John 6:51-58 (and Ephesians 5.15-20)
The bread of life Roy W. Howard
August 19, 2012
When I was young I didn’t think much about eternal life but when I did, I usually confused it with something called the “afterlife.” Eternal life didn’t really anything to do with this life. It occurred after this life.
So at the age of 15 when I attended my first funeral, carrying the casket of my best friend in high school, who had died in a motorcycle accident, the idea of eternal life made me very angry. But at the same time, strangely it comforted me in my grief. I was in a confused state!
I was angry and annoyed because my dear friend and I were filled with the wild, crazy and mostly happy life of teenage boys; a life which included girls, guitars and games, mostly in that order, not to mention fast motorcycles cruising under sunny Florida skies, and other things I won’t mention. Life was bursting all over with promise and then on a sunny afternoon, my friend’s life ended in an instant. Crash. Something of my life ended, too; at least the naïve part.
A few days later, though I was estranged from any church at the time, I went to see the presiding priest with my sorrow and questions. He said in the place of our absence was something called eternal life and that Donnie, my friend, was happy in it. Hearing that, I didn’t quite believe him, though I wanted to. I couldn’t imagine Donnie being happy in that state knowing the state of sadness I and all his young friends, not to mention his grieving family, were living in, with empty aching hearts and shattered dreams. I could not understand why this life – so rich and full of promise – was not enough. If where he was – eternal life – was so much to be preferred to this life, then was all this joy and happiness that we shared all for nothing, of no good at all? I was very confused.
In my sadness and rage at death, I recall sitting in that sanctuary, staring at the casket of my friend guarded by flowers, and actually being comforted – against my will – by the thought of eternal life; a life that death can not destroy forever. I had the sense, without understanding any thing, that tragedy, even death is not the last word. Gradually, my emptiness began to yield to the possibility that the life that was Donnie could live in a realm that only God could comprehend, and that one day, I too would enter that realm. The last thought was the wake up call. My life then became about girls, guitars, games and God – not necessarily in that order either. Death has a way of waking us to the what matters most.
I still recall the funeral ending on a note typical of the day, with a song by the Beatles called “The End”, this single line still echoing: “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” We put his body to rest at the grave yard, with these words echoing in our hearts.
It’s Not a bad line to remember, and not all that far from Jesus, either.
It has been over 30 years since that first funeral. I had no idea then that over the years, I would be presiding over many, many more. Since then I have accompanied many people at the hour of their death. I can tell you eternal life is not simply the philosophical musings of a teenager in grief but the ever-present question of anyone who has faced suicide, cancer, trauma, debilitating illness and tragic unexpected death. Still, until very recently I found myself caught in the same wrestling between of annoyance and comfort whenever the subject of eternal life came up.
What I am coming to realize is that my confusion – irritation and annoyance – over a common understanding of eternal life was rooted in a common misunderstanding. Eternal life is nearly always set over and against this earthly mortal life, as if one were better than the other, actually, to be preferred over the other. If this mortal life is so much inferior, to be despised, then of course eternal life is superior and much to be preferred.
But what if I’ve got it all wrong? What if God’s life is eternal life, now?
In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ words always have multiple meanings. Take bread for example. Bread is the loaf on the table or the broken pieces that feed 5,000 hungry men, women and children. Yes, that bread. The kind you eat when you are hungry. Ah! But bread means more – it’s the very flesh of God, the substance that only God can give to satisfy hungers that reside far deeper than an empty stomach.
The eternal life that Jesus offers is God’s own abiding life now – not in some other existence that occurs when this mortal life concludes and another begins. Now, is the offer given that you and I may live with such awareness of God’s presence in all creation, including human beings, that it can only be described as eternal life – that is God’s life abiding in you and you abiding in God. Jesus, God’s beloved Son, came announcing to all, “I have come to bring life and life more abundant.” Life, filled to the brim and overflowing in abundance, this is the purpose of God who delights in creation rendering praise.
The eternal life that I was set against the joys of this life, is the very one that I want to experience now, as deeply as possible, not just afterwards. And Jesus says, this is possible by resting our lives deeply in his life for us.
God knows we all want to hear some good news these days. This is the Gospel – the actual Good News – Jesus offers life abundant, eternal, teeming with the joy of God’s life within us and around us, now. One need not frown upon eternal life as if it were something to delay as long as possible until the end. Precisely because John Lennon, who died all too young himself, was right, “in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
“The older I get,” said Billy Graham who is now approaching his last days among us,” the more important the eternal becomes to me personally.” He is entering deeply into the eternal life that Jesus offers those who rest their lives in God. Death is then only a portal to life eternal that begins now. Or not.
Anne Lamott once wrote that to overcome an eating disorder you must first allow yourself to feel hunger pangs, then feed yourself slowly and kindly, always remaining aware of your actual felt hunger, not imagined hunger. In the spiritual life, it is the same way, you must allow yourself to sense a hunger for God. Stop and listen long enough actually to pay attention to the heart’s hunger for that which only God can supply, what Jesus described as eternal life. Then, remaining aware of this actual felt hunger of the heart, allow God to feed you kindly, graciously, day by day, by word and sacrament and love of neighbor.
Saint Paul tell us, “be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Because as that other famous writer said, in the end, “the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
Let it be. Amen.