Potters Bar 17 Feb 2013: Life eternal (John 5:24-30)

Jesus says “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life”.

I looked on Wikipedia for a definition of “life”. In contemporary science this is mostly biochemical. Life is defined by certain chemical process and physical structures; the cell, DNA, the storing and releasing of energy in a set of organic chemical compounds. Where these processes are at work and these structures present, there is life. Where they are not life is not.

On this understanding death is return to unlife, which came before and is the “natural” state of matter. There is no mystery. Life is a special kind of chemistry and death is its absence. To speak of “eternal life” could only mean the carrying on of those processes forever.

Where it comes to the great questions of meaning and purpose this sort of definition is no help. Life is a special kind of chemistry and nothing more.

This is not the understanding of life in our gospel reading. When Jesus talks about eternal life he is not talking about long running chemistry. When he talks about crossing over from death to life he does not mean starting some reactions.

When Jesus speaks about life he is speaking, above all, about God. When he speaks about death he speaks about separation from God. To cross over from death to life is to go from isolation into communion, it is to join in with God, to be joined to God. To have eternal life is to be connected to the living God. The life Jesus is talking about might be present in and expressed through physical processes but they don’t define it.

This life, God’s life, is eternal because it is what gives being not only to living organisms but to everything. Everything is alive because everything is an expression of God’s creative love. The stars and the stones, the waters and the great celestial distances, all of these are alive with God’s presence. The whole of creation is the breath of God, is God’s Word.

This idea of life is the point of the creation story in Genesis and is why John’s gospel starts with those familiar words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Life doesn’t emerge from and pass back into lifeless matter. Rather matters comes out of life, of the living God, and serves life. Life is the point, life is the truth, life is everything.

This is a radical reversal of our common sense. We look at the long, long history of the universe as science has discovered and explained it. We see many, many billions of years in which nothing we can recognise as life is present. We hear about complex and awesome processes by which stars are formed, new elements are created at the heart of these incredible entities and then scattered as they expire; these elements being gathered into planets and on them new processes set to work. Finally, by means we don’t yet understand life emerges and evolution begins.

What can it mean to say that life was there, was the truth of it all, from the very beginning? But this, I’m sure, is what our passage means. It says that we have to see all that is as the expression of God’s will, of God’s Word. Life was present as potential and goal from the very beginning because life, God’s life, was what got the whole thing underway and carried on informing and directing its processes. The universe was always alive.

This is why the life we find within the world, in all its dazzling complexity and variety, should be seen as expressing the real meaning and purpose of all existence. We are right to value life, right to be thrilled when we see flowers bloom after a desert shower, or the communities of living beings around sources of energy 3000 m below the surface of the sea. We are right to respond with awe and joy to these signs of life’s richness and ability to thrive everywhere because in them we see reflected God’s life as the truth of our universe.

What’s more mere life, wonderful though it is, is not the fullest realisation of God’s purpose. When Genesis says that human beings are the image of God it means that God’s purpose, God’s life, is not fully represented in creation by mere dumb, although it does represent this purpose. The fullest representation is that of those made in God’s own image, us.

Most complete of all is a human life that recognises itself for what it is. A human life that comes to understand, to hear and to believe, God’s word, the inner truth of our being. This is what Jesus means when he says that whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. In the hearing and believing, in the coming to know the relationship we have with God, we come to possess what was always there, God’s eternal life in us.

As we recognise and develop this relationship we come to have more fully the life eternal, the life that is not limited by the biological processes described by science but is their ground and origin. Life as we know it is bounded by death, but this is not the full story. Life as lived in God is before and after death. God is the truth and the origin of everything and in knowing God, in growing in relationship with God we allow this truth to express itself more fully.

The life eternal that is the possession of those who hear and believe is not a reward or a consequence of their hearing and believing. It is the deepest reality of all that is. Eternal life is God’s life and hearing and believing this, and hearing and believing the good news that Jesus brings, that human beings are welcomed by God to share it, that the sin that cuts us off from it has been overcome, that we live in God’s love; hearing and believing that good news means that we come into possession of something that is already ours, ours by the grace and generosity of God.

Further we come to know and to feel that this life itself has love at its heart. I will close with with some words from a letter that is said to have been written by the same hand as the gospel from which we have heard:

Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.

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Potters Bar 10 Feb 2013: “The wages of sin is death”. (Gen 3 and Rom 6)

The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life.

Eternal life, says Paul, is a gift, something we have only to accept; while death is our wage, received from our master, sin. We have to work to earn death while eternal life will come to us if we just let God give it to us.

This idea that death is a wage seems a very strange one. After all everything we know about life indicates that death is essential to it and to its development. If we assume that the contemporary scientific understanding of the story of the evolution of life is correct, and I think we should, then complex life and certainly human life, depends on processes in which the succession of generations is a requirement.

Death, from this point of view, is not something earned but something intrinsic to being a living thing. All living things die.

This point of view, which takes what we know of the the world we inhabit, the world of which we are a part, is a good and a necessary one. We can’t understand ourselves and our world without accepting that what is, is. Nature is as it is and we make the best of it that we can.

Yet “the wages of sin is death”, says Paul.

That the gift of God is eternal life is easier to grasp, to find meaning in. One might believe it or not but it seems clear and seems to make sense. God offers us life beyond death and this is an unearned gift. This disrupts the ways of nature, which offer death and by the use of God’s miraculous and supernatural power enables life eternal. Death is natural but God can overcome nature and establish a life that knows death no longer.

But “the wages of sin is death”.

A little earlier in the same chapter Paul writes: “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

Sin here is not something we do but a master whom we obey. That’s why the term “wages” makes sense. We work for sin, we do sin’s bidding, we are slaves to sin. Our wills, when we are enslaved in this way are not our own. We are doing sin’s work and in return we are paid, paid in death.

Later we are offered this definition of sin: “everything that does not come from faith is sin”. (Rom 14:23) That seems a very broad definition. Unless something actually comes from faith it is sin. There is no set of rules that will determine whether something is sinful. Only whether they come from faith or not can determine this.

So we can expand “the wages of sin is death” to run “the reward for working for everything that does not come from faith is death”. Another way of saying this is to say that if we turn away from God and enslave ourselves to other things then we will be rewarded and the reward will be death. We will eventually be released from our enslavement into death.

This does not, I think, imply that there is a natural state of immortality and that sin makes us unnaturally or surprisingly mortal. It is saying something more modest. If we separate ourselves from God we will die.

This difference becomes clearer, perhaps, if we put the second part of our phrase: “the gift of God is eternal life” in the context of our Genesis reading, which I’m sure Paul had in his mind as he wrote this letter. We remember that God said there “Man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

Without the fruit of the tree of life human beings will die, this is natural to them. They must not be allowed, God says, to eat of the tree of life and live forever. They must be excluded from the garden to prevent this, because they now know good and evil. Knowing good and evil means that the natural processes of life must be allowed to work themselves out.

This is the background to what Paul writes. For reasons we must assume to be good God recognises that although it would be possible for men and women who know good and evil to live forever this would be a bad thing. He therefore excludes them from the garden and denies them access to the tree of life.

Now though, Paul thinks, a way has been found to overcome this. Now it is possible for God to offer us eternal life, despite our knowledge of good and evil. This way, though, might seem a surprising one. At the beginning of the chapter that concludes with the phrase with which I began Paul writes: “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

All of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death. The way to life lies through death, through the death of Jesus, through our being baptised into his death and buried with Christ.

God’s gift of eternal life is a gift, not something we earn, but nonetheless it comes at a cost. The cost if death, not our death but the death of Christ. Through this death it becomes possible for God to open again the way to the tree of life, to make eternal life available to human beings who know good and evil.

How this works is mysterious but Paul makes an attempt to explain it in the chapter before the one we have heard from: “ the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”

On the one hand trespass and judgement; on the other gift and justification. The eternal life that is now offered is not a new judgement, it is not an acquittal. It is a gift. It is not earned, not a wage. It is a gift.

