SERMON NOTES for August 8, 2021
The crucial question for the church: why are our children’s and grandchildren’s generations missing from church? Proposition: not because of secondary things like the music, but because our basic message of salvation is missing the mark. The church’s message has been focused on the afterlife, and our children and grandchildren face numerous worldwide crises: climate change, pandemics, racism, economic injustice, divided and ineffective politics, rising authoritarianism and its destruction of scientific truth. They crave a message of salvation that helps to address the crises of this life.
Today’s Gospel reading provides a window into the difference. Focused on the afterlife, we have translated verse 47 as, “whoever believes has eternal life.” Bishop Tom Wright, a current leader among New Testament scholars, has spent his career helping us to read and interpret the New Testament in a way more faithful to its original meaning and message. I read this morning from his translation, the Kingdom New Testament, which reads, “Anyone who trusts in me has the life of God’s coming age.”
Here is further explanation of why “life of God’s coming age” in place of “eternal life.”
The New Testament was written in Greek and the phrase in Greek is zōē aiōnios. Zōē straightforwardly means “life”; we use it in English for words like “zoology.” The word aiōnios is trickier. In Greek philosophy it came to have the sense of “eternal.” But we also get our English word “eon” from it, having more the meaning of an “era in history,” a long period of time, an “age” — such as the Jurassic Age.
And the factor that complicates this even more is that, even though Jesus probably knew and spoke Greek, his first language was Aramaic, a dialect related to Hebrew, which is the language in which the Old Testament is written. So what phrase were they trying translate out of Aramaic/Hebrew? And why might that be important in this case?
N.T. “Tom” Wright, Anglican Bishop and Professor at St. Andrew’s in Scotland, addresses how the Christian message has become over-focused on ‘going to heaven when we die’ and explains how “eternal life” feeds into that mistake:
[Another] expression that has routinely been misunderstood in this connection is “eternal life.” Here again the widespread and long-lasting assumption that the gospels are there to tell us “how to go to heaven” has determined how people “hear” this phrase. Indeed, the word “eternity” in modern English and American has regularly been used not only to point to a “heavenly” destination, but to say something specific about it, namely, that it will be somehow outside time and probably outside space and matter as well. A disembodied, timeless eternity! That is Plato, not the Bible — and it’s a measure of how far Western Christianity has drifted from its moorings that it seldom even realizes the fact. Anyway, granted this assumption, when we find the Greek phrase zoe aionios in the gospels (and indeed in the New Testament letters), and when it is regularly translated as “eternal life” or “everlasting life,” people have naturally assumed that this concept of “eternity” is the right way to understand it. “God so loved the world,” reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” . . . In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come.” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. If we reframe our thinking within this setting, the phrase zoe aionios will refer to “the life of the age,” in other words, “the life of the age to come.” (N.T. Wright, How God Became King, p. 44)
Jesus offers the abundant life of God’s new age . . . here and now! We are fed with Jesus the bread of life to be human as his Father intended us to be: you and I are created in the image of God to help take care of a good creation and of one another. We are sent out into this world with a message of how to love and forgive so that we may begin to heal our divisions and work together on facing the many crises that threaten our survival. Do you think that’s a message and a mission that our children and grandchildren might join up for?