"ETERNAL LIFE" - Ephesians 2: 1-10; John 3:14 - 21
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, March 11, 2018
Texts: Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Joseph Gallagher is a member of this church – son of Jeff and Cathy. Joseph is also a Seminary student at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. In an assignment for one of his classes, he had to interview some children about God, including young children. Joseph knows that Ginger and I have a grandson in Atlanta, so he got connected with our four year-old grandson for the interview. It went like this:
Joseph: “why do you think you go to church?”
Our grandson: “for the snacks, after church.”
Joseph: “Is Jesus God?”
“Ha! . . . No. . . .He’s littler than God.”
“What does Jesus look like?”
“. . . .It’s a secret.”
Then, when Joseph asked him about heaven, he said, “only big people go to heaven, like Clarence (Bruce Springsteen’s sax player!)”
We are – all of us - on this journey because we are all trying to figure out who God really is, what God is doing with us, and can we find life – eternal life.
We have heard one passage already – some very important words which have become the bedrock of our faith: “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. . . . For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, . . . which is . . . . to be our way of life.”
Our second lesson today also offers some very important words – which have also become the bedrock of our faith. Included in this passage is perhaps the best known verse in all of Scripture: John 3:16, which we see on placards and billboards and in stadiums. But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Listen to the full passage – John 3:14-21:
14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that 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. 18Those 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. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But 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.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The evangelist, John, keeps wanting to help us understand Who God is, Who Jesus is, how they are related, and what this means for our lives, indeed, what this means for the world. The evangelist, John, started off his gospel with some powerful poetry: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . The Word became flesh and lived among us.”
And then as the gospel story unfolds, the poetry shifts to people – to John in the wilderness and questions – was John the Messiah? The next day, John describes Jesus’ baptism, and points to Jesus as the Messiah; and the next day, Jesus begins encountering people, engaging with disciples, calling them to follow. Then there is a wedding feast that opens Chapter 2 when Jesus turns water into wine. And then the evangelist, John, gives us the story that Kathryn preached about last week – Jesus getting angry, getting our attention, and cleansing the temple. And by the middle of Chapter 3, we have these verses. All of it is to help us know that God – the eternal Word became flesh and lived among us. All of this – and it keeps going throughout the whole gospel – wants to show us what God is about, who is Jesus, and what this means for our lives, indeed what it means for the whole world.
So we have that opening line – “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.”
Wait, . . . perhaps we need to back up a bit. . . .
Moses, you recall, appears in the second book of the Bible – Exodus. Moses – in a very remarkable story - is called by God to lead God’s people from a very bad place to a better place: from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Moses is a very important person in the Bible who takes on this monstrous task – because it is a very long way from bad place to better place – both in difficulty and in time. Moses gives inspiring and faithful leadership to the people of God.
Along that difficult way, there is another remarkable story. It is recorded in the fourth book in the Bible, in Numbers 21. On the way from slavery to the Promised Land, there were lots of setbacks and challenges and problems. One of the problems was people constantly grumbling against Moses and his leadership. Did he lead them out of slavery to die in the wilderness? He promised them so much and yet it was all so hard. So the people became impatient. They spoke against Moses. They spoke against God. “Why have you brought us out here with no water, no decent food?” Then the Lord sent poisonous snakes, and they bit the people, and many of them died. It was God’s punishment for their grumbling.
What if . . . what if God dealt with our grumbling by sending deadly snakes to bite us? . . . .
But God also gave Moses the remedy – to stop the threat of snakes and stop the grumbling: Moses was to make a serpent out of bronze, put it on a pole, and hold it up for the people to look at. Anyone who looked at the serpent on the pole would not grumble, and not be bitten by poisonous snakes, and live. (This is why the serpent on a pole – even to this day – remains a sign of healing, and is an emblem – serpent on a pole - used by many medical organizations.) Anyone who looked at the serpent on the pole would not die but live.
So John the evangelist picks up this ancient story and image: “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.”
Here is the message: humankind is overwhelmed with deadly concerns – lost in greed and selfishness, lost in worry, anxiety, disease, grumbling, and despair. THE only cure is to focus on the “Son of man” – this Word become flesh – this Jesus: we find LIFE through him.
The word in the text – the way we find life – eternal life – is the Greek word “pistis/pistuein” – and is translated here and so many places as “believe:” as in “whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This also gets repeated in the next verse: “everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Some of us may be quite certain what we believe. We can recite certain things: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, . . . and in Jesus Christ his only Son. . .” Or we say, “In life and in death we belong to God, . . whom alone we worship and serve.” And certainly we want to “believe in him and not perish but have eternal life.”
Yet as my four-year old grandson helps us all appreciate, many of us are not sure what we believe.
Sometimes we believe strongly and sometimes we hardly believe at all. Some days we are confident and can live with courage and love. Other days we flounder and doubt, and even fall into despair because of what comes our way. We may wonder – is God real? What is going on? Where do we really find Life and eternal life? . . . What do we believe?
