The Gospel of John has always been something of a mystery with a mystical bent to it, at least, to me it does. Jesus does not come out and positively state everything clearly. He refers to things tangentially, and the reader or the hearer should be able to make a connection in some way. Sometimes that’s hard to do, given that it was attributed to a person who lived two millennia ago, understood the world somewhat differently than we do, and who lived in a very different world. But in spite of it all, there are words of wisdom and instruction in the Gospel of John to which we as Christians need to pay attention.
Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me.” That appears to be a circular phrase, implying to believe in me but don’t believe in me; believe in the one who sent me. I wonder how people who did not fully understand the divinity of Jesus would take that statement. Would they be looking around to see who Jesus was referring to, or had they listened enough to know that he was referring to God?
“I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness.” He had just announced that he was the light of the world and that light would destroy the darkness. But he makes a statement following this that I think I sometimes miss in my rush to simplify the gospel and make it more related to the light metaphor he just used. “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” Jesus’s duty and ministry were to save people, not condemn them. That’s not to say that he didn’t give us some idea of who might or would be condemned by God at some point, but only (at that time, anyway,) that he was not the designated one to do that. That was God’s providence entirely. Jesus had his mission, and he did his best both human humanly and divinely, to make that mission successful.
“The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. Eventually, Jesus’s words will judge, but only after being given direction to do so by God.
“And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.” Jesus will speak the final word of judgment, but that word will come from God, very much as a monarch would submit a declaration or decree, that would be read aloud by a high official or clerk and accepted as the monarch’s will.
The line that I connect with is, “And I know that his commandment is eternal life.” This part of Jesus’s words is something I have been taught to believe since I was a small child. One had to “join the church” and accept Jesus as a personal savior to be admitted for baptism, which was the initiatory rite for becoming a Christian. Other denominations had other ways of marking such a step, but it always begins with baptism as the rite and the ritual conferring membership in the Christian faith and one’s train ticket to heaven as it were. The ticket does not designate whether it is a first, second, or third class because baptism does not confer rank as titles and honors do in our world. One is a Christian, plain and simple. The kind of Christian life I lead depends on how I live my life. Whether I believe Jesus, whether I think that my status in this life and the afterlife will be dependent on the will of God is something that I have to consider on a day-to-day basis.
The part about eternal life, for me, this week, has been a matter of consideration. Just a few days ago I marked an anniversary that I’m glad I had but wish I hadn’t. Eternal life becomes more than just a phrase when I first heard, “You have cancer.” The world stops, and suddenly eternal life, as well as mortal life, become two glaring headlights at which I remember staring as if I were a deer on a dark road. It took a while to get comfortable with the implication of an impending end of mortal life, even though I had no real knowledge whether that would be a short time or a prolonged one. Even at six years, I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a survivor, because I don’t know if and when that cross is going to be placed on my shoulders again.
The good news is that I can contemplate eternal life and work towards that end by being the best me I can be. I can’t say I lead a perfect life. The Lord himself knows that I have a considerable number of flaws, a few that I have managed to conquer, but an awful lot that remains to work on. I don’t have to be in perfect health to work on those things, and I find that they are often much easier to work on if, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, I should “Keep [my] eye on the prize.”
I mean to take Jesus at his word. I’m going to act as if, in the twelve-step parlance, I had absolute safe, total, and complete confidence that everything Jesus has told me is factual and doable. Sometimes it takes a stretch, but then all life consider consists of a series of stretches that have to need to be made to achieve anything. I believe because I have no reason not to. If I’m wrong, I’ll find out at some point in time. If I’m right, I will also find out at some point in time. I can do nothing to delay or hasten that final discovery. All I can do is to my best, believe in what Jesus told me and taught me, and work, in sickness and in health, to forge my union with Christ so that I have a map, a guide, and an ambition. Whatever else comes, Jesus and I’ll handle it. I have faith in that.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 22, 2018.