John 6:35, 41–51
When Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life,” I think about my mom’s death—about her dying actually. When I arrived at the house Mom was conscious, but not really responsive. Sometimes her eyes opened, but you could tell that she wasn’t seeing us there in the room anymore. Her gaze was elsewhere. People who are dying, in those last few hours, usually turn their eyes away from all of us, so that they can turn them towards God. There’s a longing at the very end for the transformation of death, which is also a transformation in God.
I was there in the room with my father, my sister and her fiancé. There was so much grief and sadness in the room, but also something more that we were experiencing. There was an intimacy and (there’s no other word for it) an aliveness in the room. It was a deathbed, but it was more. We could all feel it. Mom’s eyes were on God, and we couldn’t take our eyes off Mom.
When Mom finally stopped breathing and slipped away, I did something that really surprised me. After about 15 minutes or so, I took a picture of my mom with my phone. It felt to the everyday part of my brain like a really weird thing to do. “Why would you want to remember her like this?” That’s what my brain was asking me—the part of my brain that couldn’t fully believe that faith, hope, and love are greater than death, the part that wanted to run away from the terrifying aliveness that I was feeling in that room. But the greater part of me knew that we had all come fully alive in that room together—Mom included. In that sacred mix of sadness and beauty, pain and truth, we experienced not only death, but also the biggest kind of life. And so I wanted to take a picture of Mom like that. I want to remember that.
Until you’ve experienced it, a deathbed feels like an awfully strange place to come fully alive. We think of coming alive as skydiving, new car smell, the second cup of coffee in the morning. And, yeah, all that exhilarating stuff is a wonderful part of coming alive. But if it’s possible to come alive at a deathbed, if we can even come alive while dying, maybe we underestimate the wideness of Jesus’ eternal life—its breadth and its persistence. Eternal life is not narrow, it’s not timid. We come fully alive in life’s mountaintop moments, of course, but do we need to be any less alive trudging through the valley of the shadow of death? Eternal life is a long life, obviously. But is that all it is? My mom got her threescore years and ten—not a short life, not a long life. But time is neutral. It’s not the length of a life that matters, it’s what fills that life, it’s how often in life we manage to come fully alive in the moment, whatever that moment may hold.
Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” He doesn’t say “will have, up in heaven, by and by.” He doesn’t say, “when they’re raised from the dead on the last day, it’ll only happen then.” He says HAS eternal life. If you hold the bread of life, then you possess eternal life here and now, on this earth, in this body, eternal life has arrived to us. Every now and again there’s a moment or two in this life, maybe even a transcendent moment or two when you feel God actively moving through you like a fire, and you come alive. But for most of us, those moments are few and far between. And we’re left to wonder in the long, cool stretches between them just what it is that really makes us come to life. What makes me come alive?
None of us is all-the-way, all-the-time perfectly alive. We’re only truly alive part of the time, and the rest of the time we just sort of exist. God calls us from existence to life! But sometimes we get stuck, held back. First problem: We don’t really believe in eternal life. Maybe we hope for heaven after we die, but we don’t really believe in the kind of eternal life that says this existence, this world, could be better and more meaningful than we expect. And we don’t expect much. We don’t think things can change, other than anticipating that things will probably only get worse. We don’t have much faith in people or much fondness for their foibles. And we certainly don’t believe that God has the power to turn this world upside down.
When I was in Somerville, MA we had a scrappy little church. If you could have seen that little old building. Oh, boy. Built by Scotch Calvinists on the cheap. The entire footprint of the building would fit inside this sanctuary. Even still, when they built it, they didn’t pour the foundation all the way out to the walls, so the walls of the church sat on dirt. Which may have saved a little money, I guess, but after a century it wasn’t much good for our walls. Whenever we’d sing “The Church’s One Foundation” in worship the Building & Grounds Committee would sing “The church has no foundation…” to help raise awareness of our unique plight.
