St. John's, Centreville
May 28, 2017
7 Easter A
John 17:1-11; Acts 1:6-14
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are in our journey, imperfect as we are, and use is in ways we cannot imagine, to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In "Feasting on the Gospels", Vance Goodman tells the following story: "In the children's book "Jellybeans" by Sylvia Van Ommen, a rabbit named George and a cat named Oscar meet in the park for jellybeans and hot chocolate. They share a snack together and begin a perceptive discussion about what might come after this life. "Do you think there is a heaven up there? A place where you go when you're dead? asks Oscar. "I don't know. I think so," answers George. They continue to speculate about what they might see and if they will recognize one another. George surmises, "But if we bump into each other and we don't recognize each other......then we can just become friends all over again.....eat jellybeans together and stuff like that." Oscar and George approach the future with hope - hope that they will see each other and eat jellybeans together again eternally."
Our gospel lesson this morning is part of Jesus' Farewell Discourse - the last instructions and prayers that he has for the disciples before he is arrested, tried and crucified. He and the disciples have finished the Last Supper. In John's gospel, Jesus is praying to God for the disciples to know God deeply, to become one as Jesus and God are one. Jesus prays for God to protect them and care for them.
Jesus says, "And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." What does Jesus mean - this is eternal life? Most of us think that eternal life, like Oscar and George, means the life that we have after death. But John's gospel is saying that it is much more than that. Eternal life can be found in the life that we have right now.
The knowledge of God is eternal life........The knowledge of God is eternal life. The word that Jesus used for the verb "to know" means "coming to know, to be aware of, feel or perceive." It refers to a growth in knowledge, a progression, the kind of knowledge that comes with the building of a relationship. This is different than knowing facts and figures. Getting to know someone is to have an active relationship with them.
And the same is true about God. To get to know God, we need to have a relationship with God. We need to know more than facts and theological ideas. To know God means we have to spend time with God, to build a relationship of trust and hope. We need to spend time with God in prayer, in studying the scriptures, in corporate worship, in community, through reading and seeing God at work in our lives and in the lives of others. This kind of knowing God is what Jesus refers to as eternal life.
Eternal life is in the present as well as the future. Jesus doesn't pray that the disciples will know God when they die. Knowledge of God can happen now, in the present, as well as in the future.
Just as it takes time to get to know someone, so it takes time, often an entire lifetime, to get to know God. And we can never fully know God, as God is infinite and we are not. Knowing God is a process that involves our entire being - our strength and energy and insight and knowledge and mind and faith. We are not born knowing everything about God. We need to be taught about God and shown God's love through the actions of family and friends and teachers. We need to be shown God's work in and through us and others and how we are to respond by living the way Jesus taught us.
Our knowledge and love of God deepens and grows hopefully throughout our life time. Eternal life is in the present moment as well as in the future. Through God, we experience eternal life which far exceeds the quality of life that the world offers.
Our relationship with God can begin the moment we are born, when we are surrounded by the love of our parents and families. We are fed and nurtured and cared for as God cares for us. But then as we get older and begin to experience some of the unfairness of this world, like why Jimmy has more toys than I do, or Jane takes my toy and won't give it back, that is when we begin to need to name God and know about the love of God that is beyond our understanding. The world is an unfair place, there is pain and violence and discrimination and evil. But God's love for us and the hope God gives us surrounds us and helps to keep us on the right path - to love and respect others, to help the poor, the outcasts, the refugees, to live as God wants us to live. That's what we need to be taught at a young age so we can grow in our relationship with God.
Perfection is not the goal of eternal life. We will never be perfect because we are human. This world will not be perfect unless all evil and sin is overcome. But we are promised that God is always present with us. We are promised of God's love for us and we are assured that we will never be alone. God is always with us, no matter what. There is nothing that we can do that will deprive us of God's love for us. Nothing.
We don't know the details or the specifics of what life after death will be like. We know that it will be a place of peace and joy and we will be surrounded by the presence of God. We can imagine it will be beautiful, and that it will be beyond anything that we can think of or imagine.
I think that we will continue to grow in our relationship with God, even after death. One of the prayers in the burial office says, "Grant that, increasing in knowledge and love of thee, he/she may go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in thy heavenly kingdom." Our learning and loving and growing in our relationship with God may pass any time limits we can imagine....because God is infinite and all knowing and all loving.
Although we do not know exactly what life after death will be like, we know that we will die in sure and certain hope of the resurrection and we will be surrounded by God's presence and God's love. We may not know if there will be jellybeans or hot chocolate or best friends, but we are promised a continual, loving relationship with God, beginning now. Amen.
Parts of this sermon are adapted from "Feasting on the Gospels", volume 2 of John's Gospel, pages 213-216; Pastoral Perspective article by S. Vance Goodman.