Job 19.23-27a

John 3.1-6, 16-17

Eternity in a Moment

Second Sunday in Lent

For God so loved the world – creation – the cosmos - that we have been given God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes will not perish but have eternal life.  I’m going to go in a different direction this morning than we did last week.  During Lent we are reading the 2019 UCC Devotional together, and I’m borrowing some of its scripture and ideas for our sermons.  Last week I was able to shoehorn nearly every single day’s devotion into the same sermon; we talked about the mic drop, about eagles’ wings, about Bible wars and about welcoming the stranger.  This week has turned out very nearly the opposite, because I was captured by one single sentence in one single devotion.  It is from Matt Laney’s piece on Thursday titled For God So Loved the Cosmos.  Matt based his thoughts on the verse from John’s gospel I just read, and this is the sentence that captured me:  “For John, Jesus is the door into eternal-life-right-now.”  For John, (and remember this is John’s gospel we’re talking about, though Jesus is speaking) For John, Jesus is the door into eternal-life-right-now.

Carl Hensley was a big bear of a man.  When he was growing up, Carl ruled the backyard ice rinks of northern Michigan.  Nearly every neighborhood had an ice rink, most of them rudimentary, cobbled together with little more than frozen water and some kind of barrier to hold it in place.  Because of his size, everyone wanted Carl on their team.  He was a clean player – in fact he was a gentle soul – but on the ice his checks were fearsome and he could play hockey like nobody’s business.  His nickname told you everything you needed to know about his style of hockey:  he was known all over town as Carl “The Hammer” Hensley.  Carl has been gone a long time now, but I’m grateful that Debbie and I have been able to maintain a long-distance friendship with his daughter Mary Margaret, who still lives in the Upper Peninsula.

Sudi Wilkinson was a proper daughter of the south, transplanted to rural New England.  Sudi and her husband Loy kept a small farm at the south end of town.  They had some livestock, but it was a hobby for them rather than a vocation.  Sudi was an incredible cook; her dinner parties were legend, and she was a particularly accomplished baker.  I married both of Loy and Sudi’s children; in fact, when I married their daughter, both the wedding and the reception were held in their expansive front yard, and you could hear the cows and the sheep mooing and bleating during the ceremony.  It was perfect.  And the reception concluded in spectacular fashion:  a helicopter landed in their meadow, the bride and groom boarded, and were lifted away into the darkening sky.

I did a really hard thing this week.  It is something I’ve done a number of times before, but it never gets easier, and frankly, it never should.  On Tuesday morning I stood with the Haskins family, with Skip and his two sons, Brett and Todd and their wives, as we said goodbye to their wife and mother Jean, as she slowly slipped out of mortality’s grasp.  Each family member spent a little private time alone with Jean, and then we gathered around her bed and prayed her home.  There were tears, there was laughter, there were stories, there was silence. It was a good goodbye, as much as any goodbye can be said to be good.  It brought me back to the time I stood at bedside with Mary Margaret and her mother and brother as we watched Carl, that big lug of a guy everyone called “The Hammer,” now only half his old weight, slip into eternity.  It brought me back to Sudi’s hospital room as her family, one by one, kissed her forehead and blessed her, and we held hands in a loving circle around her as her last breath left her.  It brought me back to Gladeview Healthcare Center in Old Saybrook three and a half years ago as I gently stroked my Mom’s cute little pink knitted cap that covered her naked head and told her it was OK to let go, and she did.  As I said, I’ve done this kind of thing multiple times, and it never gets easier, and it never should.

But I will say this:  It is a signal privilege to stand with a family at the passing of a loved one.  It is a time of incredible intimacy, it conveys the twinkling of the spirit of holiness, and more than anything it is a powerful moment when someone passes from this expression and experience of life to the next.  Let me say this again, because it is the reason why that one sentence in Matt Laney’s reflection captured me:  It is a powerful moment when someone passes from this expression and experience of life to the next.  It is not a matter of passage from living to dying, or living to not living, it is simply a different expression of life.  If Matt is correct when he unpacks that piece of John’s gospel, and I think he is, then eternal life is not the next life, it is the continuation of this one.  This is what Matt Laney meant when he wrote, “For John, Jesus is the door into eternal-life-right-now.”  And if we need clarification, Matt provides it in what comes just before:  “These verses are not angling toward heaven, hell or purgatory; eternal life in John’s gospel isn’t never-ending existence after bodily death.  Eternal life is about abundant life here and now.”

