Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.”
Well, by now you have to know what is coming next. How about a couple of jokes about eternal life:
When I die, I want to go peacefully like my Grandpa did, in his sleep -- not screaming, like the passengers in his car.
I just read a list of “The 100 Things To Do Before You Die” and was very surprised that “Yell for help” wasn’t one of them.
And the Lord said unto John, “Come forth and receive eternal life,” but John came fifth and all he got was a toaster.
Two men waiting at the pearly gates struck up a conversation. “How did you die?” the first man asked the second. “I froze to death,” the second replied. “Did it hurt?” asked the first man. “It was uncomfortable at first, but eventually you get numb and drift off into a peaceful sleep.” “And how did you die?” the second man asked. “Well,” said the first, “I suspected my wife was cheating on me so one day I came home when she didn’t expect. She acted like nothing was going on so I ran all around the house like a crazy man looking for her lover. As I sprinted up the attic stairs I had a massive heart attack and died.” “That is so ironic”, said the second man. “Why do you say that?” asked the first. “Well,” he replied, “If only you had stopped to look in the freezer we would both still be alive!”
Jesus said, “Whoever believes has eternal life.”
I wonder how many people associate believing first with an intellectual acceptance of certain ideas about God, Jesus, and the bible and second with the veracity and passion with which you proclaim those ideas through your words and deeds. It is as if we think believing is a checklist of statements to be marked off as “Yes”, “No”, or “Undecided”:
ü Do you believe God exists?
ü Do you believe God created everything?
ü Do you believe that the Earth belongs to God?
ü Do you believe Jesus is the Son of God?
ü Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?
ü Do you believe Jesus walked on water?
ü Do you believe in the Resurrection?
ü Do you believe Jesus is the way, the life, and the truth?
It is as if the more statements you can mark as “Yes” the higher you score on ‘believing’. And, based on today’s reading from John, it appears there is a threshold of believing that merits eternal life. Believe enough and you are in. Fall short and…well who knows, but most likely it won’t be pretty or pleasant.
Is this a fair way to understand what Jesus is saying?
Let’s consider the context of his bold proclamation. He has just performed one of the seven signs John records to reveal who Jesus is. This sign involves feeding the multitude and the discourse that follows. Today’s reading is punctuated by dissent. The people who participated in the feeding are not arguing it did not occur. They dispute Jesus’ interpretation of what it means. They have known him since he was a child and while they must wonder how he is able to do the miraculous things he is doing, they cannot accept that Jesus is God’s Bread come down from heaven.
Notice how Jesus responds. He does not say, “Whoever has belief has eternal life.” If he had said this, it would have made believing to be a noun, an objective, concrete checklist to which either you subscribe or you reject. Rather than this, Jesus says, “Whoever believes has eternal life.” Here, believe is used as a verb. It may seem to be little more than semantics, but the difference is huge.
On the blog Progressive Involvement, John Petty suggests this translation for today’s verse:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the one faithing has life eternal.”
[The Greek word used here] means “to faith.” It is a verb… and “faith” used as a verb sounds odd in English. Nevertheless the phrase should be translated as “the one faithing.” Here, faith is understood to mean a radical trust, an orientation of one’s entire self, not merely a head-trip of “believing” the right things.
For Jesus, radical trust and orienting of faithing are centered around participating in the Eucharist. It becomes the means by which we participate in the Heavenly Banquet, not only for eternity, but also here and now. The Eucharistic meal shared in the midst of a Eucharistic community is both a foretaste of a life to come as well as a means of receiving the life Christ for this present moment.
Think of a couple is preparing for their wedding. They meet with the caterer and with the person who will bake their cake. It is common practice today for these people to prepare a sample of the food or the cake the couple wants served at the reception. “It is delicious,” the couple says. “We can’t wait until our family and friends get to try it. They are going to love it.” This foretaste of the wedding banquet helps build excitement for the actual event. It energizes the couple to endure the grueling details to which they must tend.
This, in some respects, is what we do as we gather here today. We are deepening our relationship with God and with one another as we share in foretaste of a meal yet to come. We are not here to rehearse and support ideas and concepts about the faith. We are here to act out the faith. The goal is not that we think of ourselves as Christians in the sense of a noun, but Christians in the sense of a verb. We become people who are “Christ-liking” in the world. And the food we eat helps us to live this way.
If every person who ever told me they didn’t have to be in church to worship God – they can do it in the woods, at the beach, on the golf course, fill in the blank – showed up here this morning, well, suffice it to say chances are slim you would get to sit in your favorite pew. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it is important to be spiritually open and alive wherever you are. And for many, it is probably true that the lion’s share of their spiritual fulfillment comes from places other than church. Heck, for some who are deeply involved in the life of the church, attending a Sunday service can be more draining than filling (feel free to seek out the Junior Warden if you need confirmation about this and make sure to tell him about a light bulb that needs replaced).
But for Jesus there is something essential about participating in a Eucharistic community. It is part-and-parcel of faithing. Yes, you can be faithing while fishing from a boat all by yourself, but apparently it is Jesus’ vision that we gather together regularly, support one another no matter what, challenge one another when necessary, engage the hard work of reconciliation when broken, and give thanks as a body always. And all of this occurs within the context of Jesus being present in Bread and Wine.
Some of you folks new to St. Paul’s never had the opportunity to know Art Bunton – a grizzly old curmudgeon of a faithful servant to God if ever there was one. More than once after a sparsely attended service, Art corralled me in the Parish Hall and said, “Where is everyone? You need to preach to these people that they ought to be in church every Sunday” to which I would respond, “And what good would that do because these are the people who are already here?” I can’t help shake the feeling that today’s sermon “preaches the choir” – that it is a message you already are heeding.
If this is the case, then I encourage you to take with you these thoughts on which to meditate:
Do you think of belief as being a noun or as a verb? What do you think it means to be “faithing” the faith? Do you berate yourself for having honest intellectual doubts? If so, how does this affect your ability to be “faithing” the faith? How are you like “one who is faithing”?