That is why I like that phrase of the man who encountered Jesus in Mark’s gospel and said, “Lord, I believe: help my unbelief.”
The call “to believe” is always a work in progress.
You may have heard the name of John Paton – he was a Scottish and Presbyterian preacher in the 19th century who spent his life in ministry in the New Hebrides – in the south Pacific. One of his projects there was to interpret the New Testament into the indigenous language of the people of the New Hebrides. But there was a snag. There was no word for believe in the people’s language. And the word Believe is mentioned 98 times in the gospel of John, and 241 times in the New Testament! What word would he use? This is important.
In the midst of this work in translating, one of the natives came in to Paton’s study and draped himself over a chair. He stretched out and rested his legs on another chair. Relaxed, he commented on how good it felt “to lean his whole weight on” those chairs. Immediately Paton knew he had the word he would use for believe: “to lean one’s whole weight on.” (see M. Felton and J. Proctor-Murphy, Living the Questions, p. 64)
This is what Jesus keeps trying to get through to us. He does not want our casual interest. He does not want merely our admiration. He is not looking for us to simply recite words, especially if they do not take root in our lives. He does not want simply our mental assent to something – to check off a list of concepts to be asserted with certitude.
No, Jesus keeps speaking and acting, teaching and revealing God, that we might ENTRUST our whole lives to his presence and care, that we might changed – transformed to become the people, the selfless, serving, disciples we are made to be. To believe means to lean with our whole weight on him. That means heart, soul, mind, and strength. That means giving Jesus our loyalty and loves – even when it might challenge what we think about our family, our money, our American way, our constitutional rights, or other cultural issues. Jesus comes to connect us to God and to offer ETERNAL LIFE. Whoever believes – leans with all weight – will have ETERNAL LIFE.
And here is something else that is very important. Every place where John, the evangelist, speaks about “LIFE,” with or without the adjective “eternal,” he is speaking about “life” as a present state – rather than a future immortal bliss, though that may be implicitly included. The word “life” for John, and therefore Jesus – is very much a present reality!
We do NOT exist so we can “believe” – meaning offer mental assent, or give affirmation to some set of ideas – so we can then inherit immortal bliss in some future life. We LEAN with all our weight – we give our lives over to Jesus, we ENTRUST ourselves to Jesus – to have LIFE in the best sense NOW and ALWAYS. We discover what LIFE is really about: it is not about selfish pursuit but selfless service; it is not about just being happy, but about finding wholeness, and that comes as we worship and serve God and God’s people. It is not about wealth and power, but about the coming reign of God, where wealth is spread to everyone, where justice happens for all, not just a few, where grace is prevalent and peace emerges – not the chaos and mess that so surround our lives. Lean fully into Jesus and you find ETERNAL LIFE – it is about LIFE now – full life, God’s life, good life – and it never ends; it is eternal. And we set our lives on a direction of loving and serving God and working with God always.
Then the passage continues with that oh-so-familiar verse.
Here is how Bible scholar and inspiring teacher, Dale Bruner, translates this one verse – John 3:16: “You see, God loved the world so much that he gave His One and Only Son, so that every single individual, whoever! Who is (simply) entrusting oneself to him would never be destroyed, oh no! but would even now have a deep, lasting Life.
Bruner says that this is the heart of the gospel – the very truth about God and God’s purposes and plans. It is a single verse and it deserves its own paragraph.
Then Bruner unpacks its deep power and importance like this –
God – the greatest subject ever
So much – the greatest extent ever
Loved – the greatest affection ever
The world – the greatest object ever
That he gave His One-and-Only Son – the greatest gift ever
So that every single individual, whoever! –
the greatest opportunity ever
Who is simply entrusting oneself to him –
the greatest commitment ever
Would never be destroyed – the greatest rescue ever
But would even now have a deep, lasting Life – the greatest promise ever. (See F. Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John, p. 201f.)
And the way all of this works out – God the greatest subject, with the greatest extent, with the greatest affection, with the greatest gift, for every individual, whoever! With the greatest rescue and the greatest promise – the way all of this works out is SIMPLY ENTRUSTING our lives – leaning with our full weight into Jesus – and we have LIFE – both now and forever! We do nothing but TRUST God who has done everything, and we get on with the godly life – ETERNAL LIFE.
I am convinced that ALL of us have a deep longing to come ALIVE and to be of help – moving the world toward the reign of God. This is what the essence of the gospel is all about – coming alive and being of help – that is LIFE – ETERNAL LIFE – experienced now and never ending.
May God’s Spirit and presence so touch our lives and our world that we can ENTRUST our lives to this awesome God and come ALIVE and be of HELP – partnering with God in the renewal and redemption of the world and living into ETERNAL LIFE! Indeed, may it be so. AMEN
Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, you love us so very well. Deepen our love – and move us toward eternal life following Jesus. AMEN
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on March 11, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.