God’s gift of eternal life now

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :-  It is very difficult to understand how the Christian message gradually took off and became such a dominant feature in the Greco-Roman world. The fact that under Constantine the Great it would become the official religion of the state is near incredible, given its almost insignificant beginnings. What was it that proved so attractive and so compelling that it eventually surpassed the powers of the ancient Roman gods and became in its turn so powerful?

Was there, is there, something supremely attractive  about the Easter story of the resurrection of Jesus to eternal life and thereby of his gift of this to all of his followers which turned so many ancient men and women in the direction of Christianity, even making martyrs, witnesses to the faith, of some of them? If we think of present day life as insecure and uncertain, and indeed it is – despite all the benefits of improved health care, insurances against theft, house fires and other disasters – then life for the citizens of the ancient world was much more precarious.

Greco-Romans lived with appallingly high mortality rates and about two thirds of the children would not live to see their fifth birthdays. Most adults died by about 45. Ancient cities were perilous places, with frequent fires and building collapse which killed the occupants. Famine and food riots would have been common and the threat of wars and invasions were fairly frequent if you lived in what we call Eastern Turkey. Illness and disease was rife, as there was no knowledge of cleanliness in the fight against infections and of course no antibiotics. Taxes were ruthlessly extracted from the poorest by armed taxmen and hundreds could be sold into slavery, often by their families, to pay their dues. If this mortal life was very tough, death for pagans meant obliteration. Jews believed in eternal life, but only as a continuation of this life with the military triumph of the Messiah and good times for Israel. The Christian message was different, it taught that even now we live eternally in the presence of God, of Jesus the Son, who died and rose so that we all might live eternally with God. Death for the Christian is never the end, merely the beginning of a transformed and glorified existence with God.

This of course is the vision of the writer of the Apocalypse (7:9:14-17). John wrote this glorious picture of the millions of the redeemed praising God and significantly mentions their rescue from hunger and the heat of the sun which so relentlessly dried everything up, their crops included. He spoke of the sacrificed Lamb who would lead them to streams of living water, no small gift in lands perpetually short of water and used to surviving on brackish and polluted supplies, and of the end to tears of mourning and the constant loss, and the funerals which blighted their lives.

Indeed, when we hear from Acts (Acts 13:14.43-52) of part of Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey to the southern and central parts of Turkey, we find a remarkably similar picture. They had come from Cyprus under the instruction of the Proconsul Serguis Paulus who had given them a sympathetic hearing and who owned estates and had influence in the area. Our account includes the details of conflict between Paul’s Christian mission and that of the Jews who seemed to have been able to attract converts from paganism to their beliefs. Archaeology has shown us the extent of Roman infiltration into this area in the many Greek inscriptions which have been discovered both on public buildings and tombstones, and we know that pagans were increasingly looking for something more than the impersonal relationship accorded them by the Roman gods. Many had become adherents of Isis or Mithras, both eastern gods with a moral imperative attached to their worship and in competition with Christianity. Pagans of status attracted to Judaism could not convert to that faith because of its ritual requirements and separatism, so we can see the attractiveness of the Christian call. Luke makes very clear that it was the promise of eternal life in Christ which was very attractive to the new believers who, the Greek tells us “Rejoiced and glorified the Lord” (rather than the Jerusalem Bible ‘Were happy and thanked the Lord’) a phrase so in tune with the Apocalypse’s sense of eternal life embracing this mortal life and the next.

In our Gospel, (John 10:27-30) we find Jesus in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple. This is part of John’s very lengthy portrayal of the many disputes Jesus has with those in authority in Judaism, most especially surrounding the claims he made to having a special relationship with God, the one he called his Father and to whom he claimed complete unity and identity. Significantly Jesus promises his followers ‘eternal life’. Now this is not for some future date when they will have proved their worth, he deliberately uses the present tense. “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice, I know them and they follow me, I give them eternal life and they will never be lost.” Followers of the Lord are already living here and now the life of heaven by God’s gift. They will live it eternally with God post mortem, but even now this is something the believer is already initiated into. We live in a changed reality. Jesus goes on to make clear that this gift of eternal life, so different from that of the Jewish promise, is not simply his gift alone, but that of the Father; “The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone, and no one can steal from the Father.” For Jews and their sympathisers such a claim would have completely upset and altered hundreds of years of teaching and belief and Jesus goes on to press home precisely the nature of the seismic shift in his understanding of the God-Man relationship, with his ultimate claim “The Father and I are one.” This means that all of us, and all of his original hearers, so used to a colossal void between God and humanity, are brought close in Jesus, and all those terrors to which we are all constantly a prey are defeated.

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