“WHAT IS ETERNAL LIFE?”
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
May 17, 2015; 7th Sunday of Easter, Year B
Daniel 12:1-7; b1 John 5:6-13

“And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”
1 John 5:11

We’ve been living, in recent years, through a computer revolution. Digital technology has changed just about every aspect of our lives: from the electronic scanners in grocery stores to that little square image in our church bulletins, that you can scan with your smartphone to make a contribution. Who would have thought the church offering plate would go digital — but it has!

Computers are everywhere today — even some places where you’d never imagine they would make an impact.

Like cemeteries. Yes, cemeteries. The stonecarvers now use computers to digitize images they carve into tombstones. That means they’re no longer limited to block letters. These computer-driven machines can carve just about anything you’d like into granite.

That’s why you’re starting to see tombstones with all kinds of images you’d never have seen, even twenty years ago: the New York Yankees logo, or a picture of a sailboat, or a fishing rod — anything that says something about the life of the person who’s passed on. (Of all the things I’d want attached to my name, down through the ages, I’m not sure it would be a fishing rod — but then, I’m not a fisherman. To each their own.)

The stonecarvers can even scan a photo of the deceased into their computer and create a reasonably accurate likeness. What used to take a sculptor months, with a hammer and chisel, to produce can now be accomplished in an afternoon. It may not be the most elegant work of art, but it gets the job done.

There’s actually another way cemeteries are being changed by digital technology — though I’m not sure this one’s going to catch on. It’s the digital tombstone. (Have you heard about it?)

I am not making this up. You walk into a cemetery to visit the grave of a loved one, and on the front of the tombstone you see a flat-screen computer monitor. They call it the “serenity panel” (brand name: the Vidstone; price: $2,000). It’s powered by solar cells. The Vidstone displays, in an endless loop, a video of the deceased, recorded before the person’s death. It’s that person’s testimony to the ages: whatever he or she wanted the children, the grandchildren, and anybody else to remember.

Like I said, I’m not sure it’s going to catch on. For one thing, after four hours of sun, the solar cells only provide enough juice for about six ten-minute viewings. If it’s a cloudy day, all bets are off. There are also concerns about how long the contraption’s going to last, exposed to all kinds of weather. Surely it won’t have anything near the staying-power of the traditional slab of granite.

I have visions of a whole cemetery filled with those things. Stretching out before you would be a sea of flickering video images: talking heads of the people who are buried there, chattering away to no one in particular, the communion of saints in electronic form.

Like I said, I don’t think that one’s going to catch on. Sounds kind of creepy, if you ask me!

If that’s what they mean by “eternal life,” I’m not buying it.

*****

But what does the Bible have to say about eternal life?

You don’t hear it mentioned much in the Hebrew scriptures. In fact, you hardly hear it mentioned at all until you get to the book of Daniel, which is probably the most recent book of the Old Testament. From that passage we read today:

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky…

But that’s unusual, for the Old Testament. Most everywhere else, things seem pretty earthbound. “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” says Psalm 27:13. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live,” says Ecclesiastes 3. Isaiah 65 says:

“I shall rejoice in Jerusalem…. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.”

That’s not a passage about eternal life: it’s a promise of a long and very happy earthly life. Something changed, though, between the Old Testament and the New. Sometime during that several-hundred-year period, the Jewish people started to envision a life beyond this one, a life that’s more of a spiritual reality. By the time of Jesus, the idea was firmly established. Remember his words to the thief on the cross: “Today you shall be with me in paradise.”

Eternal life is much more than a mere extension of physical existence. When Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from death, that was not a resurrection to eternal life. It was an extension of Lazarus’ physical life. The raising of Lazarus is more like a post-mortem healing; Jesus didn’t make it there in time to heal his friend before he died, so he makes up for it by reaching into the realm of the dead and snatching him back. Presumably, Lazarus lived out a normal lifespan after that, then died a second time.

There’s another expression you sometimes read in the Bible that sounds very close to eternal life: it’s the phrase “everlasting life.” The two are not actually the same. Eternal life includes within it the concept of everlasting life — a life that goes on forever — but it also means so much more.

What makes it so much more is the concept of eternity. Now, when most people use that word in everyday speech, they usually mean something closer to everlasting: as in, “I thought I’d be stuck in that traffic jam for eternity!”

That’s just a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but eternity is also qualitatively different. It’s more than just life that goes on and on, but is a life that’s fundamentally different from what it was before. That’s because it’s life lived in the unending presence of God.
There’s a story about Charles de Gaulle — the famous general of the Free French forces in World War 2, who later became his country’s president. He and his wife Yvonne had a son and two daughters. The youngest daughter, Anne, was mentally disabled with Down Syndrome.

Anne was much-beloved by both her parents. She had a joy and a simplicity about her that touched their hearts. They tried to make for her as good a life as they could. But there was also the pain of knowing the things she could never do, the experiences she would never have. Many times during Anne’s growing-up years, Yvonne would say to her husband, “Charles, why couldn’t she have been like the others?”

To that question, he had no answer.

Anne died at age 20, from pneumonia. Even though her parents knew she was not expected to live a normal lifespan, her loss was very hard for them.

They buried her at a private graveside service. After the priest had pronounced the benediction, the members of the family began to leave — everyone except Yvonne, who stood by the grave, weeping. Charles went back to her and said kindly, “Come, Yvonne. Did you not hear the blessing of the priest? Now she is like the others.”

Were eternal life simply everlasting life, de Gaulle would never have been able to say that. He knew his Christian faith, though, and he knew it teaches that the life on the other side of this one is an improved life, a perfected life, a life free from the suffering and limitations we sometimes know in this phase of our existence.

