Posts Tagged ‘eternal life’

Preparing for eternity

December 6, 2014

Advent 2 – 2014

Mark 1:1-8

Marian Free

 Living God fill us with a sense of expectation and anticipation that we may be ready to meet you when you come again. Amen.

 I was both a Brownie and a Girl Guide, so I knew all about being prepared. Among other things ‘being prepared’ involved carrying emergency kits in our pockets. I particularly remember this because unlike the other girls in my unit, I was unable to get all the various bits and pieces into a neat compact package. My first aid kit was twice as big as anyone else’s and my pocket always bulged unattractively. It made me self-conscious, but my kit contained only the same things as everyone else and I was prepared as anyone for almost any eventuality – snakebite, broken-glass, splinters, cuts. I had everything required for a minor medical emergency. The second kit (in my case equally bulky) contained other essentials like matches and pocketknife so that we could fend for ourselves in the bush. We were prepared for anything.

You don’t have to be a Girl Guide to be prepared. While much of our lives are routine, there are some areas that require at least some preparation. If for example, we are travelling overseas we need to check that we have passports, visas, inoculations, insurance and other such necessities. If we are going to hospital or having a medical procedure, it is essential that we are prepared – that we have filled in the correct forms, fasted for the right number of hours, advised the appropriate people of the medications we are taking or the things we are allergic to. Being prepared assures us of a safe trip, and the best possible outcome of our medical treatment.

We go to a lot of effort to be prepared for upcoming events to ensure that everything runs smoothly or works out as we have hoped. Planning for aspects of our earthly existence often comes at the expense of planning for our heavenly existence. Our concern with things temporal tends to overwhelm and overtake our concern for things eternal. Our focus on the present can mean that we do not pay enough attention to the future.

What are we doing now to ensure a good outcome at the judgement? Have we put the necessary things in place to guarantee a positive experience?

John the Baptist draws our attention to the coming of Jesus, and challenges us to be prepared, to set our lives straight and to repent of those things which might be a cause for regret.

Being prepared means more than being good. It means developing a heart and mind that are focused on the things of God. It means ridding ourselves of all selfishness and malice, all discontent and pettiness. It means being deeply at peace with ourselves and with the world. It means understanding and accepting God’s love and God’s grace. It means accepting that we are pilgrims and strangers on earth and knowing that our true home is with God.

We cannot expect to have a good relationship with God in the future if we are not developing a good relationship with God in the present. We cannot expect to recognise Jesus when he comes in glory, if we have not spent time getting to know the Jesus who came in humility. We cannot expect to be content for eternity if we have not practiced contentment now.

Advent can be an unsettling time. On the one hand it is a season that gives us reassurance that Jesus will return and take us to himself. On the other hand it reminds us of our obligation to be ready. On the one hand it focuses our attention on the love that sent Jesus into the world for our salvation. On the other hand it reminds us Jesus will come again in judgement. On the one hand it echoes a warning to “be prepared”. On the other hand it is a gentle prompt not to neglect those things that will make us ready.

The question is: “how do you want to spend eternity, and what are you doing to prepare for that outcome?”

God does not discriminate

September 20, 2014

Pentecost 15 – 2014
Matthew 20:1-16
Marian Free

In the name of God who values each one of us equally and desires only that we allow ourselves to be loved. Amen.

One of my favorite movies (and books) is The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. It tells the story of five Chinese women and their daughters. The mothers have all fled traumatic experiences in their homeland and have made a new home in America where, like many Chinese women, they want their children to excel. This desire puts a great deal of pressure on the daughters who, not surprisingly, find that while they are like cousins to each other they are also each other’s competitors.

One of the daughters Jing-Mei doesn’t fit the competitive mold. She is quiet and unassuming, always blending into the background rather than drawing attention to herself. At social functions, it is Jing-Mei (June) who hovers around the older women ensuring that they have what they need – drinks, snacks and so on. It is June who takes the worst piece of crab at a dinner party and who can be found in the kitchen washing the dishes when the meal is finished.

Though June has happily and willingly taken on the role of nurturer, there are times when she cannot help but feel that she is unappreciated and unseen.

