“A life without eternity is unworthy of the name of life. Only eternal life is true.” Those are words from Saint Augustine, his way of articulating the importance of eternal life on our journey along the path of Jesus. We don’t see eternal life, mentioned as such, very often in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but John also must have thought it was crucial since in his gospel it appears over a dozen times. For example, sometimes we’re told that that whoever believes in the son of God has eternal life. Other times we’re given a contrast between the perishable things of this world and the imperishable peace and joy found in the eternal life of Christ.
So, why does John seem to have so much to say about eternal life compared to the other gospels? Well, some say John uses the term “eternal life” as a way of referencing God’s Kingdom, definitely a central theme of the gospels, and I think this holds some truth.
Although, if so, then in speaking of it in terms of eternal life John is also helping us understand a bit more about what the Kingdom of God is like.
First of all, there’s its eternal nature. The Greek word John uses for “eternal” has a few different senses, and generally it refers to a quality that is simultaneously inside of time, and yet beyond time. So, it’s not so much referring to a vast amount of time somewhere in the future, but rather to a timeless quality found even within the present moment.
And then there’s the Greek word John uses for “life,” which also has a certain degree of nuance, referring to both the physicality of being alive, as well as life’s more essential, spiritual component. In the context of the gospels it suggests the vital quality of a life inspired by God and lived in the fullness of Christ. It combines a wonderful sense of creaturely aliveness with being fully present in God’s Spirit and Truth. And it’s the fruit of a life given over to God, something we place our hope in, praying for God’s mercy in granting such a precious gift.
So, in John we have this rich language pointing us toward eternal life in God’s Kingdom, somehow both timeless and within time, a physical reality and a spiritual one, present here and now, and also something hoped for. In John’s gospel he loves to use pairs of opposites to suggest a truth beyond both, so he probably enjoyed what’s at play here in his description of eternal life. Of course, the reason for all this word play, metaphor, and the back-and-forth of seemingly opposite qualities is that what John’s attempting to describe can’t really be described by words at all. Fortunately, though, that doesn’t stop him from trying, because at the very least his words can point us in the right direction.
For example, in keeping with the sense that we possess eternal life right here and now, Jesus tells us that we’ve already inherited the Kingdom since we already belong to God, just as he does, and just as we belong to Jesus as his followers. On the other hand, Jesus seems to put conditions on eternal life, the dwelling in God’s Kingdom being the fruit of belief in Christ, and on participating in the Eucharist of Christ’s mystical flesh and blood. There is an ancient wisdom living at the heart of this apparent paradox, and it finds expression in the passage from John we read today where dwelling in God’s Kingdom is likened to knowing the One, True God. This “knowing” that John is talking about isn’t any kind of intellectual assent or knowledge based on reason. Instead, John uses the Greek word “gnosis” to indicate the kind of knowing that stems from experiencing an inner truth, the kind of knowing that comes from participating in the thing to be known, the kind of knowing that typically doesn’t lend itself to logical proofs or even language.
Gnosis is the kind of felt knowledge we encounter when we experience the love we feel for our children or for parents. It’s the kind of knowing we feel when we wonder at the beauty of a sunset. When Jesus calls us to “belief,” it’s this kind of knowledge or gnosis we’re called to, which itself is the salvation of eternal life.
Now, as children of Light we’re created in God’s image, and so by our participation in the divine nature we already have this knowledge or gnosis, or more precisely perhaps, we are this gnosis, the experience of the Holy One on earth through our very being. It’s in the nature of who we are in the world, however, to forget this profound truth, and so the work of claiming eternal life becomes only the effort required to remember that we already are beings of eternal life, one with Christ, in union with our Creator.
Here again, though, language can be deceptive. By “remember” I don’t mean in the sense of remembering where you left your glasses, or remembering that word that’s just on the tip of your tongue. When we remember the truth of our eternal being in Christ it’s more like suddenly waking up to who we are, who we have always been, resting now in God’s glorious presence, and realizing that we’ve always been here, resting in that beautiful and peace-filled light. It’s like that story about the fish being the last one to discover water, simply because it’s always been immersed in the ocean. Except, in our case, not only are we immersed in the ocean of God’s Light and Love, we are the ocean.
What can we compare this to, this waking up to such a fundamental truth of reality, God’s truth as the source of all that is, and the most basic part of our identity in Christ, a truth that is present eternally in each timeless moment, but that we spend an awful lot of time sleepwalking through. Well, we could compare it to being completely present for the sounding of a large bell. Imagine the bell as it begins to swing, and in that small, pregnant moment before the clapper strikes, there exists a timeless silence. Timeless, that is, if we remember to simply be still and listen, to notice the infinite pauses in God’s ongoing act creation.
Or consider listening to music. Before the music starts to play we’re enfolded by silence out of which the music is born. And what happens to that silence as the music plays? Nothing at all… the silence is still there, and it’s the very ground of the music itself. Remembering our eternal life in Christ in the here and now is like recognizing that eternal silence present within each moment as the music of the world plays on.
Jesus sometimes contrasts eternal life with what he calls “the world.” The “world” consisting of all the passing phenomenon of life, all the fleeting features of our existence that we often confuse with God’s reality. When we’re in the world, and not of the world we understand the relative truth of the world we live in, and at the same time we recognize the eternal and ultimate truth of God’s Kingdom. We participate in the world as unique expressions of God’s Light and Love, while we also participate in the mystery of that Silence from which we and all creation comes forth. And our primary concern is that we not become so distracted by what the world tends to value that we lose sight of the mystery we all are.
The eternal life offered by the Holy One is also expressed within the mystery of the Trinity. As this great dance unfolds in the eternity of each moment, the generative Silence of the Creator gives birth to the Light of Christ in all there is, through which the Spirit of Love is shared and renewed. We participate in the mystery of eternal life when, as Jesus tells us, we lose our lives of attachment to things of this world in service of our Beloved God. We awaken to God’s reality and presence in each moment when we let ourselves just be, resting in the stillness of our hearts, listening for the Holy Silence beneath the music of life, and embracing our true nature as eternal children of Christ’s Light, just ebbing and flowing currents in God’s ocean of Love.
It’s in this way, surrendering everything false in our lives that we awaken from our worldly slumber, and come to know the awesome and beautiful eternity we already are, recognizing with our entire being the forgotten truth of who we are in Christ. This is fullness of life in the Spirit we’re invited to, and it’s why it’s the life we aspire to as followers of Jesus, and as inheritors of God’s Kingdom. Because, “A life without eternity is unworthy of the name of life. Only eternal life is true.”