Now, if we’re scratching our heads a bit, that’s OK.  If it shifts our understanding of life a little bit, that’s OK.  Nicodemus had a similar experience when he asked Jesus the question that leads us to those final verses.  “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus had said, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  And Nicodemus, puzzled, asked him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  Gail O’Day writes in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary that Nicodemus’ question is shaped by a narrow and literalistic world-view, as though Jesus’ use of the phrase “born from above,” or as it reads in earlier Bibles, “born again,” means a second physical birth identical to the first.  Which of course is not Jesus’ meaning at all.  Matt’s words about eternal life work the same way:  eternal life doesn’t begin with death; it begins with life. We are already living it.

Late last spring our United Church hosted a forum on end-of-life conversations in partnership with the Visiting Nurses of the Lower Valley, and I shared the following analogy with the group; it’s a story I’ve used on multiple occasions.   I was privileged to be present at the birth of both my daughters.  For all of you who have experienced it, you know it is an intimate, powerful and indeed holy moment, even in the midst of the labor, the struggle, the pushing, the holding hands, the anticipation and the tears of joy and gratitude.  In one moment there is mystery – in the next moment there is new life.  It’s not a moment that divides non-living from living, just one that denotes the transition from one expression and experience of life to another.  It marks the start of something new.

I have come to understand the end of life in the same way.  We only know what we experience, and so in a way our understanding is as narrow and literalistic as Nicodemus’.  But Jesus expands the Pharisee’s understanding just as he expands our own.  Eternal life, by definition, does not begin at the end of life as we experience and understand it; eternal life by definition encompasses past, present and future – it encompasses eternity.  In the opening verses of the book of Jeremiah, God says to the prophet, “Before you were formed in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”  Before you were formed in the womb, I knew you.  Does the human spirit, which we confess endures beyond the grave, also exist long before we are even a gleam in our parents’ eyes?  This is kind of a cosmic question – and remember, the title of Matt’s devotion on Thursday was “God So Loved the Cosmos,” so I’m taking this as permission to think cosmically this morning.  Have our souls, as God suggests to Jeremiah, existed for as long before birth as they will long beyond death?  I looked up the word eternity in the Oxford English Dictionary, and it said, “The quality, condition or fact of being eternal…”  Well, that’s no help, so I looked up eternal, and found this:  “Infinite in past and future duration; without beginning or end; that always has existed and always will exist.”  “For John, Jesus is the door into eternal-life-right-now.”  Now I’ll grant you that Jesus did not have the benefit of the OED, so I will put on my Greek geek hat just for a moment, and go to the first volume of my Theological Dictionary of the New Testament which says this about the Greek word for eternity (aionios) Jesus uses in John; it says, “[This] contains not merely the concept of unlimited time without beginning or end, but also of the eternity which transcends time.”  Like I said, cosmic, right?  “For John, Jesus is the door into eternal-life-right-now.”  Eternity is in this very moment. Eternity is in the forever future and in the forever past.  This is why I feel so powerfully in those moments when I stand with families like the Hensleys and the Wilkinsons and the Haskins that I am witnessing something that is of the same character as what I witnessed when I watched my two daughters greet the world.  Each in its own way represents a new and previously unexperienced character and expression of life.  And when Jesus liberates us, as he liberated Nicodemus, from a narrow and literalistic understanding of life, then we are able to walk with our beloveds to the very doorstep of what comes next.

Paul wrote, “Now we see as in a mirror dimly; then we shall see face to face.”  That is, there are some things we may not yet be able to wrap our heads around – I know there is still much that I cannot.  But some day, we will see.  Some day we will know.  And until that day when we know fully, even as we are fully known, we rely on Jesus’ promise that we can depend on him, and the eternity in which we already exist opens to us, as it does to all God’s children, as we live into the hope that God has promised, now in this moment, and forever.

Amen.

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