by Mike Clymer
June 29, 2008
I want to talk about eternal life this morning, but first I’d like to introduce you all to my Swazi family. In 1993 (almost 15 years ago!) Melody and I went to Swaziland, Africa, to live and serve for 3 years with Mennonite Central Committee. We spent our first 2 months living with the Dlamini family on their rural homestead. We were cut off from the world we knew – no electricity, no telephone, no vehicle, not even running water (we had walking water instead, ask Melody) – so we were dependent on the Dlaminis to take care of us and to teach us the siSwati language and culture, which they did with a generosity, patience, and Christian love that we’ll never forget. Solomon Dlamini – pictured here with his wife Betty and several of their children – and I became quite close. We referred to them as “Babe” (for father) and “Make” (for mother), and in fact I came to greatly appreciate and love Babe as a mentor and a friend. Babe and I talked (in rudimentary siSwati and English) and laughed a lot together as we hiked over mountains looking for cattle, thatched the church roof, plowed fields with oxen, hoed rows of corn, and did many other activities (that you all probably never would have pictured me doing).
Many of those activities I’ll probably never do again, but recently I have been hoeing rows of corn again in Cynthia’s garden, and every time I did, it made me think of our time in Swaziland, and reminded me of Babe. And as I read today’s Scriptures, from Romans 6 and Matthew 10, I found they got me thinking of Swaziland, and Babe and our family there as well. In the Matthew passage, Jesus tells his disciples that “whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” and that “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones… will certainly not lose their reward.” Babe and Make and our Swazi family certainly gave Melody and me that “cup of cold water” – and much much more. They received and welcomed us with a hospitality that to this day warms my heart and blows my mind. Today, I want to talk a bit about that “reward” that was promised to them by Jesus, which I believe is tied in with what is promised in our other Scripture, Romans 6:23: “But the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Babe taught me a lot more than just Swazi culture. He taught me many things about Christian faith, love, and hope as well. And I believe Babe understood Jesus’s promise of eternal life in ways that I am still trying to grasp. So while he probably wouldn’t use quite the same language that I will, I’d like to share 3 of my understandings about eternal life, and acknowledge the role Babe has played in helping me form these understandings.
First, I believe the eternal life promised in the scriptures is a quality, not quantity, of life. What do I mean by that? I mean that eternal life does not simply mean that we get to live forever. One definition of the word “eternal” is “timeless, having no beginning or end” – but another definition is “of or relating to spiritual communion with God.” That second definition is more relevant to my understanding of the eternal life offered by Jesus. Eternal life is life with God. It describes how we experience that life, not how long we live. Now to me, that understanding of eternal life is much more appealing, anyway. Who really wants to live forever, if it’s just more of the same old, same old? Eternal life wouldn’t hold much promise if it meant years upon years without end to continue our battles with addiction or illness, or our struggles with the stress and loneliness of modern life, or our attempts to keep up financially in our materialistic culture. No, what we hope and long for is a different quality of life – a life where our relationship with God is close, our relationships with each other are peaceful, and our relationship with creation is just.
If you are a sweating under the Mississippi sun laboring in somebody else’s cotton field, or migrating from orange grove to orange grove in Florida to provide and care for your family under constant threat of being deported, or barely scratching out a subsistence on the side of a mountain in Swaziland, how much hope does the thought of prolonging life indefinitely really give? For someone like Babe, probably not much. But Babe is a joyful, hopeful man who clearly relishes the gift of eternal life – not in a temporal sense, but in a relational sense. Babe’s joy comes from walking with God, and he looks forward to continuing that faith journey with his Creator for all eternity. But the joy comes from the quality of that journey, not the length of it.
My second understanding about eternal life jumps out at me from the Romans passage – it is the free gift from God (notice it doesn’t say a free gift, but the free gift). Eternal life is not something we can earn. We can’t build that life ourselves, we can’t buy it, we can’t even save up for it. It’s a free gift – all we can do is accept it (and maybe recognize it – more on that later). So if eternal life isn’t something we can “learn” how to do, or “do” anything to deserve, then what’s all this talk about sin and righteousness in Romans 6? (Elaine spoke to this last week…) “What then? Should we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” Paul asks in verse 15. “By no means!” he answers immediately. Paul is using the language of slavery to sin versus slavery to righteousness to discuss that old bugaboo, free choice. A freely offered gift can be accepted, or it can be refused. Our choice should be obvious, but for many reasons we equivocate, don’t we? That is very dangerous, Paul warns. The gift being offered is eternal life, but the alternative is death.
