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Monday, April 14, 2014

Did God forsake Jesus on the cross?

When Mother Teresa’s private journals were published after her death, the surprising revelation was that she spoke of long periods where the sense of the absence of God was more real to her than God’s presence.

In Mark’s version of the passion narrative Jesus utters a single saying from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The cry echoes the feelings of the Psalmist (Ps. 22:1). It’s a question, not a declaration and it reflects the sense of God’s absence that overtook Jesus in his humiliating death.

Did God actually depart? Was Jesus really forsaken by God? Was this in reality the eclipse of God?

In subtle ways throughout the passion story Mark’s Gospel proclaims Jesus to be God’s agent of redemption. Before the high priest, Jesus is asked, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61). Jesus responded, “I am” (14:62). Jesus also affirmed Pilate’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2), which, obviously, Pilate did not believe. The soldiers mocked Jesus as “King,” dressing him in the color of royalty and placing a crown of thorns on his head (15:16-18). The inscription on the cross read, “The King of the Jews” (15:26). As he hung on the cross, passersby, along with the priests and scribes, mocked him as “Messiah and “King of Israel” (15:29-32). 

Herein is the irony and paradox. The final confession made by the Roman centurion that Jesus was God's Son (15:39) affirms that in Mark's view God was indeed present in this horrific event, acting in Jesus to redeem. Though Jesus is somewhat passive, bearing all the hate and animosity of the religious and political powers, God is active, reaching out to the world in and through Jesus’ death. God is active in the passivity of Jesus, absorbing the hate and animosity.

I believe that what Jesus experienced, God experienced. I do not believe in a distant, removed Almighty—an “Unmoved Mover.” I believe in a God who is deeply moved and engaged in the life of the creation. God, I believe, is not almighty in the use of power, but in the expression (though often hidden) of his magnanimous, wasteful love.

In his novel, “Jayber Crow,” Wendell Berry observes that Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave—that is, he didn’t overcome his killers by violent power. If he had, says Berry, then everyone would be coerced to believe in him, and “from that moment the possibility that we might be bound to him and he to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.”

Berry observes that God is present “only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of God’s creatures,” in “the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures . . . this groaning and travailing beautiful world.”

Berry cuts against the grain of our privatized, dualistic way of seeing life, reflecting a more universal and inclusive worldview. He writes, “We are all involved in all and any good, and in all and any evil. For any sin, we all suffer. That is why our suffering is endless. It is why God grieves and Christ’s wounds are still bleeding.”

Berry declares poetically what I believe the cross represents and symbolizes. God participates with us in our suffering. God is not “out there,” but in us and with us, sharing our pain and loss. In the ever present bleeding wounds of the living Christ we find a brother, comrade, and friend.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says, “Good Friday is the most comprehensive and most profound expression of Christ’s fellowship with every human being.” He stands in union and solidarity with every suffering soul. 

Christ descended into our “hell” and suffered it, in order to empty it of its malevolent power. Our failures and defeats, our feelings of abandonment and rejection, do not separate us from God, but draw us into communion and cooperation with God who shares in the suffering of this beautiful, yet groaning and travailing world.

God did not abandon Jesus, nor does God abandon us on whatever “cross” we may be stretched out upon. In our suffering, God suffers and is for us and with us, regardless of what we may feel or not feel.

Brother David Steindl-Rast has made the point that the affirmation that Jesus was not actually abandoned by God when he cried out in agony on the cross speaks above all about God. It presupposes a view of God that says God is concerned with justice and does set things right, though not necessarily on the level of history. 

The faithfulness of Jesus is highlighted in Jesus’ cry. While Jesus felt forsaken on the cross, he did not forsake God. “My God, my God” is a cry of faith. It is an affirmation of his persistence that the God of justice and peace, judgment and grace, the God who inspires visions of a world healed and made right, is, indeed, his God.

If we believe that God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isa. 40:29), then we, too, can overcome when the pain and darkness surround us and God is conspicuous by God’s absence. As with Jesus, the challenge before us is to keep trusting.

