Cross of Grace

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Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

"The Lie About Eternal Life" – John 17:1-11

There is a trend that I have noticed the last few times I have either presided or attended a funeral. The memorial cards – the ones next to the guestbook that include a picture of the deceased, along with their obituary, date of funeral, and so on – no longer include the word “Died.” It has been replaced by another word or phrase. I’ve seen examples including, “Went Home” or “Taken Into Christ’s Arms.”

This past week I attended the funeral service for the father of one of our members (for the sake of online anonymity, l'll call him “Bob”). I read the memorial card. Instead of “Died” was the phrase “Entered Eternal Life.”

This is an interesting concept that funeral homes have presented. I’m sure the family would either not notice, or actually would be quite comforted by the verbiage. But as a pastor, I pay particular attention to the way words are used and the concepts they advocate, especially words with profound theological implication, like “death” and “eternal life.”

And I’ll say this: in this act of writing down the date of someone’s death and labeling it as the date in which that person entered eternal life, funeral homes are making a profound mistake and are muddying up the miraculous good news that the Christian faith has to offer.

Ask a pastor or a physicist whether eternity can begin on a certain date in time. “No” is the answer you should receive from either profession. Eternity is a concept of time that has no beginning and no end. Eternal life is a life that has no beginning or end. If we think of our life as a line from point A to point B, eternal life is not a line that continues past point B infinitely into the future; instead, eternal life is the space on which that line exists.

My brothers and sisters, the good news is that eternal life is real; but the best news is that eternal life is available to be experienced here and now. We don’t have to wait until we die! There’s no such thing as an “Entered Eternal Life” date.

Confused? Don’t believe me? Well, let’s hear what Jesus had to say about this topic.

In the seventeenth chapter of John, Jesus is speaking to his disciples just before his betrayal. In his farewell prayer he says these words, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Eternal life is not clouds, harps, and halos. Eternal life is about knowing and experiencing God. Eternal life is about knowing and experiencing God in such a powerful way that you realize you are a part of something much bigger than yourself. Eternal life is about knowing and experiencing God is such a powerful way that you realize that knowledge and experience will transcend your death.

This is beautifully illustrated in the story of Simeon found in the second chapter of Luke. “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
   ‘Now, Lord you let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled.
   My own eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared
   in the sight of every people.’”

As Simeon holds the Christ Child in his arms he knows and experiences God. He realizes that God's promise of eternal life is true and a present reality. He sees and holds God's promise in his hands, he touches and feels the promise of life which God granted to him through Christ. Simeon realizes that this experience and knowledge of God is so powerful that it will transcend his death, and so he prays, “Now, Lord you let your servant go in peace.”

Eternal life is all around us. Every day of our lives presents an opportunity to know God and experience life in God’s kingdom.

When I began this message I mentioned attending “Bob’s” funeral this past week. One of the most beautiful parts of the funeral service was when three of his granddaughters delivered eulogies – telling us their memories of him as well as some valuable life lessons he instilled in them. As I listened to their heartfelt words, it was clear to me that they experienced moments with their grandfather were experiences of eternal life.

As I sat there in the pew, listening to the stories and recognizing the love behind them; I looked at the memorial card and that’s when the apparent contradiction hit me. This man experienced eternal life way before his death on May 22. If his first taste of eternal life was last Friday, how could he have ever made such an incredible and positive impression on so many people? No, his life must have been a series of encounters of eternal life made possible by the knowledge of God through Jesus Christ.

On the way home from that funeral I learned that the poet Maya Angelou had died. Soon I started hearing people say how happy they were for her that this self-proclaimed caged bird had been freed and was now in heaven. The problem, however, is that Maya Angelou had to have experienced eternal life way before her death on May 28. If her first taste of eternal life was on Wednesday, than how could she have ever come up with the following words about heaven?

Preacher, don't send me
when I die
to some big ghetto
in the sky
where rats eat cats
of the leopard type
and Sunday brunch
is grits and tripe.

I've known those rats
I've seen them kill
and grits I've had
would make a hill,
or maybe a mountain,
so what I need
from you on Sunday
is a different creed.

Preacher, please don't
promise me
streets of gold
and milk for free.
I stopped all milk
at four years old
and once I'm dead
I won't need gold.

I'd call a place
pure paradise
where families are loyal
and strangers are nice,
where the music is jazz
and the season is fall.
Promise me that
or nothing at all.

What this preacher is promising you today is the best news. We don’t have to wait until the date of our death to experience eternal life.

As Maya Angelou said, eternal life can be experienced in loyal families, nice strangers, jazz music, and autumn. As Simeon demonstrated, eternal life can be experienced in the warm body of a special baby. As “Bob’s” granddaughters testified, eternal life can be experienced by spending time with and learning from your family. The possibilities are endless, even in the midst of a world that can seem so wrong and painful; we simply have to be ready and open to the experiences of eternal life that will break in at the most surprising times.

To conclude, I came across a video this week which I believe points directly to the truth that eternal life is available to us today. I thought it would be a tragedy not to share it:

We don’t have to wait for death to experience eternal life. I pray this truth will give you comfort, peace, hope, and eager expectation to know God and experience God today and every day hereafter.

Amen.

All Rights Reserved. Background image by Aaron Stamper. © Cross of Grace Lutheran Church.