Jesus was asked several times in the Gospels, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” by folks who clearly didn’t understand what they were asking, or even what eternal life really was. They were trying to find out how to earn something that was available for free. Jesus tried to explain, through direct answers and parables, that eternal life is something you choose, not something you are rewarded with. He told the rich young ruler to give away all his possessions to the poor, and he told the law expert the story of the Good Samaritan, but his answers were really descriptions of eternal life, not steps toward deserving it. Jesus was clarifying the choice, and the great tragedy was that as some realized what life with God would look like, they walked away from it. In John 5:39-40, Jesus laments, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
In the Matthew passage, Jesus refers to a “reward” for those who offer the proverbial cup of cold water to these little ones. Now I believe that reward to which he refers is the same eternal life we have been talking about (which I’ve been saying is not a reward), but notice the wording Jesus uses. He doesn’t say that those who give the cup of cold water will be rewarded with eternal life; rather he says that those who give the cup will not lose their reward – as if the reward had already been given and received. That may seem too fine a distinction, I’ll admit. But Babe and Make and our Swazi family always seemed to understand that distinction better than I do. They were not trying to earn God’s presence with their kindness, or God’s grace with their generosity. They were merely passing that gift along to us, as if that was truly the way for them to continue enjoying it themselves.
The final understanding of eternal life that I find important is that eternal life is for now, as well as the future. Eternal life is not simply that “pie in the sky when you die.” That gift is available right now, for all who accept it. In fact, that is exactly what Jesus proclaimed over and over again throughout his ministry – that he was ushering in the kingdom of God, that he was bringing eternal life for all who believed and followed. Almost every time Jesus offers the gift of eternal life in the Gospels, he speaks in the present tense. Now there is certainly a future component of eternal life; scripture and our own experiences make it clear that this world and this life are broken in ways that limit how fully we can experience life with God right now – but that there will come a new day and a new earth when the kingdom of God will be completely fulfilled, when our relationship with God will be fully restored. There is a “not yet” aspect to eternal life. So we get to taste eternal life today, but the full course comes later. In Babe’s face and eyes I saw both great delight in the appetizers he was sampling now, and anticipation of the dessert for which he was waiting.
Those courses are all part of the same meal, though. What I mean is eternal life now shares the same qualities, the same characteristics, with eternal life in the future. But in a world full of junk food, what does eternal life taste like? Do we recognize it when we taste it? See, if we don’t recognize eternal life when we see, smell, taste, hear or touch it (to expand the metaphor), can we truly receive that gift? That’s a problem with sin; it prevents us from recognizing – and thus from experiencing – eternal life. Sin might convince us that things like love and grace and peace and justice are just for dessert, that they are not worth looking for in this life. So we might miss opportunities to experience mercy and generosity here and now. Maybe that is one of the contrasts between sin and righteousness Paul is pointing out in Romans. If we choose to put eternal life off into some indefinite future, we may just miss that free gift completely. We may lose our reward.
It’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it, that anyone would refuse such a gift, freely offered? But maybe in our sinful minds we sometimes confuse eternal life with our own selfish agenda. The kingdom of God might not be what the rich young ruler, or the teacher of the law, or Mike Clymer expects it to be. We might be surprised to find what heaven is really like, not to mention who all ends up there with us! I have to think about those “stinky people” to whom Jeff referred in his sermon a few weeks ago – we might be sharing eternity with them (and they with us). So how do we live with them now? Listen to these words by Jim Forest, former general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation: “If I cannot find the face of Jesus in the face of those who are my enemies, if I cannot find him in the unbeautiful, if I cannot find him in those who have the ‘wrong ideas,’ if I cannot find him in the poor and the defeated, how will I find him in bread and wine, or in the life after death? If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified himself, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, and them, in heaven? Why would I want to be, for all eternity, in the company of those whom I avoided every day of my life?”
The peaceable kingdom would be hell for those who avoided peace and devoted their lives to division.
I just spent this past week at an educational conference in Las Vegas, a city that promotes and markets itself as pulsating with life. But of course the life Vegas offers, while it may seem exciting, is not eternal life. It is an artificial, temporal life, much of whose attraction is based on its rather blatant appeal to our carnal nature. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” right? (“Wrong!” answers Paul.) But while Las Vegas is an easy target for anyone preaching from a pulpit, let’s be clear that sin’s appeal reaches much closer to home for each of us, often in much better disguise than in Vegas and that the choices we make do have eternal consequences. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I’m grateful for fellow sojourners like Babe and Make in Swaziland, who have shared with me glimpses and tastes of that eternal life, helping me learn to recognize and accept that wonderful gift – so much brighter than all the lights on the Strip in Vegas, so much richer than the finest hotel, so much truer than all the stories I tell myself. And I know that cup of cold water they shared with me is meant to be passed on; there are little ones among us and around the world who are thirsty.
So, no – what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas. And what happens in Swaziland doesn’t stay in Swaziland. What happens in Cameroon or Equador or Iraq doesn’t stay there, either. What happens in Jubilee, doesn’t stay in Jubilee. Life with God – eternal life – always brings implications and connections. Once I asked Babe about a sack of corn he was sending to another part of Swaziland, where people were suffering the effects of a drought. I complimented him on his generosity, because I knew they didn’t have much to spare themselves. Babe nodded thoughtfully and motioned with his hand. “One day,” he prophesied, “it will come back home.”