We have the benefit of knowing that the dawn of Easter morning follows the dark night of Good Friday

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Scapegoats and Lightning Rods (A Sermon on Matthew 27:27-44 for Passion Sunday or Good Friday)

The year was 2003 and the place was Wrigley Field in Chicago. It was the sixth game in a 4 out of 7 series with the Florida Marlins for the National League Championship. The Cubs were leading 3 – 0, just five outs away from going to the World Series. Then it happened.

With one out, Marlin second baseman Luis Castillo fouled one into the first row of seats off of the third base line. Several spectators reached for the ball as left fielder Moises Alou made a play on it. Just as Alou was about to make the catch, the ball deflected off the hands of a Cubs fan. That fan’s name was Steve Bartman. Alou visibly displayed his displeasure.

After that failed attempt to make an out, the inning broke open in favor of the Marlins. They scored eight runs, defeating the Cubs 8 – 3.

Because there were no replay boards in Wrigley Field, no one in the crowd knew of Bartman until friends and family members who were watching the game on TV started calling them on their cell phones. Bartman had to be led away from the park under security escort. As he and his friends who were with him were led out of the stadium, fans pelted him with drinks and other debris. Bartman’s name and personal information about him appeared on Major League Baseball’s online message boards minutes after the game ended. As many as six police cars gathered outside his home to protect Bartman and his family.

The Cubs went on to lose game 7 and Bartman issued a public apology saying he was truly sorry, that it happened so fast he didn’t even see Alou trying to catch the ball. He simply reacted. Indeed, everyone around Bartman had reacted the same way, but it was Bartman’s hands that actually touched the ball. Bartman became the scapegoat for all their frustration and anger.  

Since then, Bartman has kept a low profile. He has never given an interview and declined numerous endorsement deals. ESPN did a full length documentary on the incident in 2011 and Bartman again refused to be interviewed or appear on the program. Bartman also declined a six-figure offer to appear in a Super Bowl commercial. One can only imagine how his life has been impacted by this incident; perhaps he still fears physical harm.

Of course, there were a number of reasons why the Cubs lost that game and the final game to the Marlins that year. So why all this focus on Bartman? Why is it that we seek out scapegoats?

The image of a scapegoat recalls a ritual performed by ancient Israel on their holiest day of the year—Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. A goat was chosen by means of casting lots. Actually there were two goats chosen, one was killed as a sin offering to make atonement for the holy place, the other was allowed to live to make atonement for the sins of the people.

This is how the book of Leviticus describes the ritual: “Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness . . . The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region” (16:21-22).

This ritual functioned, I suppose, as a symbolical representation of the collective cleansing and forgiveness of the covenant people by God. Whether it was a healthy or toxic ritual for ancient Israel I cannot say. If it served as an expression of confession and repentance it may indeed have been redemptive. If, however, it was carried out as an act of projection and refusal to own one’s own culpability as so often happens today, then it was toxic.

We all know how Hitler made scapegoats of the Jews and how today gays have become scapegoats in Uganda and Russia. Think of how in our own country particular groups have been demonized and blamed: the poor are blamed for poverty, immigrants are blamed for the demographic changes happening all around us, and LGBT folks are blamed for the breakdown of the family. The scapegoat, whether an individual or a group, becomes the object of pent-up frustration and repressed anger, taking the form of subtle, malicious, verbal attacks or even outright venomous rage.

This scene from the passion story in Matthew’s Gospel pictures Jesus as a scapegoat. It begins with the soldiers stripping, humiliating, and mocking him by stringing a robe around him, putting a reed in his right hand, and pressing a crown of thorns on his head. They spit on him and beat him and cry out, “Hail, King of the Jews.”

The scorning continues when he is lifted up on the cross. The crowd derides him as do the religious leaders—the chief priests, scribes, and elders. Even the bandits crucified with Jesus taunt and ridicule him.

The political and religious powers mock him as Israel’s King and Messiah and as God’s Son—echoing both the imperial claims of Caesar and Hebrew designations for those who function as God’s special messengers and agents.