On one occasion, when June is clearing up yet again after a dinner party, all her pent up frustration bursts out. She says to her mother:

Jing-Mei: I’m just sorry that you got stuck with such a loser, that I’ve always been so disappointing.
Suyuan: What you mean disappoint? Piano?
Jing-Mei: Everything: my grades, my job, not getting married, everything you expected of me.
Suyuan: Not expect anything! Never expect! Only hope! Only hoping best for you. That’s not wrong, to hope.
Jing-Mei: No? Well, it hurts, because every time you hoped for something I couldn’t deliver, it hurt. It hurt me, Mommy. And no matter what you hope for, I’ll never be more than what I am. And you never see that, what I really am.

But her mother has seen, her mother knows her and loves her. She does not want June to be like her friend’s daughters but to be herself. She responds (referring to that night’s meal):

Suyuan: That bad crab, only you tried to take it. Everybody else want best quality. You, you’re thinking different. Waverley took best quality crab. You took worst because you have best quality heart. You have style no one can teach. Must be born this way. I see you.

All this time, June had thought that she had to work hard to be noticed and that if she only did enough she would stand out from the others and her mother would see and value her. All that time, she hadn’t realised that who she was was enough. Her mother did not compare her with her friends, but valued her for herself. June did not have to earn her mother’ love, it was already hers.

It has been said that the parable of the labourers in the vineyard is “the gospel in a nutshell” and while June’s story is not an exact parallel it does illustrate the point that we do not have compete for love and certainly not for God’s love. God’s love is not something that we have to earn – it is already ours. If it is ours, it is others also. It doesn’t matter if a person recognises God’s love at the eleventh hour – like the thief who is crucified with Jesus – or whether – like many of us – one has known God’s love since birth. It is not a competition. God’s love is given in equal measure to each one of us no matter who we are or what we do.

In first century Galilee, many of the small land holdings had been consolidated. This meant that there were many men who had no means of support and who had to hire themselves out on a daily basis. These men would gather in the market place every day in the hope that they would be offered work. Landowners would come to the market place to hire day-labourers. (Even if they could afford slaves it was cheaper to pay a daily rate, than to expend money on slaves who had to be fed and kept even if they were sick and unable to work.)

What is unusual in the parable is that the landowner comes out at dawn and at the third hour, the sixth hour, the ninth hour and even the eleventh hour. He agrees with those hired at dawn to pay them a denarius for the day. Those hired at the third, sixth and ninth hour are simply told that they will be paid what is just – no amount is specified. Those told to work at the eleventh hour are not made any offer of pay.

Our attention is caught by two details: first that the landowner should take on anyone so late in the day and second that the landowner has not specified any recompense for the latecomers. The tension is heightened when we discover that those who arrived last are paid a denarius – the same amount that was offered to those hired first. We, the audience expect that those who have worked all day will receive more – despite their initial agreement with the landowner. We join the gasp of surprise and resentment when they receive only what was promised. After all, those who were hired first have worked so much longer and have born the burden of the day. In human terms the landowner’s action is simply unjust.

That is the point of course. The landowner is God, as the parable makes clear by calling him the “lord” of the vineyard. God is not just in human terms. God does not discriminate according to how long or how hard a person works. Everyone who responds to the call of God – whether early or late – is treated in the same way, because there is only one thing that God has to offer and that is salvation or eternal life. It would be nonsense for someone to be one third or one half saved or for God to give the late-comers only a representative proportion of eternal life depending on when they came to faith. Eternal life is eternal or it is not.

This is why the repentant thief is told: “today you will be with me in Paradise” and why those who come last receive the same as those who came first. There is no such thing as partial salvation or limited eternal life. One is saved or one is not, one belongs to the kingdom or one does not, one has eternal life or one does not. Those who work all day are no more saved than those who come in late.

At the heart of the gospel is God’s inclusive love. No one who accepts that love is excluded from the kingdom – not tax-collectors, not prostitutes, not even sinners. In God’s eyes we are all equal and all equally loved. If God chooses to love, who are we to begrudge that love to others? If God makes no distinction, who are we to compare ourselves favourably with others?

Trusting God with our present and our future

October 26, 2013

Pentecost 23 – 2013

Luke 18:15-30

Marian Free 

In the name of God who loves us with an everlasting love and asks us only to place all our trust in him. Amen.

This morning I’d like to begin with two stories. They are both true, both autobiographical. The first is told by a Paul Villard who reports that when he was quite young, his family had one of the first telephones in their neighbourhood. He was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when his mother talked to it. Once she lifted him up to speak to my father, who was away on business. Magic!

