What is Eternal Life?

We walked our dogs today.  We went around the local parkland along the creek.  The little young one ran all over the place – as far as his lead would allow.  The older, bigger fellow sauntered along for the most part, slower up hill and faster down.  Along the way either or both stopped and sniffed, sniffed, sniffed.  They walked in circles sniffing, licking, scratching.  What were they looking for?  What smell attracted them?  What was there in or beneath the grass?  Sometimes these sojourns off the path sent them into a frenzy of scurrying back and forth in search of something.  Occasionally I could see some item of food left behind and realised this was what they were seeking – it is usually food!!  Other times I could see nothing and the dogs seemed to find nothing but still they searched until I pulled them away.  They walked on reluctantly.  I wonder what they were looking for?  I wonder what smells or scents attracted them and sent them into a frenzy?

I wandered through Parramatta the other day on my way to the dentist.  People scurried every which way, much like the dogs.  Some rushed in particular directions and others lingered before store windows ogling items on display.  Some people looked longingly, dreamily yearning for something or other that would make them happy…  Some people looked distracted, even lost.  Some looked like they wanted to be anywhere else but on their way to work.

I wonder what it is that people are looking for.  What is it that makes people pursue various options in life?  Why do people seek larger and larger houses for example?  What is it that makes us pursue wealth and prosperity?  What is behind the drive for power and control over others?  Or the desire for celebrity or feelings of importance?  What really lies behind our addictive lifestyles and our obsessions?  I wonder what it is that lures people into alcoholic stupor or drug-addicted highs – then lows and the compulsive behaviour of serious addiction that may follow.  I heard the story of a person I once knew who became lost in an ice-fuelled obsession and ended up in a psychiatric hospital to dry out and get other aspects of his life in order.  What drives us to seek some of the things we do and why do we humans so often make such superficial choices?

There also seems to be a strong pull towards immortality, to being immortal.  In the young there is the sense that we are indestructible and some young people do all manner of dangerous things, seemingly challenging death.  There are older people who have their bodies frozen very soon after death and pay enormous amounts so that they might be brought back to life in years to come.  They pay huge sums to try and cheat death.  The lust for immortality is a theme in stories and movies.  The Harry Potter series deals with the immortal desires of Voldemort, the personification of evil.  He takes over mortals and lives off them to keep himself alive.  Such themes are common.  Some seek immortality through what they do – leaving something that keeps their name alive beyond their life.  For some it is an achievement, others a legacy.  All religions seem to have some sense of life after the grave and in some more than others the focus is on the afterlife.  The ancient Egyptians, for example, went to extreme lengths to prepare their Pharaohs and families for life beyond the mortal world.  The extreme measures they went to in building enormous pyramids and the extraordinary craftsmanship in these buildings is incredible.  Immortality and life beyond death is deeply embedded within the human being.

In some forms Christian faith often focuses predominantly on eternal life and how to get there.  In some places I have experienced more focus on death and beyond than life now.  For many Christians getting people into heaven when we die is the sole purpose and mission of the church.  There are all manner of rules, beliefs, doctrines, procedures and expectations that different groups of Christians determine that people must adhere to in order to live eternally.  Eternal life is big business in some parts and has managed to remove us from this world even before death.

So it is that I come to the Gospel reading for this week (John 17:1-11) and as I read I was surprised to hear Jesus’ words about eternal life.  He says: ‘And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’   Eternal life, according to John’s Jesus, is that we know God.  It isn’t knowing about or believing certain things about God.  It isn’t something that will be after we die (although possibly includes something of that in John’s intent) but is for now.  In this time and place we can know the reality of eternal life – we can know God.

In this prayer of Jesus, from which this verse comes, he yearns for unity between the human and the Divine, God and humans.  John speaks of the unity of Jesus and God and this becomes the metaphor for unity between humans and God and in this unity of life, experience and being we know God and therefore eternal life.  In other places John’s Jesus speaks of the vine and branches, of how the branches on the vine are integrally connected to the main vine from which comes life through the flow of nutrient.  God is the vine and we the branches that are intimately connected into this vine.  Those branches cut off from the flow of nutrient die and are pruned.  It is an image that is challenging and confronting but real.

In this understanding God is not an external being in the sky separate from and removed from life and people and the earth but intimately and intricately involved.  God is the essence of life itself.  God is that which sustains, animates, inspires life in all its forms.  The Biblical stories speak of God breathing life into the human (originating from humus, soil, dirt – the earth-man) and animating humans with life, spirit and being.  Other stories speak of the reanimation of dead communities and nations, of people lost and oppressed through liberation and new possibilities.  This breath animates and gives essential life.  It is like the wind that blows where it will, the air we breathe in and are immersed within as we live our lives.  This air is essential for life and the atmosphere in which we live makes life possible – God is in and around us like air we breathe, sustaining us with life.

The eternal life of which Jesus speaks is living in the full and growing awareness, realisation and experience of the reality of God in, through and around us.  It leads us into the awareness of the interconnectedness of all things because all exists in God.  We begin to imagine and appreciate life from new and different perspectives.  There are new perceptions as we ponder the world around and the people who inhabit the earth – not just in our part but across this wondrous earth.  We are all connected in God who holds all things in grace and love.  The awareness of God’s presence and the acceptance that we are in God is expressed in love, justice, peace and hope as we reorient our lives towards God and the way of God revealed in Jesus’ life, teaching and mission.  This is eternal life!

By geoffstevenson

God Gives Life, Breath and Everything!