Of course the irony in all this is that Jesus is indeed Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son—God’s messenger and mediator of salvation. The early followers of Jesus, in retrospect, after being convinced that God raised, vindicated, and exalted Jesus, looked back at this horrific event and found saving significance in it.

So the question we need to ask—the question that is so important to our faith—is “How?” How is it possible that saving significance can be attached to the brutal, humiliating execution of a good man? How can this vicious, dehumanizing event be redemptive?

I think there are several ways, though today I want to mention two in connection with the ritual of scapegoating.

First, the scene Matthew pictures for us in the passion story exposes the evil of scapegoating much the same way images of African Americans being attacked and beaten in Selma Alabama exposed the evil of racism. Jesus became a scapegoat to end all scapegoating.

We are given an opportunity to see and judge. The key to change, however, is judging ourselves not others. We unjustly judge the other when we make the other a scapegoat. We justly judge ourselves when we are honest enough to see the many subtle ways we blame others and project our angst and anger on them. 

In the remake of the movie, “The Bad News Bears,” there is a scene where Coach Buttermaker sees and judges himself. In the championship game the opposing team’s coach demeans his son who is pitching. Because his son refuses to throw at a batter, the coach walks to the mound, verbally assaults him, and then pushes him down, humiliating him in front of everyone.

As Coach Buttermaker watches this scene unfold, something clicks—he sees himself and doesn’t like what he sees. It gives him pause and he decides to change. He decides that that is not who he wants to be. His moment of recognition sets him on a path of conversion. He decides to become a different human being.

This is what can happen when the absurdity and evil of scapegoating is exposed, and we are honest and courageous enough to see and judge ourselves.

A second way the crucifixion of Jesus can be liberating is when we decide to trust and emulate the costly forgiveness Jesus embodied in his death.

The late Clarence Jordan, the American Baptist who founded Koinonia Farm, asks, “Did God put our sins on the back of his son on the cross? No. He made him available and we put our sins on his back.”

He tells about getting a phone call at 1:30 in the morning. The guy on the other end said, “Mr. Jordan, I just wanted to let you know that within seventeen minutes there’s going to be a green pickup truck pull out of that dirt road there just below the bridge and it’s going to be loaded with dynamite. We’re going to blow your place off the face of the map. I just wanted to let you know so you would have time to get the people out of the buildings.”

Jordan tried to keep the guy on the phone by asking questions but the man who called was evidently in no mood to be conversational. He said in a huff, “Now, you have sixteen minutes,” and hung up the phone.  

With telephone in hand, his son walks in and wants to know who it was and what he wanted. Jordan tells his son that somebody wants to blow up the place. His son says, “Oh” and goes back to bed. 

Back in the bedroom, his wife asks what’s going on and he says, “Some guy called to say that he’s going to blow the place up in sixteen minutes.” She says, “Really?” and rolls over. Jordan thinks, “What am I to do? My own family doesn’t take this seriously.” So he, too, went back to bed.

Jordan writes, “I must confess the thoughts in my head were not conducive to sound slumber. I watched the clock tick off those minutes . . . and when it did headlights came up the road near that bridge and I thought, ‘Well, this is it.’ But we weren’t going to be out there under that light, running around in our pajamas like a bunch of scared nitwits. We were going to be in our beds. And if the world wanted to have a little blowing-up party, they could have a little blowing-up party . . .

“The pick up came and slowed down, and I thought he was coming in.  But he didn’t. We felt this taunt that they threw at Jesus’ face—“Let him save himself.” He couldn’t. He was the one that he couldn’t save.  He hadn’t come in the first place to save himself. He’d come to save mankind. He was the only one who couldn’t save himself . . . The taunt was true. For the world had to have a lightning rod to discharge its static, spiritual energy. And God made himself available in his son. And I think God needs in this world, available people who will bear the sins of the world.”