He discovered that somewhere inside that wonderful device lived an amazing person: whose name was “Information Please” and there was nothing she did not know – someone’s phone number, the correct time. His first experience with this amazing person came one day while his mother was out. Amusing himself at the tool bench in the basement, he whacked his finger with a hammer. Though the pain was terrible, there didn’t seem to be any point in crying because there was no one to offer sympathy. He was walking around the house sucking he throbbing finger, when he saw the phone.

He grabbed a stool, climbed up, unhooked the receiver and held it to his ear. “Information Please” he said.

A click or two, then a small, clear voice spoke. “Information.”

“I hurt my fingerrr-“ he wailed into the phone. The tears came now that he had an audience.

“Isn’t your mother home?”

“Nobody’s home but me,”

“Are you bleeding?”

“No,” he replied. “I hit it with the hammer and it hurts.”

“Can you open the icebox?” she asked. “Yes.”

“Then take a piece of ice and hold it on your finger. That will stop the hurt.”

After that, Paul called Information Please for everything – help with geography and with arithmetic. He even called her when his pet canary died. Information Please listened and said all the things grown-ups say to soothe child, but he remained unconsoled. Sensing that, she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.”

Thereafter, in moments of doubt and perplexity he would recall the serene sense of security he had when he knew that he could call Information Please and get the right answer[1].” (If you’d like to know the rest of the story, you can find it on-line.)

Unfortunately I didn’t record the author of the second story. I think it was American writer Charles Bayer[2]. He describes his visit to Mount Athos in Greece. There are no roads, only treacherous mountain footpaths. Even the sea route is fraught with danger so he set out over the mountains for the monastery of Stavranikita. It was a blazing hot day and carried all the things North Americans “need” for such an undertaking – several changes of clothes, camera, toiletries, extra shoes, books, paper, alarm clock and at least 5 kilos of other junk he never travelled without.

When he neared his destination, he was observed by a monk who had noted his state and burst into gales of laughter. He was so weary he was barely able to walk, but he made out a few words through the avalanche of merriment. “Baggage, baggage, look at the silly American with all that baggage! Why don’t you throw it in the sea? You are weighted down with all your impediments.”

Two very different stories about trust, or lack of trust. With the innocence of a child, Paul implicitly trusted “Information Please”, the adult on his way to the monastery, was afraid to trust that he could manage without his suitcase filled with life’s “necessities”.

In last week’s gospel Jesus told two parables about how to pray in the in-between time. In that time after he has come and before the world is perfected, Jesus urges us to persevere in prayer. This week, the theme of life in the in-between time continues with two stories which illustrate the attitude towards God that we are called to adopt while we wait. The attitude towards God that will allow us to receive the kingdom and will see us through to eternal life is one of complete dependence, one that does not allow anything to stand between ourselves and God.

For this reason, Jesus encourages us to develop the same sort of innocence, the same level of trust that the child Paul showed towards “Information Please”. Terrifyingly, this means abandoning our outer shell of independence and resourcefulness that has helped us to deal with a world and a society that is untrustworthy and that is not universally safe or secure. We spend so much of our lives trying to be grown up, to prove that we can look after ourselves, that we lose sight of the gifts of childhood – innocence, wonder and trust – gifts that along the way we willingly gave up. In this world that seems so little changed by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, it is imperative that we continue to pray but also that we learn to trust or unlearn our suspicion. In both today’s world and that of Jesus, Jesus turns the social order upside down, It is not the old, the wise, the learned, or the experienced whose example we are to follow, but it is the young, the innocent, the untaught and the inexperienced who teach us not to trust in ourselves, but rather to place all our trust in God.

It is in this context that we have to understand the story of the ruler. It appears that the ruler is seeking something – he has come to Jesus. Despite his upright living, he is not satisfied, he is not confident that his relationship with God is all that it could be. Something has unsettled his quiet, obedient existence. Perhaps he has come to see that in the end, obeying the law is empty without relationship or perhaps he has been moved by Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ freedom and he wants to know more about this different relationship with God. Jesus recognises his longing and identifies the one thing that he needs to do – he must give up his possessions. At the present moment the ruler needs his possessions more than he needs God. He is tied to life in this world more than he is drawn to eternal life. It is only if he can let go to the things that tie him down to this life that he will be truly free to inherit the life to come. He must again become like a child and trust in God to provide all that he needs.

The story of the ruler has little to do with money and everything to do with trust in God. Can we receive the kingdom of God as a little child or do we build up barriers and prevent God from breaking through our defenses? Does our security lie in God and the things that last forever, or do we rely on other, more ephemeral, more temporal things?

