does live on after physical death, but only temporarily. In most belief systems the soul, or whatever you want to call it, is, by definition, immortal.
So what does eternal life look like? What does it feel like? Just what is eternal life, anyway? Historically, Christian ideas of eternal life have centered around eternal reward or eternal punishment, right? Using the metaphor of sorting sheep from goats, the author of the gospel according to Matthew quotes Jesus as saying that those who did not tend to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned “…will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Mathew 25:46b).” So there it is, from Jesus’ own lips. At least, according to translators reading ancient scraps of parchment written decades after Jesus’ death by someone who almost certainly never heard him speak or met him in the flesh.
In our reading from the gospel of John today, Jesus is nearing the end of his farewell discourse to the disciples on the night before his crucifixion. He has turned from addressing his followers to praying – to addressing God their behalf. Part of this passage, the part concerning eternal life, reads like this in Young’s Literal Translation of the original Greek: “…according as Thou didst give to him [Jesus is talking about himself here] authority over all flesh…all Thou hast given to him, he may give to them life age-during; and this is the life age-during, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and him whom Thou didst send -- Jesus Christ.”
No mention of hell, damnation or punishment in Jesus’s prayer seeking to glorify God by giving life age-during to all those God gave him. According to the Discovery Bible, which includes helpful Greek and Hebrew word studies,
The Greek word aiṓnios, translated as age-during or eonian, is derived from the word aiṓn, or in English, eon, which is defined as “an age having a particular character and quality.” Life aiṓnios, or eternal, operates simultaneously outside of time, inside of time, and beyond time. Aiṓnios does not focus on the future per se, but rather on the quality of the aiṓn, the age, it relates to. Thus, believers live in eternal or aiṓnios life" right now, experiencing this quality of God's life now as a present possession.
This means, as Richard Manly Adams says, “Unlike in the Synoptics, where eternal life is rarely mentioned but stands as a future hope…in John, eternal life is a present reality, available immediately to those who believe in Jesus and the one who sent him.”
So eternal life is a present reality, a present age having a particular character and quality, accessible right now to believers. This is the age-during, outside of, inside of, and beyond time; and the quality, the character of this age-during, this eternal life is: “…to know…the only true God, and the one [God has] sent, Jesus, the Messiah.” To have eternal life is to live, whenever you live, in an age characterized by knowledge of the Divine, the Holy, the culture of God, the Way of Jesus.
In his prayer, Jesus doesn’t refer to an alternative age-during of damnation and suffering for the wicked and for nonbelievers. But he does single out those who he is praying for as “…all those you gave me…” and the one to whom he prays, as the one true God.
Nancy Ramsey notes,
Especially in the context of increasing religious fundamentalism across Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, we do well to remember how Hebrew prophets came to understand that God’s love transcends a particular people and place, to create one human community linked by a covenant of mutual responsibility. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests in his book The Dignity of Difference, we need a theology of religions to help us recognize the image of God in the face of those who are not in our own image. To find God in the faces of all humankind surely is a goal of the eternal life into which Jesus invites us to live our commitments now. The God of Abraham intends that all the families of the earth be blessed.
Have you ever had one of those transcendent moments, beyond time? One of those timeless moments when you felt flooded with divine energy and connected to all life? You probably weren’t asking yourself whether this sacred moment was an encounter with the Divine in the form of YWHW, the God of Abraham and Sarah and the twelve tribes of Israel. The one, true Divine nature of the universe is filtered through many human concepts, but remains no less one, no less true, no less Divine.
So how do we increase our knowledge of and access to the Divine? Remember the song “Day By Day” in Godspell? The words are from a prayer written by St. Richard in the 13th century:
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day. Amen.
And certainly prayer is a way into the sacred mysteries – silent prayer, centering prayer, written prayer, extemporaneous prayer, private prayer, communal prayer. We can also connect with God through reading sacred texts, through imagery, poetry, nature, music, and other approaches.
As Linda Clader writes,
We all have our ways to grow in our oneness with God. We may ground our own growth in corporate worship. We may follow a spiritual discipline of private prayer, study, and service in God’s name. We may dedicate ourselves to a particular ministry in a cause of justice, or healing, or pastoral presence. No matter which path we follow toward oneness with God, the Holy Spirit can act in our lives to draw us closer, and to reveal to us the presence of God that is already nearer to us than our own heartbeats. We have only to open our eyes and our ears, and remain willing to receive and respond.
Isn’t this why at New Pilgrims our mission is to create a caring community providing a spiritual home that welcomes doubt and inquiry? To make safe space to open our eyes and ears, to remain willing to receive and respond to the timeless mystery of the Divine? Isn’t that why we’re dedicated to ministries of hospitality and justice? To increase our sense of connectedness with God and the world? Why we worship in various ways – gathered around a table sharing food like Jesus and the disciples; unpacking scripture for ourselves in do-it-yourself sermons? In order to invite the Holy Spirit to act in our lives, draw us closer and reveal to us the age-during culture of God?
St. Richard, who wrote the “day by day” prayer I referred to earlier, lived a life devoted to study and church service, serving as Bishop of Chichester (Chi-ster) from 1244 to 1253. The words of the prayer are said to be his last utterance before dying. In his last moments he prayed about what mattered most to him – to see Jesus, the physical incarnation of the Divine, more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly.
Hours before his death by crucifixion, Jesus prays about what matters most to him. According to Nancy Ramsey,
For him the culmination of his work is that we know God through his life and ministry. His final hopes are not a celebration of himself, but the recognition that his life and ministry are windows into God’s love and saving purposes. So Jesus prays that people will come to know God through him. “Knowing” describes a powerful, active, confessional, and intimately relational claim on our lives. Knowing God is an experience that draws believers into a new reality in which the new order that will be shaped eternally by God’s vision for love and justice and service can also be realized in relationships and communities now.
There are many ways to cultivate our intimate connection with the Divine, many ways to expand our awareness of and participation in the interconnectedness of all life and the age-during culture of God. The amazing, mind-blowing, reality-shaking good news is that living into the culture of God isn’t just doing the right thing – this is transcendence, living on the cosmic level, outside of time, inside of time, and beyond time. This is eternal life. Amen.
 Paraphrased slightly from HELPSTM Word-studies, copyright © 1987, 2011 by Helps Ministries, Inc. at http://biblehub.com/greek/166.htm
 John Manly Adams, Feasting on the Word: Year A Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide.
 Nancy Ramsey, Feasting on the Word: Year A Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide.
 Linda Clader, Feasting on the Word: Year A Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide.
 Nancy Ramsey, Feasting on the Word: Year A Volume 2: Lent Through Eastertide.