Recently we spent time off the coast of North-West Western Australia.  One morning we experienced the sunrise over the Prince Frederick Harbour at the northern end of the Kimberley coast.  It was truly spectacular!  In the early morning mists we saw the sun gently rise over high and rugged cliff faces.  The aqua water contrasted with the red soil and rock in the cliffs and the sun cast a spectacular burst of light across the coastline.  The people on the ship stood along the decks as we turned in circles to allow a view of all directions.  There was wondrous silence as we took in the vastness of this coastline and the depth of beauty.  These coasts are mostly inaccessible except for boat of float plane and remain largely untouched by humans.  They are vast, beautiful and awe-inspiring!  God was very close!

A friend has just completed a trek to the summit of Island Peak (near Everest), a long-time dream of his.  As part of a fundraising group from Westmead Children’s Hospital, Bruce and others made the challenging journey.  Photos from their facebook page show the unimaginable sight of Everest and the Himalayan Mountains.  From my experience in Australia I cannot imagine the immensity nor size of these peaks.  I certainly cannot comprehend the challenge that Bruce and the others faced in climbing over 6,000 metres above sea level through freezing conditions and a very challenging, 17 hour journey.  The beauty of the world around them was staggering!  God was very close!

I become more aware as I grow older of how very close God is all around me.  This is not the childhood image of God as the old guy with a white beard and long white robe in the sky.  In fact the whole notion of ‘God out there somewhere’ no longer makes sense to me.  God seems close by in the little and big things of life.  Sometimes it seems God is very close and very much a part of my own awareness.  Other times God seems less obvious to me until I stop and ponder, look and listen and recognise the face of God in the world around me.  God is very close to all of us.

I have spoken before of our new puppy, now 4 ½ months old.  Nico needs people.  He needs the constant assurance of people and wants to lick a hand or face, to be patted and held, to be taken out and walked (or run).  This living being is so different from people has a personality and connection to us.  In caring for him and our other pets, we are drawn into a deeper place of life where we recognise our interdependence upon the creatures of the earth and the world around us.  In our garden there are plants, trees and vegetables.  Watching the vegetables grow and picking lettuce, tomatoes, chillies, herbs… and placing them straight into salads and cooking is a wonderful experience.  Again it connects us to the earth and our need of the soil, water, air, sunlight…  Our regular walks with the dogs around the Toongabbie Creek reveal the beauty and wonder of the waterway, with the vitally important riparian zone (the interface between water and land) the birds and wildlife along the banks.  In these places God is very close.

I recently picked up a magazine dealing with quantum physics and how Einstein’s theory of relativity has changed so much of how we view the world.  No longer is the world a mechanical reality made up of lots of parts.  It is a relational reality where everything seems to be held together in a relational way.  Another article I read suggested that God is like a web that holds all things together in relationship.  It suggests that God connects everything and holds all in grace.  This does not diminish individual freedom of choice or responsibility.  Rather it means that everything is ultimately held in relationship and is inter-dependent.  The very atoms in my body, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and so on, have been part of the universe since time began.  The star dust literally is the stuff of my body and the physical world we see everywhere around.  The molecules in water I drink have been ingested by countless others through history, have travelled through the seas and oceans, fallen from clouds and been part of earth’s long history.

In all of this I am not alone or completely independent.  I cannot exist by myself without dependence upon other elements of creation.  There are unimaginable processes and organisms at work everywhere in and around me all the time.  I am completely unaware but also dependent upon them for life and health and the earth’s well-being.

In our passage this week (Acts 17:22-31) we hear a story of Paul speaking in the very religious city of Athens.  Through their city were idols set out and representing every god they knew or presumed to know.  They were all there lest in forgetting one they incurred the wrath of that god.  I can only imagine the sight of these images of gods.  At the end is the statue of the ‘Unknown God’ – just in case the nameless unknown god should be offended.  Paul is aghast by this display of overt religiosity.  There are presumably gods representing all aspects of life from the elements of creation, the provision of food, the gods of power, wealth, conquest/war, love and so on.

Paul was speaking in public places and was invited to speak to the gathering of the leaders and thinkers from the city at the Areopagus, a prominent outcropping of rock where they met to listen to new ideas and debate them.  Paul affirmed their religious fervour and then spoke to them of what he knew of this ‘Unknown God’.  He spoke of the God who made all things, the heavens and the earth in all their glory.  He spoke of a God from whom all things come and who gives to the world rather than demanding from the world.  This is no tyrannical God.  Paul quoted one of their own philosopher poets who says that ‘in God we live and move and have our being!’  We have our life in God It is like the image of the web that holds us all in relationship – we live in the reality of God who gives life and breath to all.   Paul goes on to say that humans reach out for and seek God.  There is a yearning in the human heart for this Divine grace, love, life.  We seek that deep sense of being that comes from the One who holds everything in love and grace.

Paul says that God is not far from any one of us and holds all things in relational grace and peace.  Therefore we ought not think of God as like objects that we cling to, obsess about or worship.  The true worship of God is to live our lives in love and justice.  We are invited into the freedom of life in God where we find a community of fellow pilgrims to share life and community with.  Our eyes are opened to see the presence of God in every place and in each face.  The wonder and beauty of God is inherent in the wonder of creation, the joy of friendship and the interdependence we have upon the creatures of the earth and the earth itself.

Paul speaks of resurrection – specifically of Jesus – and how it is implicit in the life of the world because God is present with us and draws us into deeper, richer, renewed life. God is Love and we are invited into the life, the way and the reality of love!

By geoffstevenson