Sermon: "Eternal Life -- Here and Now"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Number 21.4-9; Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21
In Numbers 21, the Children of Israel are encamped at Mt. Hor, roughly 10 miles west of the Dead Sea. They are en route to the Promised Land. The previous chapter records the denial of their request for passage through Edom and the death and burial of Aaron, Moses’ brother and High Priest, on Mt. Hor. Edom’s refusal to grant passage meant the Children of Israel had to travel southward toward the Red Sea (the Gulf of Aqaba), then eastward into more wilderness conditions, then turn back northward. This added significant distance to their trip – the detour had to be a blow to the peoples’ morale. Hence, their grumbling: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” The people then encountered poisonous serpents, and many died. They went to Moses and confessed: “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” Moses prayed. The Lord told Moses to fashion a serpent and to mount it on a pole. When the people were bitten by a serpent, those who looked upon the serpent would live (Numbers 21.4-9; NRSV). By looking upon the serpent, the people acknowledged, or took ownership of, their sin. God then granted life.
As an aside – and this will not cost you anything – this is not the last we hear of the serpent. In 2 Kings 18, we read that Hezekiah became king over Judah; he initiated reform. The account says, “Hezekiah did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan” (Vss. 3-4; NRSV). This means the people made sacrifices to this idol for hundreds of years!
Today’s gospel reading begins with Jesus’ reference to the Children of Israel’s experience with the serpent: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3.14-15; NRSV). If you are like me, you may be wondering about the larger context of this saying.
Jesus is conversing with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. Nicodemus came by night, undoubtedly, to protect his reputation and honor. What would people think if he were to be seen with this mad rabbi? Jesus told Nicodemus “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3.3; NRSV). Nicodemus immediately responded with two questions: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born” (Vs. 4; NRSV)? Jesus answered by noting two types of birth – physical and spiritual:
Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘Youmust be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Vss. 5-8; NRSV).
In effect, Jesus is saying, ‘Just as the wind has an element of mystery, so too being born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus is astounded; he replies, “How can these things be?” Jesus replied:
Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? …. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3.10-15; NRSV).
Then we encounter John 3.16: “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” (NRSV).
Here we should pause and carefully note a few things.
First, if one is to enter the Kingdom of God, one must experience death and rebirth. We see this symbolized in the sacrament of baptism. We die to the old self that is so enthralled with worldly values and are born anew of the Spirit, i.e., we are born from above.
Second, Jesus is saying we who have been doomed to death may look upon, believe in, the crucified and resurrected Christ and have the promise of new life. Perhaps you are thinking this is quite a jump, but as Haslam observes, “in Palestinian Aramaic and in Syriac the verb which is equivalent to ‘be lifted up’ has the special meaning of be crucified. John intends this double meaning here and in other passages where the word occurs” (http://www.montreal.anglican.org/comments/blnt4l.shtml?). Just as the ancient Israelites looked upon the bronze serpent and lived, we can look upon Christ on the cross and live.
In two other places in John, Jesus speaks of being “lifted up.” In John 8.28, Jesus tells the Jews, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me” (NRSV). And in John 12.32-33, we find: “’And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (NRSV).
Third, what is meant by “eternal life”? As N. T. Wright, the noted Anglican theologian, observes, in modern English we have come to understand this as meaning “a disembodied, timeless eternity … a timeless heavenly bliss” (Wright: http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/lent4b/). We have barrowed this idea from Greek philosophy. But the Greek zoe aionios as it occurs in the gospels and the epistles refers to “an aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” … : the “Present age” … and the “age to come” … which would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age”” (Ibid.). Wright further comments, “There is no sense that this ‘Age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of decay” (Ibid). Hence, what we understand as “eternal life” should really be understood as “the life of the age to come,” the age in which all things shall be healed, renewed, and made whole.
Fourth, and last, John 3.16 is usually interpreted from the standpoint of individual salvation: “Are you saved?” John 3.16 needs to be understood in broader terms. Yes, individual salvation and belief in Jesus Christ is important, but it must be understood in the context of rescuing the world itself – of the ultimate healing and restoration of God’s creation.
What are the implications for us believers? Those who believe in Christ are already participating in eternal life, in the life of the age to come. Jesus further stated, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3.17; NRSV). Christ has come to show us a new way of life – the way of life in the age to come. Jesus further states, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3.19-21; NRSV).
To put this another way, the light is with us now; Jesus’ death and resurrection ushered in the new age to come. Those who believe, those who have accepted new life in Christ, are already living in the Kingdom of God, in the new age to come. Yet the Kingdom of God is not yet completely fulfilled. That will occur with Christ’s return. Thus, as Christians we are living in the “now but the not yet.”
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians helps to clarify these points. Simply paraphrased, “All of us were dead through our trespasses and sins, but through God’s mercy and love, God has made us alive together through Christ. This is a gift of grace by which God has raised us up and seated us with Christ in the heavenly places. This did not transpire through our own efforts, through our good works. Nonetheless, we have been newly created through Christ for good works; this is the life God previously prepared for us.” As we are reminded in the book of James: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2.14-16; NRSV). Good works serve as the evidence for the genuineness of our faith.
Let us acknowledge that Christ our Savior was lifted up for us that we might have new life and let us encourage one another in faith and good works!