Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1: 15 – 17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5: 9-13; John 17: 6 - 19
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
Two stories I want to share with you. The first is untrue, but it is at least humorous. The story involves two young enterprising church evangelists – let’s just say they’re two young women. They are in the process of going from door to door down a street in a neighborhood, knocking on doors, handing out Bibles, sharing their faith.
When they arrive at a house they knock on the front door. Before the door is answered they hear the crying of children in the house and an adult voice yelling “give the toy back to your brother!” The door opens and the two young women see an older woman holding a baby in one hand, with two other crying children hanging onto her legs. There’s dirty laundry on the floor, milk spilled on the kitchen table, and the father is nowhere to be seen.
The first young woman says, “Ma’am we’re here to tell you about the gift of eternal life.” And the mother looks at the two evangelists and says. “Are you crazy? Look at my house! Why would I want to have to live like this forever!”
Second story – and this one is true. My brother, my sister, and I were with my mother in front of a Luby’s Cafeteria in the 1970’s while my dad was parking the car. It was evening, and we were going to have dinner. I was a baby at the time which meant I was just probably going to smear jello all over my tray. Apparently, I was in my mother’s arms, probably crying, my brother, only a few years older than me at the time, was pulling away from my mom while my sister pulling her in the opposite direction and also crying about something. A man drove by in an El Camino, slowed down, rolled the window down, saw the desperate look on my mother’s face. He leaned out the window and in what just may be the most unhelpful statement ever said he asked my mother, “hey lady, haven’t you ever heard of birth control?”
Life is complicated. We are pulled in many different directions, trying to meet so many different needs, raising children, going to work, paying bills. We go about our work whether that is at home or outside the home, we do our best to maintain friendships, to do the right thing, and all of it can leave us, well – exhausted. The idea of doing this for all eternity is not really all that appealing, to be honest.
I believe the author of 1 John knew this. In the part of the 1 John we hear today, eternal life is described in a new and refreshing way. The author writes in v. 12: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” When I hear that initially, my first response is to say “I disagree – I don’t like that” because I am uncomfortable with exclusionary statements, especially the religious kind. Who gave us the right to determine who has eternal life, anyway? But then I read it again.
When I read the verse the second time, I don’t see them as exclusionary at all. That is because I understand the words “Whoever has the Son has life,” to mean any person that chooses to live their life in the way that Jesus did, will have true life, a kind of life that never ends. A kind of life that not even death can end.
What kind of life did Jesus live? It seemed to be the kind of life that was not governed by fear or anxiety, but rather grounded in love, hope, humility and compassion. Make no mistake – it is not an easy life, but nowhere in the Bible are we promised that eternal life is easy.
That might come as a discomfort to some of you, but to me, I am grateful. Philosopher Carl Jung once said “People need difficulties; they are necessary for health.” I don’t want to romanticize struggle or difficulty. The wake of the bombing of the Boston marathon, and the sentence given last week, is beyond our ability to fathom. The pain and difficulty coming from that event is unquantifiable. Even so – is not able to bring blessing and goodness out of the darkest moments of our national life?
I don’t believe that God intends for us to feel pain. I believe our pain and suffering mostly arises as we slowly learn the futility of our self-will. Without romanticizing struggle, we are all aware that struggle - even suffering - brings us in touch with the God who created us in a powerfully intimate way. The prayer book’s way of describing this phenomenon is that after we die our lives move “from strength to strength,” meaning that even in eternity, we continue to grow and learn.
Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, now in his eighties, spoke about his concept of Nirvana, and expressed a similar hope – that Nirvana, let’s call it heaven, would not be entirely blissful, for that would invite decay. In an interview several years ago Thich Nhat Hahn rather expressed hope that there would be suffering in the world to come, because it is from suffering that eternal beauty and compassion grow. These words are spoken not by a man who is immune to suffering on earth, but from a man who lived through Vietnam war in his own country, caring for the wounded soldiers on both sides – a man well versed in suffering, and ironically for him, suffering becomes not something to flee when he dies, but rather his hope for eternity.
I should tell you how that first story ends. The two young women leave the house and look back at the older women, her children, the mess. They see the lines of struggle on her face. And they realize the mistake in coming to her home. This woman didn’t need to be bothered about eternal life – for she already lived it. In both their minds, the young women knew silently, they had just met Jesus. AMEN.