From our Gospel reading today: Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.
What is eternal life?
Is eternal life what we see on TV? Will we all float around on clouds, strumming harps, being careful to avoid the occasional filming of a commercial for Philadelphia Cream Cheese?
Is eternal life what we hear in jokes? Will we have to prove our worthiness to St. Peter as we wait at the Pearly Gates in line behind a minister, a priest and a rabbi?
Is Mitch Albom, author of The Five People You Meet in Heaven correct when he portrays eternal life as one big therapy session?
Well, truthfully none of us know.
The phrase eternal life is mentioned the gospels twenty five times, but almost always in terms of how to get eternal life. Characters in the New Testament often ask Jesus, “What do I have to do to gain eternal life?” In the Synoptic Gospels-that’s Mark, Matthew, and Luke-Jesus says eternal life is earned through keeping the commandments, leaving one’s family to follow Jesus, and of course, giving all your money to the poor.
Not so easy, huh?
In John’s gospel, eternal life is given in exchange for believing in Jesus and, of course in eating Christ’s flesh and blood.
But seriously, what is eternal life?
You’ll notice in all three of our cultural examples: TV, jokes, and Mitch Albom’s book, eternal life begins at death. Eternal life is something we strive for so we don’t have to die-so we can avoid the ultimate obliteration of our story, our selves. After all, isn’t that how we envision eternal life? We picture heaven, right? Eternal life as a physical place we go as we transition from being alive to being dead. Whether we imagine a garden or a heavenly city, we see eternal life both as a destination and a reprieve.
But in our Gospel reading today, Jesus does not say, those who eat my body and blood will have eternal life. He says, those who eat my body and blood have eternal life. He uses the present tense.
So clearly, eternal life means more than life after death. Somehow, we can experience eternal life right now. In this life!
But we’re still left with the question, what is eternal life?
Eternal life is not simply an extension of the life we already have. Eternal life is not just an escape from death. Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian Poet and Nobel Prize winner wrote,
“In our desire for eternal life we pray for an eternity of our habit and comfort, forgetting that immortality is in repeatedly transcending the definite forms of life in order to pursue the infinite truth of life.”
I think what he is saying, is that we are mistaken if we long for eternal life to be a continuation of the life we have now. We tend to pray for eternal life that is a similar to this life, because we are afraid of death. Even if our lives are rich and full of love, eternal life is a different quality of life from every day life-Eternal life is a life of connection to God.
The one biblical definition of eternal life is found in John 17. Jesus says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”.
So, eternal life is a relationship, not a time frame or a place. Eternal life is when we know God and know Jesus Christ. When we are in relationship with the holy, whether it is now or after we have died, we are experiencing eternal life.
Eternal life is the moment when God breaks into our dreary, daily routine and fills it with transcendence. Eternal life gives us a glimpse of our true calling-as the beloved of God.
The synoptic gospels, with all of their instructions of how to achieve eternal life, actually do describe what eternal life is. After all, what are the commandments they ask us to follow? To love God with all your heart and soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
So, it turns out even the instructions about how to gain eternal life are about relationship-It’s a little bit of circular logic-in order to gain eternal life, we must be in relationship with God and Jesus Christ; the reward for which will be eternal life which a relationship with God and Jesus Christ.
Eternal life is clearly all about intense relationship. So, why do we as a culture minimize the idea of eternal life to make it something cutesy and cloudy? Perhaps the idea of being in direct relationship with the very creator of the universe is overwhelming for us. Perhaps the idea of being bathed in the fullness of God’s love is too abstract and intimidating.
But as we share communion today, know you are sharing in a moment of eternity. As we join with each other and with all the saints who have passed before us, we are opening ourselves to God’s presence. We are opening ourselves to experience eternal life.