14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
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.
17 “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. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 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. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 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.”
“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.” This verse is widely quoted and often shows up in face paint and on signs at sporting events. In today’s parlance, it is “the good news in a tweet.” Believe in Jesus and you will have eternal life. Sounds good but what does it mean? We have to figure out what it means to have eternal life and what it means to believe.
Eternal life is tricky. In most of the images I was raised with, eternal life referred to an idealized extension of what we know. We get to gather with people we love in exotic well appointed mansions. We are safe; we are loved; we get to stay forever in contact with those we love. But, whenever we use what we know to describe what we don’t know, we are going to run into problems if we push on these images. Do we live in eternity as our mother’s child or our child’s parent? How old are we? If we’ve been married more than once, with which spouse will we spend eternity? These questions are unanswerable and trying to explain them misses the point of a truth beyond human experience.
But, rather than imagine that eternal life refers to some kind of extension of what we know forever and ever, eternal life can also refer to how we choose to live life. The question shifts from ‘What will happen to me after I die?’ to “What kind of life will I dedicate my living to?’ What makes life well lived? That is a different question and a different approach to eternal life. Most of us discover, usually later than earlier in our lives that the phrase, ‘you can’t take it with you’ is literally true. How we define a life well lived changes as we learn the hard truth that in real life, everything we acquire, everything we achieve and even everything we love will be lost to time.
The eternal life Jesus taught was a life of mindfulness, regard, love and service. These are the traits that add to life—in both the here and now as well as on a cosmic scale. Following Jesus is the life that has meaning and gives meaning to our lives. These are huge faith claims and as John puts it “who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The promise is that if we make our priority living as Jesus instructs, we will be part of the eternal. If we do not, our efforts to preserve ourselves and our legacy will turn to dust. (These are consequences no different than realizing jumping off of a tall building will likely end in death. It is ironic that this ‘better way’ is often used as a litmus test to judge and condemn– Believe in Jesus or go to hell—but that is for another blog.)
Believing in Jesus means that it is safe to be who we are—creatures and sinners. When we look at the cross, we realize that suffering, pain and unfair treatment are part of life. Unless anyone thinks they deserve better treatment than Jesus, we will have to realize that real life regularly includes some very hard times. Those times are painful enough without us labeling them as ‘bad’, thinking they are avoidable or that they are signs of our separation from God.
Here are but a few of recent real life examples. A father discovers porn on his teenage son’s computer. They talk. Ten minutes later, he hears a gunshot. His son has committed suicide in the garage. How does anyone find a way to find life after such pain? Spiritually, he not only must face the loss of his son, he must also face that he could not protect his son. And worse he must face that, in his own mind at least, he might have contributed to his son’s death. It is one thing to preach that God loves us and loves us as flawed human beings. It is quite another to have to face not only what we cannot control but also that our best intentions can go so horribly wrong.
A woman learns that her father has lung cancer and has refused treatment. Even though she understands her father’s decision, she sees the painful road in front of him—and for her. Everyone knows everyone dies. He is mortal. It does not lessen the pain.
A retiree, living alone, sees her health declining and she finds it harder and harder to feel motivated. Simple household tasks are put off, social encounters avoided. She is not imminently in danger but it is harder to find life. She experiences her pain as a spiritual crisis. She feels disconnected from God and abandoned. She has always been independent and capable. She certainly does not want to be a burden nor die completely dependent upon others. Almost all view such a death as bad. But we are creatures and death comes as it comes.
Finally a mother on the edge of an empty nest learns her daughter is schizophrenic. Worse, the daughter’s condition leads to behaviors that drain the family’s emotional and financial reserves. After an enormous amount of research, there is no good option. Where will her daughter live? What should the mother do? There are a few short term solutions but it is clear this will be a long term problem. She must face the limits of knowing. Many times we must make really important decisions without truly knowing what is best. That is true of all mortals. So she asks: “Why does it have to be so hard?”
None of us can answer that question but we can look at that hard truth squarely in the eye. I believe that is what John is talking about when he says: “ 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.” We must face what we fear. We must face life as it is. We must face what we would rather avoid in order to find the life God would have for us. In psychological terms, the way out is through the bottom. In real life, it is only living through what seemed impossible do we discover possibilities beyond our imagining.
Of course, we would rather avoid such times but when they come, the cross tells us that new life is possible. Life, in Christian terms, is not measured by what we accomplish nor by what happens to us, it is measured by what we do with what we have. A longer life that is misdirected just means a longer life turned to dust. We can not stave off the limitations and hardships of our lives. That is not a human option. But we can continue to live fully the life that we have. Believing in Jesus means choosing his way of life no matter what happens to us. We can only do that in the confidence that the Word was made flesh and dwells among us.
One last very important example that John uses to illustrate this point is ‘coming to the light’. John says “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Just as many of us hate to fully know the limitations of our real lives, most of us fear being fully known. Most of us have some part of ourselves that we are unwilling to share. We believe and act as if we were fully known, we would more likely be rejected than embraced. (And there is plenty of human evidence that says that is exactly what will happen.) But God’s way is not the human way. We do not trust that God can love us when we have judged ourselves or—as inadequate or bad. When we live as if our own judgment is true, we will always say ‘yes, but….’ to love. When we come to light, we trust that we can be fully known and fully loved. There is no greater gift. It is the good news and it is saving.
The promise of the cross is that God fully knows us. There is no human experience that will separate us from God. There is no error we can make —no sin we can commit that cannot be forgiven. Trusting that promise allows us to come into the light. It allows us to live in God’s love. When we believe, we choose a life of mindfulness, regard, love and service. It is the only thing that lasts. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.