There’s a Pfeiffer cartoon of a couple sitting in front of a TV set. The woman: “Do you believe in life after death?” Her husband: “What do you call this?”
When we talk about eternal life or the kingdom of God, we’re not talking primarily about what happens after physical death, but about the possibility of life before death.
Speaking of television, we’ve all seen those “John 3:16” signs people hold up during sporting events. Well, here it is in the assigned readings: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
So let’s wonder about that. How does one have eternal life, this life with God that begins now?
The simplest and safest answer is Jesus. Safest, because if we focus on Jesus, Jesus is quite capable of dealing with our misunderstandings. Providing—a proviso that applies in any relationship—that we remember that Jesus and our understanding of Jesus are not the same thing. Nevertheless, the text has a bit more to say to us, so let’s keep listening.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” There’s a Greek word here that can be translated “from above” or “again,” so the KJV translated “born again,” the RSV “born anew” and the NRSV “born from above.” Jesus’ sense seems to have been “from above,” that is, from God. Nicodemus understood it as “again” and so asked about the possibility of entering one’s mother’s womb a second time. The logic is simple: to participate in this world one needs an earthly father; to participate in the reign of God, a heavenly father, God Himself.
Jesus develops this affirmation in these terms: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” In Jesus’ time this pointed to John (who baptized with water) and Jesus (who baptized —according to John’s testimony— with the Holy Spirit). It’s not a generic affirmation (any water, any spirit), but a specific one: the road to the kingdom passes through John & Jesus: don’t bother investing time in other teachers, other traditions.
After Jesus’ time —in the time when the Gospel of John was written— “of water and Spirit” points to Christian baptism, where those baptized are born from above by water and the Holy Spirit. The New Testament assumes that being baptized and believing go together.
“…so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Let’s think about that “believe in him” part.
Believe in Christ. This is not simply believing things about Christ, as, for instance, in the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.…
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
All this is true, but believing these things are true doesn’t make one a Christian. The devil, for example, knows all this is true…
Believing in Christ means trusting Him, learning from Him, obeying Him. The actions associated with baptism by immersion express it clearly: dying with Christ to be able to live with Christ. In every baptism there’s the opportunity to remember the core of our faith.
To see what this looks like we’ve got Abraham in the first lesson. Contrary to many pious legends, there’s no reason to think that Abraham wanted anything more than the good life as defined by his culture: a large family, wealth, stability, proximity to one’s people. But God sent him out to an unknown land to become father of nations.
Abraham and Sarah arrive in what will be Israel, but remain childless—for decades. And Genesis has a story about that: Abraham confronts God with their childlessness. God responds by taking Abraham outside: “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them…. So shall your descendants be.”
Abraham’s identified the problem, and God responds with…more words. Implicit in Abraham’s complaint there was another question: how come this is taking so long?—and as far as we know Abraham never got an answer to that one. So Abraham has a choice: he can keep hanging around with this God in the middle of nowhere—or go back to Haran, where the rest of his family is…not to mention Starbucks, reliable internet, etc. What does the text say? “And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Despite the fact that he’s only received more words, and still has lots of pretty important questions unanswered, he stays—and that’s what believing looks like. It’s not just about Abraham and his dreams, but about God and God’s dreams, and Abraham’s choosing to stay means that his life will play out on that larger canvas.
Recall the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to announce the divine plan. Mary responds: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Again, that’s what believing looks like.
Who knows what Mary dreamed of growing up! Jewish girls of her time and place typically dreamed of being married, being a mother. Mary’s “let it be with me according to your word,” her belief, means that her life is going to play out in quite unexpected ways, off-the-chart joy and off-the-chart grief. Because now it’s not just about her and her dreams, but about God and God’s dreams, and she has said “yes” to her life playing out on that larger canvas.
John 3:16’s not perishing but having eternal life turns out to be double-edged: a life with God now that is stronger than death, certainly. But it’s a life that plays out on a larger canvas than my personal dreams and preferences, a life which this side of death often generates as many questions as it answers.
St Paul rightly talks of Abraham as the father of all who believe. And Mary, the Church has often said, is the mother of all who believe. Her “let it be with me according to your word” is the paradigm of Christian discipleship, for as Jesus was born of Mary, God desires that Jesus’ life be born in every believer in ways that are unexpected, creative, and beautiful. Sin makes life monotonous; faith opens room for unlimited discovery.
Faith is, obviously, something involving all of one’s life. “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). We struggle with the temptations to act against our faith, and so confession is a regular part of the Mass. More importantly, in the Mass we receive “the Gifts of God for the People of God” through which God nurtures Jesus’ life in us in our daily life.
Can I know that I will be saved in the end? We Anglicans are all over the map on this one. What I can know, on the one hand, is the tenacious mercy of God that seeks to bring me to salvation, and, on the other hand, my virtually unlimited capacity to try to make of God a means for my own ends. As the Anglican C.S. Lewis observes, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
How do I attain eternal life, see God’s reign? Believing in Jesus. In the beginning this is expressed in baptism. Afterwards, I attempt to allow God to nurture Jesus’ life in all the spheres of my life. I constantly must depend on God’s grace, for my commitment to this project is too often ambiguous. Sometimes I have the joy of seeing the effects of this grace in my life and in the lives of people around me. I hope that in the end God will find me still seeking to follow.
 The Great Divorce (Macmillan 1963), 73.