What do you think of when you hear the phrase “eternal life?” As a cradle Catholic Christian, I assume the answer is obvious: heaven. Christians of every denomination are taught that Jesus died so that we may have eternal life – in heaven. As if to hammer home the point, we often use “heaven” and “eternity” interchangeably.
I was once very close to a man who considered himself to be “Christian.” He was raised southern baptist and even attended the baptist school where they worshipped. It was a faith tradition from which he eventually drifted. He struggled a lot with the idea of death and eternal life; it’s not that he didn’t believe in heaven, he just couldn’t understand it. In our many conversations on the topic I was of no help at all; I have my own conception about eternity, based partly on scripture, partly on tradition, partly on my own imagination, but mostly I’m not concerned with heaven because it seems so far off. I figure I’m going there because I believe in Jesus, and that’s enough for me.
Today’s Gospel, though, gives us another perspective – probably a very unexpected one. Jesus Himself defined “eternal life” not as some heaven off in the clouds and in our future after physical death, but as something that is neither a place nor even an altered state.
“Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.”
That’s it. Knowing God and knowing the son of God.
I’ve known God for as long as I can remember. I talked to a force I would later call “God” before I could even speak. I felt His creative and caring presence. I pondered things with Him. I asked “why” a lot. When I was just shy of three years old, I asked my creator, if I had been born a boy, would I still be me? You see, my mom was expecting a baby, and people were asking if I wanted a brother or a sister. I responded by saying I wanted a puppy. But I suppose that’s the first time I realized there was a significant difference. And so I took my questions to the One I knew. I think His answer was something along the lines of, “You are who I created you to be.”
Could it be that those of us who know and seek to know more of God are already living in eternal life? I think that’s exactly what Jesus is trying to say today.
In my church, we sing a song called “Gather Us In.” The entire song can be heard here:
I think the last verse of this song encapsulates the truth of eternal life.
“Not in the dark of buildings confining,
not in some heaven, light years away
But here in this place the new light is shining,
now is the kingdom, and now is the day.
Gather us in and hold us forever,
gather us in and make us your own;
gather us in, all peoples together,
fire of love in our flesh and our bone.”
Now. This day. In Latin, “Hodie!” If I want to know God, and His Son Jesus, there is only one place to find them – the present. The Presence is only in the present. That’s why Jesus came – to bring Life to life, not simply life after death.