It was a stucco building. Stucco in Boston? We wondered if had some special meaning. Maybe one of the church’s founders had made a mission to the Southwest or something. We looked into it, and it turned out that stucco was just the cheapest way to side a building in 1913.
The city of Somerville used to have four congregational churches. We were the last one, and no one thought we were going to make it. The denomination had written the church off. There was no budget, no savings, no endowment. At one time they got down to about 15 members.
But today it’s a thriving, growing church. People would come from all over the country and say, “How? How did you do it?” My colleague, Rev. Molly Baskette, published two books about it, trying to answer their questions. Why two? Well, we did a lot! There were a lot of technical answers. We changed coffee hour, we flew the rainbow flag, we became a testimony church, and on and on! And all those things were a part of it, but were they the fundamental answer to how or why the Holy Spirit showed up and set a fire in the heart of the church?
Looking back on it, in retrospect, I feel sure about one thing that made a true difference. When the church got down to 15 people, those 15 people believed that a church, of all places, is a place where you must expect transformation. They expected and they desired to be not larger, not richer, not prettier, not more respected but to be a church where lives are changed—where people come to experience the biggest kind of life, where they meet God, get sober, get married, get over their divorce, come out of the closet, have kids, change careers, change the way they spend their money, change who they think of as their neighbor, change who they are to the world. Church, of all places, is a place where we expect the biggest kind of life to change all of our lives for the better.
This to me is really Christianity 101. The reason we don’t expect much is because we don’t believe anymore the truth that we learned in Sunday School, “I am a child of God.” In his sermons, Howard Thurman would go back again and again to the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You remember this story: At some point the youngest son is old enough to leave home so he asks his father for an early inheritance, leaves his family behind like they’re dead, and squanders his money on loose living—nasty stuff! You know what he was up to—disrespecting himself, disrespecting others. Things get bad (as they do), the money’s all gone, he’s got to get himself a job tending pigs, and he lays down in the mud with them and eats their scraps to feed himself. And one day, covered up to his chin in pig squalor, something he was taught as a child—not even taught—something he had always known but that he had forgotten comes crashing back into his brain. He sits up the pigsty and cries out, “Am I not my father’s son?” And just that realization—that he is a beloved child of God—is the beginning of the transformation of his life. Beloved, remember, you’re a child of God. And a child of God, when she remembers who she is, expects more than the pig-scrap life. She begins to long for the biggest kind of life. That’s the first step.
At the end of 40 years of wandering in the wilderness on the way to Promised Land, Moses says to the children of Israel, “God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, bread from heaven, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” This is the second step into the biggest kind of life. I was not made only to go grasping after the things of this world. Yes, I have to eat. But there’s an even deeper hunger within me. And to honor that hunger I eat every word that comes from the mouth of my God, I take the bread of life not into my belly but into my heart. I align my life to God in the same way that God has aligned herself to my true life. Yes, I still eat bread. But that is no longer my function. I am no longer a consumer, a grasper, a hoarder. I’m a believer, a giver, a careless sower of seeds—I scatter them all over the place, I don’t judge, I don’t discriminate, I don’t hide my light from anyone because I believe that transformation is possible everywhere and all the time!
Here, in the biggest kind of life that Jesus offers us, we become aware of the profundity of the grace that has saved us. What a gift we’ve been given! We recognize that no amount of our own effort could have ever resulted in such life, such freedom, such love. And yet, simultaneously, I recognize that without my effort, this gift of grace is absolutely wasted on me because I, I, I must realize that I am a child of God, who does not live by bread alone, who has been given an incredible gift, who has aligned the core of my belief to the Gospel, and who will continue the work of announcing good news to the poor, bringing the Kingdom of God to earth, and expecting transformation all around me.
When Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life,” I think about my own death—my dying one day. I hope in that moment that I will be ready to come fully alive. I hope that come that day, whatever is left of my ego and my way will be finally ready to retire completely. I hope I will have long ago left behind my demands on God for my life. I hope that when I turn my eyes to God, I feel eternal life around me already. I hope that I pray, “God, I’m ready for you to change everything again.”
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations