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.