Don’t Wait for Death

Sunday, May 28, 2017 || Easter 7A || John 17:1-11

One Sunday last October, I made a strategic error in my preaching. I held my guitar the whole time, but never played more than the opening riff of “Blackbird” at the beginning. For the rest of the sermon, many of you expected me to, you know, actually play a song. But I didn’t. I just held the instrument. I’d like to correct that today, so I’m telling you right now: I plan to end this homily with a song.

The song I’m going to offer you is one I wrote many years ago during my last semester of seminary. I wrote it in response to the Gospel lesson I just read, a passage which takes places right before Jesus is arrested and brought to trial. The passage is the beginning of a long and complicated prayer, which Jesus offers on behalf of his friends, most of whom are about to deny and abandon him. The prayer is long because the Jesus of John’s Gospel is always verbose. And the prayer is complicated because Jesus seems to be praying it from the future.

Did you notice that? He says, “I glorified you [Father] on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” Except he still has the glory of the cross and resurrection ahead of him in the story, so he hasn’t finished his work yet. Later he says, “Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.” But he is still in the world, praying there in the room with his friends before heading out the garden to get arrested.

Now to explain this apparent future-shifting of Jesus’ prayer, we could get into some crazy Dr. Who wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, but I’m going to try hard not to.* Instead, I’m just going to say that in John’s Gospel, Jesus has a fairly pliable relationship with the temporal, with linear time. Whenever we notice this happening in the story, I think Jesus’ contact with the Eternal is overriding his grip on time.**

Before you shrug off this explanation, just know that you’ve experienced it, too. I guarantee you have. Your own contact with the Eternal has overridden your grip on time. The night I met Leah, we spent four hours together and it felt like ten minutes. I used to write songs for hours on end, and at some point, I would realize how hungry I was. This wasn’t merely intense focus: songwriting is prayer for me, a form of communion, and I would stumble into eternity and miss lunch.

Perhaps you can recall a moment in your life when the Eternal made utter nonsense out of your concept of time. There’s a good chance it’s a moment you remember really well, a fixed point in your life. As near as I can tell, Eternity makes itself known when we are around those we love or when we are doing something we really love to do, each of which is, in the end, a gift from our Eternal and ever-loving God.

If we can stumble into the Eternal even now during our temporal existence, then we need to reexamine the popular understanding of eternal life. I’d venture to guess most of us think of eternal life as something that happens to us after we die, right? Such thinking has led Christians down the through the ages to assert that eternal life needed to be earned. We wouldn’t get it if we didn’t score enough points in the win column. This thinking also led to the invention of purgatory, which, believe it or not, was a pastorally sensitive response to fear of unworthiness at the time of death. After all, if there’s an indefinite period post-life when people can work for their salvation, then heaven is still within reach. (It wasn’t until later that the Church realized it could monetize purgatory.)

Both of these concepts ignore the truth that Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel and the truth that our own experiences with the Eternal have shown us. “This is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” In John’s Gospel, knowledge and belief are synonymous with “relationship.” So what Jesus is saying here is that eternal life already exists in the relationship between God and person, which Jesus himself weaves even closer together. “This is eternal life,” he says. “Here. Now. Don’t wait for death to discover eternity or you’ll miss the life-giving nature of relationship with the Eternal God. You don’t earn eternal life. You live it, now and in the new and superlative life of the Resurrection.”

Far from making us wish to skip our earthly lives for the rewards of the hereafter, Jesus’ understanding of eternal life encourages us to live our earthly lives abundantly; to dig deep into our relationships with God; to allow those relationships to rewrite our priorities so we reflect God’s priorities. Living Jesus’ eternal life now means praying for “thy kingdom to come” and then becoming agents of that kingdom, working to help it arrive.

I wrote this song, called “Don’t Wait for Death” to remind myself that Jesus invites us to join him, not just at the time of death, but today. Right here. Right now. The song is sung from his perspective.

Don’t Wait for Death
by Adam Thomas, May 2008

I call your name, you hear my voice;
I came to bring you abundant life.
O come and see and follow me,
And I will make your joy complete.
Don’t wait for death to hear my voice.
Don’t wait for death: your life has already begun.

I call you to come join my dance;
You will not stumble—I’ll teach you grace.
Just feel my rhythm in your heartbeat,
And then call others to dance with me.
Don’t wait for death to join my dance.
Don’t wait for death: your life has already begun.

(Chorus)
This is eternal life:
That they may know you, the only true God,
And Jesus Christ whom you have sent,
This is eternal life.

I call on you to share my love;
No longer servant, I call you friend.
I will prepare a dwelling place,
But also know that I now dwell with you.
Don’t wait for death to share my love.
Don’t wait for death: your life has already begun.

(Chorus)

Don’t wait for death to hear my voice.
Don’t wait for death to join my dance.
Don’t wait for death to share my love.
Don’t wait for death: your life has already begun.



* Arguably the best written episode of Dr. Who of the current series, “Blink” can stand alone as a great hour of television. If you’ve never watched Dr. Who, you could do worse than just trying this episode, even though the Doctor himself is barely in it. The banner image above comes from the episode.

* Another explanation for the apparent future-shifted nature of Jesus’ prayer is the fact that John’s Gospel was written many decades after the events it narrates. In several places in the text, the voice and experience of the Johannine community breaks into the the narrative, thus making it sound like Jesus is speaking from a future time, which, in a sense, he is. I think both this explanation and the one in the sermon can coexist.

 

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