Sunday: 12 August, 2012 –– 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19:4–8 / Ephesians 4:30–5:2 / John 6:41–51
What must I do to have eternal life?
Belief in a world “beyond” this one is almost universal in human nature. Rising out of this inherent faith comes the question common to all sensitive souls, and it is a question people asked Jesus again and again in one form or another: What must I do to have eternal life? Isn’t that a key concern for each of us? Isn’t that the motivation for us to come to church and listen to what we hope will be an interesting homily? What must I do to have eternal life?
There is a reason people asked Jesus this question, and it is the reason people still turn their attention to Jesus today. A few chapters later in John’s Gospel Jesus explicitly says: I have come that they may have life.... In the previous section of this sixth chapter –– this Bread of Life Discourse –– Jesus has told the people: I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. Then Jesus says, This is the will of the Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life.
The people did not understand what Jesus was saying. There were questions. There was misunderstanding. There was disagreement. There was offense and anger. If we take an honest look around today at all who claim to be listening to Jesus, it seems that not so much has changed. There are questions. There is misunderstanding. There is disagreement. Unfortunately, there is still offense and anger. And yet there is an underlying unity; we all want an answer to our deepest anxiety: What must I do to have eternal life?
In the eleven verses of today’s Gospel reading we can find Jesus giving the answer to this question three different ways. Hear this carefully: Jesus is not giving three different answers; Jesus is giving the answer three different ways. It seems not everyone understands this. I say this because the three ways Jesus speaks of eternal life have been separated into different emphases of Christian expression, as if one is more important than another.
The first is what we do. This is implied when Jesus says: Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me. The natural context for this saying would be the Commandments (which Jesus quoted when questioned another time by the Rich Young Ruler). Some denounce this approach to God as “salvation by works” (as if faith and good works are opposed to each other). It’s meant to criticize the idea that our good deeds will be weighed against our bad deeds, and if there are more good deeds we get into heaven –– but the Bible does not teach that anywhere. To that particular way of thinking, perhaps a little story will provide a correction. A man dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates....
St. Peter says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in."
"Okay," the man says, "I attended church every Sunday."
"That's good,” says St. Peter. "That's worth two points."
"Two points?" he says. "Well, I gave 10% of all my earnings to the church."
"Well, let's see," answers Peter, "that's worth another 2 points. Did you do anything else?"
"Two points? Whoa! How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans."
"Fantastic, that's certainly worth a point, " responded Peter.
"Hmmm...," the man says, "I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her...."
"That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth three points!"
"THREE POINTS!!" the man cries, "At this rate the only way I get into heaven is by the grace of God!"
Peter says, "Come on in!"
That story would be applauded by those who want to emphasize what Jesus says next: Whoever believes has eternal life. This is a major theme in John’s Gospel and St Paul’s letters. It was Paul’s answer to the Philippian jailer: Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved... This is the emphasis among Evangelicals today, who say that believing is simply “accepting” that Jesus did it all for us. There is a great truth here. Christian Faith is indeed a total trust in Jesus. There is indeed a strong personal –– individual –– factor to our faith. The danger, though, in emphasizing “belief” more than anything else is that Christian Faith is reduced to an abstraction –– a cognitive “head-trip.” Believing in Jesus is more than a mental check list.
The third way Jesus answers the question of eternal life is familiar to Catholics, but just as puzzling to many others today as it was when Jesus first said it: I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.... Catholic Faith, from the earliest testimony of the Church Fathers, teaches us that when we come to Communion we are literally partaking of Jesus. This was one of the compelling realizations that drew me into the Catholic Church. Yet it is important to understand that eating the living bread is more than a mechanical gesture.
So, the question remains: What must I do to have eternal life? Is it by “listening and learning”? Is it by “believing”? Is it by “eating the living bread”? Surely when asked this way we can see immediately that it is supposed to be all of them! “Believing” means we will “listen and learn”. As we “listen and learn” we will discover that part of Christian Faith is a mystery –– a union with Jesus’ very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. These three answers which Jesus gives to our quest for eternal life all interface with and support each other.
Now, how do know this is true? The other two readings for today give an important clue. It was when Elijah believed, listened to and obeyed God that he was fed in a supernatural way. Then –– notice what the Scripture says –– he was transformed: strengthened by that food he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God....
You and I are on a journey. We want to get to the mountain of God: eternal life. How do we know that we are believing and listening and learning (which is another way of saying “obeying”)? What results can we expect? What should be the effect in us when we eat the living bread? We find that answer in the Epistle reading: we are to be transformed.
When we feed on Jesus –– when we receive Jesus in the Eucharist (in true faith, as the Church teaches, and not holding on to unconfessed sins) –– we are nurturing the life of his Spirit in us. And when the Holy Spirit of God is freely at work in us, we are being transformed into different people.... distinctive (holy) people, in the name and power of Jesus.
What does that look like? It looks like the life of Jesus (that’s what eternal life is: the life of Jesus, because only God is the source of Life –– and our eternal life is simply being united with him). Again, what does that look like? St Paul gives us some practical images. First he mentions some things it does not mean. The eternal life of Jesus released in us will not result in: bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling.... The eternal life of Jesus released in us will result in causing us to be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another....
What must I do to have eternal life? Believe.... listen and learn.... eat the living bread.... expect to be transformed. Jesus is always wanting to release into us his eternal life.