Jesus said to them, Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. - John 6:47-48
When I was in my 20s and totally out of control and pretty much estranged from my conservative Christian parents I used to joke about how my mom would try and guilt me into connecting with them more often by saying in her Kentucky accent “Nadia, the least you could do is come visit us more often … since we won’t be spending eternity together." Which made me wonder if the church she went to realized that the promise of spending eternity with my mom and her friends wasn’t exactly the best-selling point. At least not for a 21 year old.*
But that’s kind of what I was taught: that being a Christian was all about where you will spend eternity after you die – kind of like purchasing a life-insurance plan for the hereafter. And if you manage to be good enough here on earth then when you die you get to go to heaven and be like the spiritual 1 percent for eternity and live in big mansions with Jesus and wear awesome jewels and walk streets of gold.
Which made it sound like eternal life is basically about getting to live like Liberace Forever.
So even now when I hear the phrase “eternal life” it’s hard to not just think of it as life after death. Don’t get me wrong, it is true that to have eternal life means that death is not the final word … that beyond the death of these human bodies is a life with God everlasting. That’s beautiful, and yes, it is good news. But I dare say that it’s not the whole picture.
Because I need eternal life to be about more than just what happens after I die. I need eternal life to also be about life before death. Eternal life can’t just be about time that never ends – because my relationship to time is in some ways, the very source of a lot of fear and anxiety in my life. The philosopher Kierkegaard knew about this. He wrote about how our anxieties are about how we relate to time – see, the fixed nature of what has already happened can feel terrifyingly final. But the unknowable and vast nature of what can happen in the future is also frightening. It seems a simple enough truth – that we can’t change the past and we can’t control the future. Yet this is what haunts so many of us.
So, too often we spend our time, our present time, the actual moments we will never get back again, and we squander them regretting what we’ve done or what’s been done to us in the past, or fearing what will or won’t happen to us in the future. And seriously, we might as well just take all those present moments we spend doing that and just throw them in a Dumpster instead because in effect that’s what we are doing anyhow.
So this week I started to feel that if the promise of eternal life that Jesus speaks of in our reading for today is only something that happens after we die, then it just doesn’t feel like good enough news to me. But then I realized, that if eternal life is related to the imperishable truth of Who God is in Jesus, then this does actually have something to say about our resentment about the past and our anxiety about the future. Because when it comes down to it, all our regrets and fears that rob us of the present moment …all of them when it comes down to it are actually about the fear of death. Whether it’s a conservative Christian mother who fears the loss of her wayward daughter and wishes she’d call more, or a desperate housewife in Orange County who is injecting Botox into her poor forehead. All fear is fear of death.
So if fear and regret are the things that rob us of the present moment then when Jesus speaks of eternal life, it isn’t just about what happens when we die. Eternal life is life that is available now and it’s life that comes from knowing that death has finally been put in it’s place. Everlasting life is available now to those who believe that the God of the universe whose love we are drawn into in Christ – that this God is the source and ground of what is more real than any mistake or mistreatment of the past and more real than any hypothetical possibility in the future. This isn’t about just when we die … because this God is present to you most especially – not in the past or future – but in the present moment. Jesus said I AM the bread of life — not I was or I will be — but I AM. And that I AMness of Jesus transcends time so that his I AMness is available to us in the present moment. Kierkegaard was right when he said that Christ’s presence on Earth is never a bygone event. The IAMness of Christ is not something that we remember from ancient history – it is always a present reality.
Life everlasting is always about the present. It’s about a promise in Christ made in the past, which continues in the future but is most especially for right now in the present.
I think this is why all the great spiritual leaders teach mindfulness. Because the gift of the present is the only thing that is real.
This is how the great saints and martyrs of the church survived whatever came their way. They weren’t saints because they didn’t have the same amount of things in their past to resent or regret as you do. It’s not because they didn’t have the same number of possible bad things that could happen in the future. I think they knew the imperishable truth of Christ in the real and present moments of their lives and they trusted this more than they trusted all other competing ideas. They trusted this more than they feared death.
I think the saints of the church have always known that I AMness of Christ as the way, the truth, and the bread of life is about NOW. This is why every week when we introduce the peace at House for all Sinners and Saints we do so by saying Christ is among us making peace right here, right now. The peace of Christ be with you.
Maybe you live in a place of resentment or regret for what has happened in the past. Or maybe you live in anxiety or fear of the future. And if so, please know that this imperishable truth of the I AMness of Christ is present to you. Right here. Right now.
So I’ll take a page out of our contemplative-in-residence James Wall’s book and invite you to mindfulness. I invite you into the reality of this very moment. God is here. The eternal imperishable truth is found in the way God is present to us in each moment. This present moment is a gift to you from God. Because here’s the thing: God has already redeemed your past and is already present in the future that you keep worrying about. And the life that God brings us is life eternal. It is happening right now and it is more real and more powerful and more eternal than anything you have to fear or resent or regret. So welcome to life eternal. Amen
*Peggy is awesome and loves me and my church and yes, is quite grateful I came back to Jesus.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.nadiabolzweber.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.
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