June 1, 2014 – Easter 7A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
The story of Galileo Galilei has always bothered me a little bit, but this week it’s become especially troublesome. You might remember him as the one who looked up into the heavens and discovered that the only way to make sense of the movement of the planets was to place the sun at the center of the solar system. Actually, that was Copernicus’ gift to the scientific world, but Galileo was the one who tenaciously defended that position in the face of considerable political and religious opposition.
The Church had always maintained that the earth must be the center of the universe. Just look at the scriptures. The Psalms make it clear that the earth has been fixed in its place by God and cannot be moved (93:1; 96:10). Ecclesiastes asserts that the sun rises and sets and returns to its place while the earth holds still (1:5). And, of course, that makes sense. We humans are the crown of creation. We are the pinnacle of God’s handiwork. How could it be possible that the earth moves around the sun? How could it be possible that anything but us is the center of the universe?
In 1616, Galileo’s writings were officially banned by the Church, and he was ordered to deny his heretical claims. In the succeeding years, he busied himself with other work, but, when a new pope was elected in 1623, he was encouraged that perhaps his scientific work on heliocentrism would receive a more positive reception. In short, it did not. He attacked the religious community head-on, even portraying the Pope as a character in his book named “Simpleton.” He was tried by the Roman Inquisition and found guilty of vehement suspicion of heresy. Placed under house arrest, Galileo spent the remainder of his life unable to pursue his life’s work. All of his writings—past and future—were banned. He died in disgrace, thus unable to be buried next to his ancestors.
It took a century for things to change. At first, in 1718 redacted copies of some of his works were allowed to be printed and circulated. After another century—in 1835—his works were finally removed from the banned books list. Then, in 1939, the Pope for the first time praised Galileo for his work and courage. Finally, in 1992, 350 years after Galileo’s death, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the Church had made a mistake in condemning the brave scientist’s work and apologized to the world for its shortsightedness.
Can you imagine being so convinced that you are right that you would let three and a half centuries pass before admitting you had made a mistake? I can, and that’s what makes me so nervous.
There is a verse in today’s gospel lesson that I cannot get out of my head: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” It’s the knowing that bothers me. Jesus said, “This is eternal life—knowing God and Jesus Christ.” It’s not a conditional statement. He doesn’t say that in order to get eternal life you must know God and Jesus. He says that eternal life is knowing God and Jesus. That means that if we want eternal life—and I’m pretty sure that all of us do—we’d better figure out what it means to know God and to know Jesus Christ, whom he sent. And, for my whole life, I’ve been pretty sure that I know who God is and who Jesus is, but what if I’m wrong? What if the Church is wrong? There are a lot of Christians out there who talk about a God and a Jesus whom I barely recognize. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? We can’t afford for it to take us 350 years to figure it out.
For starters, I think the Church has been misrepresenting what eternal life really is for as long as anyone can remember. What does the word eternal even mean? A long time ago, I used to stand in my parents’ front yard, pointing a flashlight up into the night sky and imagining that the light beam might go on forever. I would flash it on and off and on and off in some make-believe Morse code that an alien life in a faraway solar system might be able to see. Maybe there was a little green kid on a distant planet that could see my blinking light and know that someone else was out there, too.
How far is infinity? How long is eternal? As far as my little flashlight can shine and then some? To this little kid, eternal life meant life with no end. Like my light, it starts here and keeps on going. One day becomes two days becomes two thousand days becomes two million days becomes more days than anyone could ever count. It just keeps going. But is that really what we’re hoping for?
The other day as we were riding back from the store, our middle child announced that he was going to try to live to be “a hundred.” “That’s a long time,” I replied, not willing to talk about the challenges I have seen hundred-year-old men and women face. Math is an expanding reality for our four-year-old, who, upon second thought, declared that we was going to try to live to be “twenty-hundred.” “Two-thousand is pretty old,” I replied. “Do you really think you would want to live that long?” And then it hit me. Eternal life? Life with no end? More of this day after day after day with no hope for a destination? Is that really what we’re after?
It turns out that the word that is so often translated as “eternal” literally means “age-long.” In other words, Jesus is promising us an “age-long” life. But the word “age-long” doesn’t really mean anything unless you think about its opposite. Like the word “wellness,” which is defined as the state of not being sick, “age-long” really means “not fleeting” or “not cut-short.” Maybe a more effective way to talk about eternal life, therefore, is to discuss a life that is “complete” or “well-rounded” or “finished.” Yes, it has no end, but I don’t think time really has anything to do with it. Jesus isn’t offering us an interminable, never-ending existence but a full, complete, and perfect life that will never be cut short. That sounds like something worth hoping for, but it doesn’t sound a lot like the “eternal life” I so often hear Christians talking about.
But maybe that’s the point Jesus is trying to make. Yes, he came to give his followers eternal life, but eternal life isn’t a ticket to heaven. Jesus isn’t talking about spending forever with him in paradise. I bet if Jesus heard the way we talk about the goal of the Christian life as leaving this world behind so that we might spend eternity in the clouds he would scratch his head and say, “Wait, what do you think this is all about?” That’s because for Jesus eternal life—that life which is full and complete—is knowing who God really is, and we learn who God really is by knowing the one whom he sent, his son Jesus Christ.
So, for a minute, forget everything you think you know about what it means to be a Christian. And set aside everything you’ve always imagined heaven to be like. And start with this: God sent his son into the world so that you might know that you are loved without limit. That’s what it means to know the one true God. If you look at the story of Jesus, you discover what it really means to know God—not what you’re supposed to do or who you’re supposed to be in order to get into heaven but simply that God loves you. That is eternal life, and, besides that, nothing else matters.
If you’ve ever thought that God wants you to say a special prayer so that you can go to heaven, think again. If you’ve ever believed that God is watching you to judge whether you’re a good person or a bad person, please, leave that behind. If you’ve ever thought that what it means to be a Christian and what it takes to go to heaven is living a life that would make your saintly grandmother proud, I hate to disappoint you, but that’s not it at all. Eternal life is knowing who God is through the lens of love that is Jesus Christ. And that is all you need to know in order to make your life complete. Amen.