The theologian Paul Tillich observes:

“The New Testament speaks of eternal life, and eternal life is not continuation of life after death. Eternal life is beyond past, present and future: we come from it, we live in its presence, we return to it. It is never absent — it is the divine life in which we are rooted and in which we are destined to participate in freedom — for God alone has eternity.”

Notice Tillich says eternal life is “beyond past, present and future.” That’s because God is beyond past, present and future. Now, that aspect of God is among the hardest to understand. None of us can really grasp the concept in all its complexity, because we have little idea what it’s like to live outside of time — but that, my friends, is exactly where God lives. In fact, it doesn’t make any sense to say God is “everlasting,” because that word assumes God is living in time.

In fact, God doesn’t live in time because God created time. When God dreamed up the universe, and set the planets in their courses, with the earth rotating around the sun in such a way that there are twelve hours of darkness followed by twelve of night, God gave us a way to measure this abstraction we call time. Many centuries later, we developed clocks that gave us more efficient and regular ways of numbering the days. Even that must-have tech gadget, the Apple Watch, does no better job of counting out the minutes and the hours than a garden sundial.

That’s because time is a scientific constant. Our watches, our clocks, don’t contain time. They measure it. They help us predict its slow, inevitable march.

Without a device for measuring time, though, you and I are not always attuned to the regularity of time’s passing. When we’re not looking at a watch or a clock, time can seem variable: moving slowly through some experiences and more rapidly through others. There are some cultures that are more adept than our own at riding the unpredictable waves of time’s passing.

When Claire and I lived in Dubuque, Iowa and I worked at the Presbyterian seminary there, we got to know a number of Native American students. They’d come there because Dubuque Seminary specializes in helping them gain a theological education while staying in touch with their culture. The Native American students had an expression they’d use, with a smile on their faces, whenever one of them was late getting to a class or event. The phrase was, “Indian time.”

It wasn’t that people living on Indian time were careless or less attentive than the students who came from other places. In some ways, they were more attentive to time, in all its complexity, than the others. It’s just that, where they came from, there were other ways of measuring the passing of the days than the changing numbers on an electronic device. Time, for them, had a certain fullness we’ve largely lost, in our culture. They had a way of living more deeply in the present than some of their fellow-students who tended to obsess about the future. Sure, they made accommodations to the majority culture, most of them. They learned to be on time often enough that their professors didn’t get too frustrated with them. But I believe they were probably far better at picking up hints of eternity than many of the rest of us.

Fred Rogers — MisterRogers of the famous children’s TV show — was a Presbyterian minister. He had something of that simple — but by no means simple-minded — way of living in the present. It’s what made him such a wonderful communicator with young children, who are also very adept at living in the present. Once, Fred set out to describe what eternity is really like. He said:

“In the external scheme of things, shining moments are as brief as the twinkling of an eye, yet such twinklings are what eternity is made of — moments when we human beings can say ‘I love you,’ ‘I’m proud of you,’ ‘I forgive you,’ ‘I’m grateful for you.’ That’s what eternity is made of: invisible, imperishable good stuff.”

It’s what makes eternal life different from mere everlasting life. The duration of it is quite beside the point. In fact, duration is a concept that makes no sense in eternity. Everything is a bright, shiny, beautiful now.

*****

Finally, I’d like to look for just a moment at our lesson from 1 John. I’ve really been talking about it all along, without ever having cited it. The author says, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.”

This is one of those times when it’s useful to look at the original Greek. The verb “gave,” here, is in a tense we don’t have in English. There’s only one past tense in English, but the Greek language has another, called the aorist tense. Verbs in the aorist tense describe something that not only happened in the past, but are no longer continuing today. An action in the aorist is finished, done, over, completed.

When the scripture says “God gave us eternal life,” it doesn’t mean, as it can in English, something that was given in the past as a kind of promise, that we’ve yet to realize. No, that letter of John is saying we have eternal life, and it’s already here. We don’t need to wait until we die to begin experiencing it. When God, who is beyond past, present and future, gives something to us, we have it just as perfectly now as we will in future times. We’re just not so easily aware of it.

So, what difference does that make for how we live? Dorothy Day, that great Christian social activist — a devoutly Roman Catholic woman, born into wealth, who spent her life working with the poorest of the poor in New York City, knew what she was up against. She was very realistic and practical. But she was also a holy dreamer, a woman who refused to simply accept injustice as it is. She once wrote:

“We are not expecting Utopia here on this earth. But God meant things to be much easier than we have made them. A [person] has a natural right to food, clothing, and shelter… A family needs work as well as bread… We must keep repeating these things… Eternal life begins now.”

That’s what I mean by experiencing eternity in the here and now. Jesus often said to his followers, “the kingdom of God is among you.” And this is exactly what he meant. We don’t need to wait for eternal life to come among us. It’s already here. If we just open the eyes of our hearts, we can catch a glimpse.

*****

Our New Jersey poet, Walt Whitman, has a little poem called “On the beach at night alone.” It’s a mystical vision of the big picture. Listen to it:

On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining,
I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different,
or in different worlds,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.

It’s the sort of thought that occurs to you on a starry night, when you look to the heavens and feel both very small and very large. Once in a while, we’re blessed to have such visions: glimpses of eternal life, they are. The scriptures tell us it’s a life we have, already, in Jesus Christ. Grab hold of it. Live it, as he lived it — and still lives it. Do that, and you — and the world — will never be the same again.

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.