In this in-between time, this time of uncertainty, this time of longing for the kingdom to come, God is with us. Jesus assures us that in good times and in bad, God will never abandon us. All we need to do is to throw caution to the wind and toss our lot in with him, to become like a child and to trust God with our present and our future.


[1] The full story can be found at http://www.telephonetribute.com

[2] The book in which the account can be found is called A Guide to Liberation Theology.

When it gets too hard do you wish to go away?

August 19, 2012

Pentecost 12

John 6:51-58

Marian Free

 In the name of God – source of life, wisdom and joy. Amen.

 “Do you also wish to go away?” Jesus’ question to his disciples in verse 67 catches us by surprise. These are the people with whom he has chosen to share his mission, his most private moments. In their turn, they have chosen to follow him despite what others might think. Why would they now want to go away? Today’s gospel helps us to understand the lead up to Jesus’ question. In fact, we have to go back to the beginning of chapter 6 to see how the tension builds to the point where some disciples leave Jesus and Jesus is forced to ask the remainder if they too wish to leave. The author of John’s gospel records the account of the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ walking on the water as do the other three gospels. According to the author of John, the crowds which have been following Jesus, discover that he is on the other side of the lake and pursue him. This provides Jesus with an opportunity to challenge their self-centredness and to elaborate on his role and his mission.

Jesus perceives that the crowds are primarily interested in what he can do for them – provide food, heal the sick and so on. These signs, while important, are not the real reason that Jesus is here. He challenges those who have followed to seek the deeper meaning of Jesus’ presence among them. Bread sustains the body for a limited time. Jesus asks his listeners to consider the sort of food that will sustain them in the present and more importantly for eternity. He asks them to look beyond their physical needs for sustenance and to seek the food that endures – the spiritual food that sustains the soul. This is the food that he provides to those who seek it.

As part of this argument, Jesus claims to be the ‘bread of life’. We are so familiar with this concept that it can be difficult for us to understand how such a discussion could create the sort of offense that would cause some of Jesus’ disciples to abandon him and Jesus to ask if others too wish to go away. Jesus as the ‘bread of life’ provides us with strength and courage, spiritual nourishment and support.  Perhaps if Jesus had left the argument there his disciples would have remained with him. However, Jesus has claimed to be the bread from heaven which endures forever – unlike the manna in the wilderness which sustained the Israelites in the present, but which was unable to give them eternal life. Among his listeners would have been those who would have heard Jesus’ suggestion that he was more important than – in fact that he had superseded Moses.

If that claim were not confronting enough, Jesus makes the even more disturbing claim: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this brad will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Not only is the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood utterly repulsive, it is impossible for Jesus’ audience to grasp such a difficult and distressing concept. Many of them know Jesus, they know his mother and his father. They know that he is a human being like themselves – how can he say that he has come down from heaven? It is impossible for them to even begin to conceive that it is possible, let alone necessary for them to consume this man’s flesh and blood if they are to have eternal life! No wonder many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him! They say: “This teaching is difficult, who can accept it?”

They have failed to understand that Jesus, through this dramatic and uncomfortable language, Jesus is asking his followers not to physically eat him, but to become one with him, to allow him to become so much a part of them that it is as if they are indeed one flesh and blood. Eating and drinking are metaphors for this complete unity. In some way faith is a process of somehow absorbing Jesus into our lives and allowing our lives to be absorbed into that of Jesus.

Eating and drinking are strong images, but they are not totally unfamiliar. We say to children: “I could just eat you!” We don’t mean that literally, we just mean that we love them so much that we don’t want to be separated from them. This is the sort of relationship that Jesus is asking his disciples (and us) to have with him.

It is at this point that Jesus asks those who remain: “Do you also wish to go away?” To which Peter responds: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter, who so often fails to understand, who so often gets it wrong has cut to the core. He may not always understand what Jesus has to say, but he knows what Jesus means – to himself and to the world. Peter may not really understand Jesus’ teaching at this point, but he is sure of one thing – that there is nowhere that he would rather be, nowhere else that he would receive the sort of spiritual guidance that he has found in Jesus. He knows that in the present and in the future, it is his relationship with Jesus that has opened the doors of heaven.

I suspect that it is the same for us. There may be times when we do not understand – when scripture seems too difficult, when the events of our lives or the lives of others seem inexplicable – but we with Peter know that Jesus is the means to eternal life. We have thrown in our lot with Jesus, and nothing in this life or the next will separate us.

 

 

 

 


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