Trinitarian Congregational Church
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Anthony S. Kill May 6, 2018
Texts: I John 4:7-12; Mark 10:7-17
Today, I want to spend a few minutes considering the topic of Eternal Life, as it’s used in the New Testament. The Gospel of John and letters of John are the places where the phrase is most often used. In Greek, the phrase is zwh aiwnion (Zoe Aionion) That phrase, eternal life – appears 23 times in the Johannine writings, more than in all the rest of the Bible combined. For John, that is the primary gift that Jesus promised to those who believed in him: eternal life. But for John, eternal life isn’t some reward of everlasting immortality, something you get when you die – pie in the sky by and by. In John, eternal life is a present reality, not a future promise. It is something believers have now. It begins now and lasts forever.
There are several passages in John that express eternal life as a present experience, not just a future promise. “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” John 4:14
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.” John 5:24
“Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” John 6:47
Just what is this “eternal life”? Zoe aionion (zwh aiwnion) is the metaphor used by John to describe the change in human existence wrought by faith in Jesus. To have eternal life is to live life no longer defined by blood or by the will of the flesh or by human will, but by God [cf. 1:13]. No longer defined by ancestry or position or class or lot in life. It’s a way of describing life lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to experience life as a child of God.
Those who have this and claim this, human and sinners though they be, look to Jesus raised up before them and know that they have life, abundant life, eternal life. That is the light that illuminates and guides their way through the world.
Those who do not see this or claim it, do not know this abundant life, do not have the light, and continue to stumble in the shadows.
Even though Eternal Life is John’s constant theme, I decided to illustrate the concept by using the story from Mark about the rich man who “runs up” to Jesus and “kneels before him.” and asks the strange question: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Let’s consider this fellow for a moment: All indications are that he has the very best that life has to offer: Wealth, security, status, and all the resources necessary for education, culture, pleasure and enjoyment.
Moreover, this good fellow was no profligate or hedonist; He also had religion. We learn that he was a faithful keeper of God’s laws: He did not consciously steal, lie, defraud, dishonor or demean others by his lifestyle.
Yet, obviously something was sorely lacking in the “good life” of this fortunate man. And he sought the answer from Jesus of Nazareth. In the penniless vagabond preacher and healer, with his band of fishermen and publicans, on their way to ruin and ridicule in Jerusalem, he saw a depth of life that he had not found in all his privilege and was desperately hungry for: He saw “zoe aionion” — Eternal Life. And he asks for it: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” I hope it’s clear that this man isn’t just asking “How do I get to heaven after I die?” In Mark’s gospel, “zoe aionion” –eternal life – is equivalent to “the Kingdom of God” that is within you, or that is at hand. “Eternal Life” is a way of living now, in the present, that undergirds and supersedes and survives beyond all the transient “goods” and “good” of mortal life.
Eternal Life survives not only our physical or financial fortunes or misfortunes, but survives all securities of relationship, career, status — it even survives our living or dying. It is a quality of living that grasps a truth and a hope about human life that surpasses all earthly securities or certainties.
And on this level of living, the rich man knew he was more dead than alive. He saw this life in Jesus, and in Jesus’ way, but he did not have it himself.
Jesus offers two answers. The first seems to call the rich man to follow the “expected” standards of religious and moral behavior: Stay away from those things that lead to spiritual death: murder and hatred, dishonesty, sexual infidelity, theft, fraud, lack of family responsibility.
But the man replies, “I do avoid all those things. I strive to be faithful and good. It’s not enough. It may keep me from eternal death, but it still doesn’t give me life.”
Then, the Gospel says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” Jesus saw into the man’s heart, and knew that he was asking the question beyond the religious question, beyond the smug, stifling security of “the good life”. He heard the man’s agonizing cry to be delivered from good religious practice into true spirituality and holiness. Jesus sees his struggle and feels his hunger, and Jesus loves him.
And then he offers him the second answer: “Then free your soul to live for God. Disencumber yourself from all that will impede you. Let it go. Slough it off. Come, follow me.” Jesus seems to be saying, “There is nothing you can do to inherit eternal life, But there are some bonds that you may need to undo, to free yourself for life. All your hard work to be rich and secure; All those wise investments and safe holdings and hard-nosed savings of your wealth; They do not free you to live, or assure you of peace, or strengthen you in your life struggle; They only bind you and blind you and weigh your body and spirit down. Go, sell, give; let go of your earthly treasure and you will have a far greater treasure; Then you can come, follow me.”
Then the story takes a sad and tragic turn. “When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
Clearly, the man did not possess his possessions; He was possessed by his possessions, and they owned him. His material life was robbing him of his eternal life.
Jesus’ reflection on this tragic case is the riddle of the camel and the needle’s eye. “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Throughout the centuries, many efforts have been made to make the impossible possible in this riddle. Some scholars have tried to suggest that there was a manuscript error made by some ancient copyist. The word “camel” — kamelos in Greek – should really have been the word “rope” — kalos in Greek. Trying to get a rope through the eye of a needle is hard, but at least it’s not absurd. Other scholars have tried to re-interpret the text: Might there have been a certain narrow gate in the Jerusalem city wall that was called “The Needle’s Eye?” That would be a tight fit for a camel, but not unthinkable.
Unfortunately, there’s no manuscript evidence whatsoever for theorizing a misprint of “camel” for “rope” nor is there the slightest historical evidence that such a needle’s-eye gate ever existed.
Which means the impossible riddle remains. So, let’s take a look at this camel. Have you ever really? Looked at a camel, close up? If you have, it’s easy to understand why the camel’s been called ‘a horse designed by a committee’. Whether you compare him to a needle or not, the camel is among the most bizarre, unsleek and unexpected of all God’s creatures. –ungainly hump, huge feet, mean disposition, full of bumps and wrinkles and lumps and sags and bulges in the most inconvenient of places. Sometimes, that image reminds me of my body, but more often it often reminds me of my soul.
We all tend, I think, to try to hoard up talents and treasures and securities — in good deeds, in stuff, in insurance both physical and emotional — a little extra stored up here, a slightly bulging bag of protection there, a favor to be returned on a rainy day, an I.O.U. from God, if we could ever collect —
And soon our grasping, hoarding spirits sort of look like camels, full of lumps and sags and bulges, storing extra fat and water for the long uncertain journeys ahead.
Our yearning search for eternal life is no less genuine, but like the rich man, our possessions, many or few, begin to possess us and our accounting system leaves less and less room for God’s work –in our spiritual lives or in our financial priorities. We become so preoccupied with our plans and hopes, our roadmaps through life that we forget all about what God’s intentions for our life might be – God’s destination for us. But then, at the most unexpected and inconvenient times, along comes Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus on the Way, with his urgent sense of destination and destiny and his path crosses each of our journeys to anywhere and nowhere.
Then, all of us camels, with all our defenses and excuses and encumbrances, all our baggage on our backs, are asked to make a clean and clearsighted and faith-filled choice about where our securities and priorities will lie. We are called to lay our burdens and our baggage down, To stand (or kneel) naked and laid bare before the Living Word of God. And that doesn’t make us less than we are or hope to be. It makes us all that we are or could ever hope to be.
If you really hear the Bible as a message addressed to your life, the story of this rich man will always make you squirm. It does me. It almost makes me afraid to form the question, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” It makes me feel a lot like a camel must, eyeing that hole in the needle. But take heart: “For us it is impossible; but not for God. For God, all things are possible.”