The short passage with which we began: “the wages of sin are death but the gift of God is eternal life” is often read as a threat or a judgement. Sinners die because they are sinners, if you sin you will die. I think this puts the emphasis on the wrong part of it. Paul’s main interest is in the gift of eternal life. It is no surprise that people die, Paul doesn’t need to tell anyone this. What is a surprise is that eternal life is possible for all through the death of one. That’s what Paul wants us to hear. We can live forever, by God’s grace. We can forever by joining Christ in his death to sin. This requires that we change our master, that we turn our backs on sin, who commands us, and enslave ourselves instead to righteousness,

There is no more need, after Christ, to deny us the fruit of tree of life. Instead we are invited to eat from it. The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Brookmans Park 3 Feb 2013 – Love abides (1 Cor 13:1-13)

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.

For us, mortal creatures that we are, all things will pass. Everything we know we will cease to know. In this passage the apostle Paul say that all knowing will be abolished. As I understand him he is not just saying that we will no longer know the things we know. He is saying that the things we know will no longer be true.

Think for a moment about what we now know, or think we know, about the physical universe. The best science available to us calculates the age of the universe, that’s all the matter and energy that we can observe, as a little under 14 billion years. Current theory would also say that time and space came into existence at the same time, in the “big bang”. So everything, absolutely everything, in existence originates at that moment.

There is less consensus amongst physicists about the ultimate fate of the universe the Big Bang brought into being. The most widely held view is that in the end there will be a “big freeze”. This suggests that the universe will continue to expand until all matter and energy is thinly spread over almost infinite space and cooled to a point where nothing can happen, where all change and developments ceases. The timescales for this are enormous. The 14 billion years that have passed so far are a mere instant in comparison but nonetheless the most credible future is one in which eventually everything succumbs to “heat death”.

So when Paul says knowledge will come to an end scientists would, currently, agree with him. There will come a time, according to our best informed estimates, when there will be no knowledge. In the universe that has arrived at heat death there can be no knowledge, there can be no life, there can be nothing that has structure or sense or meaning. Our science predicts its own absolute end, a state of being in which there is nothing that we could call knowledge.

This outlook might lead one to feel like Shakespeare imagines Macbeth to feel. That our lives are a futile and flickering light, no more real, ultimately, than those of imaginary characters in a play, or a shadow thrown on a wall.

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

But that isn’t the conclusion Paul comes to. He urges the Corinthian Christians to face the reality that everything they value about their church will pass away. Speech divine and human, prophecy, the giving of assistance to the poor, even martyrdom for Christ, all these, Paul says are nothing. All of them will pass away. But, he says, love, faith, hope, these three will abide.

Last Monday, at our weekly Bible study, we discussed what, for us, shows that the Church is present. Our answers were various. The reading and exposition of the Bible, prayer, music, the sacraments of baptism and communion, all these were important to one or more of us. But these things, all of them, will pass away. The hymns we love, the people we help, the friends we make, all these will, at some time go.

Even the Bible and the sacraments have no place at the end of the universe when everything has cooled to something close to absolute zero, when everything is spread too thinly to have any structure.

But love, faith, hope, these three abide.

What can Paul, what can I, what can any of us mean when we say this? What can it mean to say that beyond the end of everything we know, beyond the end of knowledge itself, love, faith, hope persist?

That, it seems to me, is the great mystery of our resurrection hope. The heat death of the universe is just the great mystery of our death amplified to cosmic scale. For each of us the expiry of everything is less important than that of those we love. And our faith, as Paul says elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, is that this death is not final. We are promised and we trust the promise, that God can and will raise us to new life, life eternal, a life where our separation from God and from God’s love is at an end; a life where, as we have heard this morning, we will see face to face, where we will know as we have been known.

Faith, hope, love, these abide because they are part of this new life. In the renewed creation we will trust and be trusted, there will be hope and not despair and above all there will be love. Love is the greatest of these because in that state faith and hope can only be present in some new sense. We will have no need to look forward and to trust, in the same way, because the promises will have been fulfilled and creation will already have been restored,.

But love, love will be there, love will be all, we will live in God’s love.

It is this of promise, of the persistence and victoriousness of God’s love, that Paul speaks to us. It is our confidence in love and in its power that allows us to face squarely and with courage the inevitable end, in this life, of all that we are and of all that we love. This end, we trust, is not the end. God’s love abides.