May Not Perish But May Have Eternal Life

Sermon for Sunday, March 19, 2023 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-45

(Part Four of Sermon Series on John 3:16 – Part One – Part Two – Part Three)

Today we finish up our sermon series on John 3:16 – “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.” Three weeks ago, we talked about God loving every nook and cranny of creation. Two weeks ago, we said that God gave the gift of God’s only son to show us how to enter into the story God is telling. Last week, we looked at the concept of belief as “abiding in relationship” with Jesus. And that brings us to the final phrase of John 3:16 – “may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Let’s get the easy bit out of the way first: “may not perish.” The ‘perishing’ here is not about physical death. Jesus is not making the claim that our bodies will persist forever. The people who wrote the Gospel down 60ish years after Jesus’ resurrection had seen their companions die, some through natural causes, others due to persecution and martyrdom. They did not expect their bodies to keep on living like the old knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The word ‘perish’ might also be understood as ‘destroy.’ The ‘perishing’ is not about physical death, but about annihilation, about being completely unmade.

Through the gift of God’s love, then, we are not unmade. We remain. We abide, like those branches growing from the vine that is Christ. Beyond our deaths, God continues to love us into being in some way that we cannot comprehend, but we know in our hearts means a closer connection to God than we can imagine now. Whatever that closer relationship is, is eternal life.

In today’s Gospel reading, we have the opportunity to listen in as Jesus and Martha talk about eternal life near the grave of her brother Lazarus. Martha speaks first: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” We could interpret Martha’s words as an accusation or as a statement of faith. More than likely, they are (as is so often the case) a combination of the two. At first, Jesus responds with what sounds like an empty, stock answer to a grieving person: “Your brother will rise again.” Such a statement had probably reached the status of well-worn platitude in that time, considering a large portion of Jewish society believed in a final resurrection. Judging by her next words, Martha certainly takes Jesus’ statement in this clichéd manner. I imagine her hanging her head when she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

But here’s where Jesus changes the cliche. He stretches out his hand, places it on Martha’s cheek, gently raises her head so their eyes meet. “I Am the resurrection and the life,” he says. And for those few words his voice rings like a well-struck bell, and the truth of them resounds deep within Martha’s soul. I Am the resurrection and the life.

You may recall two weeks ago, we discussed Jesus’ frequent use of the phrase “I Am.” When he states “I Am,” he reaches back to the conversation between Moses and God at the burning bush. Moses asks God for God’s name, and God replies, “I AM WHO I AM.” When Jesus echoes these words in the Gospel, he reveals a piece of his own divine identity.

“I Am the resurrection.” By taking resurrection into his very identity, Jesus proclaims to Martha and to us that his business is always remaining in life-giving relationships. Remember, that’s his gift to us. Yes, death occurs. But death is not final. Yes, life ends. But new life emerges because of the power of the promise of Christ’s resurrection, as he continually calls us into full and complete relationship with him. Only then, in the power of the resurrection, will we truly be able to reciprocate and join him in that full and complete relationship.

Martha understands the truth of the promise of this relationship. Notice how she answers Jesus’ next question. He asks: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Here Martha replies in the affirmative, but she answers a different question than the one Jesus asked: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming in the world.” By saying she believes in him, Martha affirms her relationship with Jesus, just like the man born blind last week. And Jesus, unwilling to let such a relationship ever end, offers her the gift of resurrection. Our belief in Jesus affirms our desire to remain in relationship with him. His gift of resurrection affirms his desire to remain in relationship with us.

So the promise of resurrection, which Jesus builds into his very identity, is the promise of eternal relationship with God. And that sounds like a pretty good definition of heaven. In their conversation near the grave of Lazarus, Martha and Jesus reaffirm their desire to be together. Their words are a verbal embrace that points to the eternal embrace promised by the power of the resurrection. 

We conclude John 3:16 with this promise of God’s eternal presence, bringing us full circle back through relationship and gift to God’s eternal love. As we finish this series of four sermons, we might retranslate John 3:16 like this:

For God so loved the entirety of Creation that God revealed God’s own self in the gift of God’s only Child: to draw us deeper into relationship with God, to find our place in God’s story of reconciliation, and to embrace the true life of God’s presence now and forever. Amen.

2 thoughts on “May Not Perish But May Have Eternal Life

  1. This series is the best! Preparing for the Easter, we can see the cross as the hinge of history where a real Jesus walked on our earth calling real people to have an eternal relationship with him starting at that very moment. Many of us pray: “Our Father who art in heaven…thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” I like the proposed translation of the verse John 3:16 which I first memorized from the KJV. I would like to further adjust it as: For God so loved the entirety of Creation that He revealed His’s own self in the gift of His’s only Child: to reestablish a relationship with God lost in the Garden, to find our place in God’s story of reconciliation, and to embrace the true life of Christ’s presence now and forever. Amen.

    The reality is that we live in a broken world, with broken relationships between God and humanity as well as between each other. Only the cross can mend both relationships.

    Coming to a theater near you: His Only Son,

  2. The “title” of this post reminds me of the song/hymn “God so Loved the World”,
    one of the pieces my father sometimes sang around Easter in his wonderful baritone voice, which he kept right up until a few days before he passed away.
    Thank you for the memory.

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