Jesus did not die because God required it. Jesus did not die in order to satisfy divine honor, or propitiate God’s justice, or appease God’s wrath, or pay off a sin debt, or bear sin’s punishment as our substitute. God did not make Jesus a scapegoat. The political, social, and religious powers came together to make Jesus a scapegoat.

And Jesus bears it all, without hate, without any wish of vengeance or desire for retaliation. He absorbs it in order to exhaust it, and thus makes a way for forgiveness and redemption. Luke’s version of the passion story especially highlights this theme when he has Jesus say from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The scornful taunt is true: Jesus could not save himself if he wanted to save others from the evils of scapegoating and the life diminishing and death-dealing consequences that come when we deny our sin and project our fears, insecurities, prejudices, and anxieties on others.

This should never be used as a tool of oppression to keep victims from protesting their victimization, but it does show us the way forward. Only such costly demonstrations of forgiveness can break the cycles of hate and violence by unmasking and exposing the powers of evil for what they are, pricking our conscience, jarring us awake, leading us to repentance.

As we eat the bread and drink the cup of Holy Communion, let us not only remember the love, courage, and moral fortitude of Jesus bearing the sins of the world—the hate, prejudice, malice, all of it, but let us also decide to follow our Lord. Let us pray that we might experience and express a greater capacity to forgive and absorb the angst and anger of others, knowing that a magnanimous love covers a multitude of sins.



Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What Do You See?


In the story of the blind man healed by Jesus in John 9, the story is introduced by the statement: “As he (Jesus) walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.” Jesus saw a man who elicited compassion and understanding.

On the other hand, his disciples saw a man rejected and condemned by God. “Who sinned,” they ask Jesus, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The disciples are the ones who are blind. In the course of the conversations and interrogations that follow we also learn that the man’s neighbors, parents, and the religious leaders who investigate this Sabbath healing are also blind. 

In May of 1968 two Roman Catholic priests, Daniel and Philip Berrigan (brothers), and seven of their Christian friends—two missionaries, a midwife, a nurse, a worker in race relations, and two others—walked into the draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland at the height of the Vietnam War. As an act of nonviolent protest and witness for peace, they took some draft files out of a filing cabinet, carried them out into the street, and burned them. They were, of course, arrested and charged with a federal crime.

In October of that year, they were placed on trial in federal court in Baltimore. “Why did you do this?” said the prosecutor to Daniel Berrigan. “I did it,” he said, “because I began to see the cost of being a Christian. When I saw the napalm kill children, my senses were invaded; and I saw the power of death in the modern world.”

At this point the judge interrupted: “Father Berrigan. This testimony is irrelevant. The war is not on trial, you are.” “Your Honor,” replied Daniel Berrigan, “I can only tell you what I see, and what I see is that right now we are standing before the living God.”

One of the attorneys said, “Mr. Berrigan, are you saying your religious convictions had something to do with this?” “Yes, yes, of course,” responded Berrigan, “my religious convictions had something to do with this. If it were not for my religious convictions, this would be eviscerated of meaning; and I should be committed for insanity.”

Another defendant, Mary Marlin, a nurse, stood up and said, “I did this because I have begun to see things as they are. This is what a Christian does when you see things.”

What do you see? And what do you do, when you begin to see things as they are?

Once we see Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God, a vision of a world of grace and goodness, of peace and equality, of mutual sharing and caring, we can never again settle for a selfish religion of personal prosperity and success, or for politics that cater to the powerful and wealthy, or for a Christian faith that settles for the status quo and conforms to conventional wisdom.
 
The more we are drawn into the light of Christ, the more we see how our false attachments and group idolatries, our biases and prejudices blind us and bind us, and how often, in our captivity to blindness, we have been complicit in injustice.

While the capacity to see is a gift—the work of the Spirit—it is always a struggle that requires courage, faith, and risk on our part.

Thomas Merton said that whenever a new monk came to the monastery they held an entrance ritual. It had nothing to do with patting the new monk on the back and saying, “Welcome, brother. We are so glad to have you.”

Instead, they would form a circle around the new monk and the Abbot would say, “What are you seeking?” And the answer was not, “I seek a happy life, or I seek a fulfilled life, or freedom from my anxieties, or even union with God.” The answer was, “I seek mercy, mercy, mercy.”

Merton writes, “All of the monks would know that this mercy was to be achieved only in a struggle. In a struggle with blindness, the blindness in the world as it is, and the blindness in us. Those who give up the struggle,” says Merton, “are those who are truly blind.”

As the story of the blind man unfolds, the religious leaders grow in their hostility, while the man healed of his blindness grows in spiritual illumination and understanding.

Jesus’ commentary on the story is significant: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”

Our testimony is never: “I once was blind, but now I see clearly.” No one sees clearly. We always see through a glass dimly. And it’s always a struggle.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

What Is Authentic Worship? Why Is It Important?

One of the most significant statements on worship in our sacred writings can be found in Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria in John’s Gospel. The Father seeks, says Jesus, those who worship him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

What does that involve?

Worship “in spirit,” I take to mean, is worship that engages the spirit, that taps into the best part of us. We are to bring a certain vitality and energy into our worship. On the one hand, this calls for a focused discipline and practice; on the other hand, this involves flexibility and fluidity—because after all, we are dealing with “living water.”

“Living water” is the image John’s Jesus utilizes in the conversation to speak of the divine-human encounter/relationship. Living water is always moving, changing, surging; it eludes manipulation. We can’t control or confine the Divine Spirit who is the initiator of the spiritual life. Living water requires living worship.   

I heard about a pastor who took his Boy Scout Troop on a tour of his church where they met for their meetings, explaining the meaning of the stain glass windows and some of the symbols. One of the scouts asked about a plaque that hung in the foyer displaying a long list of names. The pastor told him that this was a rooster of names of church members that had died in the service of the church. The boy asked what seemed to him to be the next logical question: “Was it in the early service or the late service?” Living water calls for living worship.

Worship “in truth” is worship that nurtures a true connection with the Divine—a healthy, holistic relationship with God. Truth here is not factual or propositional or creedal or doctrinal, it is relational. To worship in truth is to worship sincerely, honestly, humbly, genuinely.

We worship not because God needs to be praised; but because we need to praise God. Worship is what we need to do in order to cultivate a relationship with the Divine. Worship, I believe, is a human need, not a Divine need.

Soren Kierkegaard, the famous 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, compared the church of his day to a barnyard full of large, overweight geese that had lost their ability to fly. But once a week they would waddle over to one corner of the barnyard where the biggest goose among them would stand on a stump and proclaim the glory of being geese. Occasionally, while this goose would be sermonizing they would hear the honking of wild geese overhead, flying above them so high they could hardly be seen. In a hushed silence, the barnyard geese would pause for a moment until the honking could no longer be heard, then the sermon would resume extolling the joys of being geese.

It seems to me that worship is intended for the wild geese among us who fly high, take risks, and live out there where it is dangerous.

When we gather for worship, the assumption should be that we gather after a time of engagement and ministry, of embodying and representing Christ at home, work, and play. As we live out our discipleship to Jesus in a rough and tumble world, it is not unlikely that we come to worship wounded and broken in need of God’s healing touch, thirsty for living water, hungry for a living word to sustain us on our journey.

I don’t believe for one minute that we worship because God needs to see us bow down or hear our praises. We worship because we need to make the connection with God; because we thirst for the living water and hunger for the bread of heaven. We worship because we need divine power to live a fully human life that incarnates grace and truth, love and compassion, justice and peace.  



Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Cotton Patch Story (based on John 9-sort of)

There was once a man who was a current member and former deacon of the First Baptist Church of Jerusalem, who began to question many of the doctrines he was taught, but was afraid to tell anyone in his faith community about his questions.

During this time of doubt and uncertainty, his job was terminated. The large corporation he worked for decided that the money invested in his job could be best utilized as a pay raise and incentive for the top managers already making 10 times more than what he was earning as a service worker.

Unable to find work, he soon found himself in a men’s home existing on food stamps. Unemployment had been terminated when the Tea Party became the dominant party in government. Fortunately, they had not yet been able to do away with food stamps.

A former member of FBC, Jerusalem and former professor at the Southern Baptist Seminary in Jerusalem ran into him at a local jobs fair, where the former professor learned about his plight.

The former professor invited his friend to stay with him until he could get on his feet. He helped him explore some of his faith questions and found him a job as a bartender with a friend who owned a local sports pub.  

The professor had been fired from the seminary when the new president took control of the school. The professor believed that Jesus was the revelation of God, but not God himself. He believed that the Bible was a medium for the living Word of God, but not the literal Word of God. He believed that all people reflected God’s image and were children of God, not just those who believed certain doctrines his church and seminary believed. He believed in marriage equality and equal protection under the law for the LGBT community, and he stood with them in their struggle for equal rights. For these beliefs he was fired and cast out of the seminary.

Eventually word reached the FBC of Jerusalem that a former deacon and current member had been working as a bartender and was associating with a heretical professor and questioning many of the fundamentals of the faith. When the deacons met in council they decided to first ask his parents who were long time members of the church. 

When asked about his recent activities, the man’s parents kept silent, for they feared the power of the church deacons and their ability to have them shunned and disenfranchised by the church body. They said, “We don’t know, you will have to ask him.”

So they called the man in before the deacon council. Presiding as chair was the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of Jerusalem. They encouraged him to find a more respectable vocation and to cut off all association with the heretical professor and affirm the certitudes of the faith. They said, “We know that this man who is causing you to question your faith is not of God. He does not believe in or speak the truth.”

The man replied, “This is most strange indeed. This one you condemn took me in and gave me a place to stay. He listened to my questions and encouraged me to seek the truth for myself. He helped me find employment and has been a compassionate friend. Does he not do the works of Jesus? How is he not of God? How is it that you do not see?

Furious at his reply, the council of deacons cast him off the church membership roll, for they had been given such power at the last church business meeting. Congratulating themselves for being true to the faith and satisfied that God’s will had been done, they saw the former member to the door and dismissed the proceedings.

The man ventured over to a local café where he ordered a cup of the house blend and retired to a near-by park where he sat on a bench, sipped his coffee, and reflected on the events of the day.

Deep in thought, he was caught up in a vision. Jesus appeared, “Fear not, my dearly beloved. I am with you always. Do not be anxious about being cast out of the church. They threw me out several years ago.”



Monday, March 24, 2014

Why Saying Goodbye to Christian America Is a Good Thing

Pew Research on Religion and Public Life has been monitoring for some time now the gradual decline in religious (particularly Christian) commitment in the U.S. The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown in recent years. 

About one-fifth of the public overall–and a third of the adults under age 30–are religiously unaffiliated as of 2012 when this research was conducted. A full one-third of U.S. adults do not consider themselves a “religious person.”

Recently David Gushee, Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, wrote an article for ABPnews/Herald titled, “Saying Goodbye to Christian America.” He observed that there was a time when Christian symbols and values dominated American life. 

Gushee wrote: “The town square said it all. With the First Baptist Church catty-corner to the courthouse, and the same people essentially running both, not to mention the schools and the Chamber of Commerce around the corner, this was a pretty cozy little world. . . . The city council opened its work with prayers by the Baptist preacher, juries were instructed with Bible quotes and politicians ran for office exuding Christian rhetoric. And the kids were led in the Lord’s prayer over at the elementary school. There was one more or less coherent moral world, and it was drenched in semi-official Christianity. All of that has been changing visibly since the 1960’s . . .”

There are some, perhaps many Christians mourning this loss of power and influence, feeling worried, fearful, and insecure. I’m not one of them. 

It seems to me that whenever Christianity becomes enmeshed in the dominant culture and social power structures of the day, it loses its distinct message and transformative impact. Jesus too easily is made to conform to the prevailing dominant social and cultural landscape.

As we observe Lent and make our way to the cross, it’s important to remember that Jesus was rejected and crucified because he confronted the religious and social culture with an alternative vision of a just world and challenged conventional wisdom and practice.

Maybe the current state of Christianity in America is good for Christianity. It seems to me that the church always exhibits more spiritual power when it functions as the yeast, rather than the dough.


Living Water and Spiritual Thirst

Living water is one of the many images the Gospel of John employs to describe what in other places the writer simply calls “eternal life.” Eternal life is, of course, eternal.

Mel Blanc is a name that was associated with characters in Warner Brothers Looney Tunes for years. When at the end of a production Porky Pig came across the screen and said, “That’s all folks!” that was the voice of Mel Blanc. When he died his family engraved an inscription on his tombstone that read, “That’s all folks!” Christians refuse to believe that this life is all there is. There is more to come. We believe that we possess a life that transcends death.  

The emphasis, however, in the phrase “eternal life” is not on the quantity of life, which is assumed, but on the quality of life—the kind of life it is. Almost always John’s Gospel speaks of eternal life in the present tense. It is a reality that is possessed now, that one enters into and experiences in this life/world.  

So what is it? Later in John’s narrative, in a setting where Jesus is in prayer, John’s Jesus says, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17:3). The writer here provides a key to understanding this concept. To have eternal life is to “know” God; not know about God, but know God intimately, intuitively, experientially, practically. Eternal life is first and foremost life in relationship with God, life in conscious connection to and cooperation with God.

This is why the gift and the giver are inseparable. This is why John’s Jesus says in his conversation with the woman of Samaria, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked for living water” (John 4:10). The gift being offered is not something, but someone. The gift is the giver. What God offers is God’s self.

This divine-human relationship is a dynamic, not static relationship. It is like living water—moving, flowing, changing, surging.   

According to John, those who drink the living water “will never again be thirsty” for it “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:13–14) What might this mean?

First, what I think it doesn’t mean. I don’t think it means that we will have no more spiritual thirsts or desires. There are many times in our relationship with God when our spiritual thirsts do not feel quenched or satisfied. That is, I believe, quite natural and inevitable. Our spiritual thirsts keep us on our spiritual quest—searching, seeking, questioning, pursuing.

So what does this mean? On one level, John’s Jesus could be referencing religion based on holiness codes, purity laws, doctrinal statements, merit badges, and rewards and punishments. Such religion never satisfies, and once one has experienced the living water of a dynamic relationship with God, one will never desire ritual purity, holiness codes, or propositional, doctrinal religion again. Anyone who has ever had mystical encounters with the Divine will tell you that such experiences trump ritual and tradition every time. Not that ritual and tradition are unimportant; they are certainly necessary and have their place in one’s personal and communal spiritual-religious life. It’s just that direct encounter with the Divine quenches a thirst that ritual, tradition, and doctrine cannot. 

I personally apply this text this way: I still have spiritual thirsts that have not been quenched. I still have doubts and questions. Over the course of my spiritual journey my changeless truths have changed. But my basic thirst for meaning has been met completely. I’m connected to a larger story, a larger vision—one that Jesus called the kingdom of God. And my connection to this larger story in God and in Christ is one that keeps drawing me out of my little self, my ego-driven self, my false self into my true self, my self in God. It draws me into the larger story of God’s kingdom, into participation in peace-making and justice-making, into God’s healing and liberating work in the world. I have no desire whatsoever to revisit that basic commitment. That thirst has been forever settled. 

A living faith awakens our spiritual thirsts, which drive us toward the transcendent life that was embodied in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus knew God, experienced God; he knew the kind of intimacy and participation in the Divine Life that all human beings need to live a fully human life—necessary because we all reflect God’s image and the Spirit dwells within us all.

When we listen to the voice of the Spirit, when we align ourselves with the Divine within, then we, too, thirst for the living water that can quench our deepest thirsts for meaning, belonging, and participation in a larger story and vision of a healed, redeemed, reconciled world.