Questions and Reflections

June 2015

A reflection on 2 Samuel 1: David and Jonathan's Death

Our first reading is 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27.

Last week we saw David defeat Goliath when Saul's army cannot. This is how we're introduced to Saul and David's relationship. And now, this week, we skip over much of the story and learn that Saul and Jonathan (Saul's son and David's best friend) are dead. David and Saul had a complicated (to put it lightly) relationship but David and Jonathan were different. They were best friends. Their friendship is one of the few times when scripture talks about what friendship is all about. Jonathan, as Saul's Son, and David, as Saul's enemy, were in a complex web of politics and situations. Yet their friendship glows throughout the story. They truly love each other. But now, Jonathan is gone. David, his heart broken, sings a true lament. He doesn't pray for help or ask God to change the situation. Nothing can change that Jonathan has died. All that remains is pain. So David can do nothing else but sing one of the most lyrical and poetic songs in the Old Testament. 

This is one of those pieces of scripture that we shouldn't try to explain away. We can sometimes try to put this song into its proper place inside the plot. We want to know what happened before and what happens next. We skim over David's song because we are busy getting to the next thing. But whenever there is poetry in Scripture, that's an opportunity for us to stop. Instead of rushing through the words, we're invited to hold these words close to us and sit with what God is showing us. Poetry and songs can reach us in ways that stories can't. We shouldn't rush through the poetry to get to the other side.

So, I invite you this week, to re-read this piece of scripture and just hold it. David experienced God's glory and presence in the person of Jonathan. This is what friendship can be in God's creation. How are we experiencing God's glory in our relationships and how can we reflect that glory so that all who know us see God too?



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A reflection on 1 Samuel: David and Goliath

Today's first reading is 1 Samuel 17:32-49

If you get a chance, read all of 1 Samuel 17. The story of David and Goliath is fantastic. 

We hear a lot about the Philistines when we read the Hebrew Scriptures but, by the time of Jesus, the Philistines were long gone. The Philistines lived along the coast, from Egypt through Syria, in the Middle East. They were many tiny kingdoms, ruled from cities, that spent their time trading, raiding, being pirates, and renting out their armies as mercenaries all over the world. The Philistines lived and died by the sword - and Goliath is the strongest soldier they have. He’s quick, resourceful, and skilled with sword or spear. He’s the best of the best - and he’s part of an army fighting King Saul and the Israelites. 

And this is when David shows up to challenge Goliath to a duel. 

This is a fight with a huge underdog. On one side we have David who is young and has never served in the army. When Saul covers David in armor and weapons, David can't even move. On the other side we have Goliath, the one-man Seal Team 6 of his day. When these two start to fight, it’s a no brainer who the underdog is: Goliath. 

Goliath as the underdog is surprising but that's because we tend not to truly hear what David is saying in  verses 34 through 37. David spent years tending his sheep, away from people, and deep in nature. He isn’t as strong as a bear nor as swift as a lion. When they attacked his sheep, David shouldn't have been able to defeat them. David should be dead. But he isn't. Instead, David found himself protected, feeling God's presence in his life. He learned to place all his trust in God. This isn't a story where David is going out to do battle with Goliath. This is a story where Goliath is facing off against God and even with sword and spear, Goliath doesn't have a chance. 

This is a story about David’s trust that God is with him, which makes him the king that Saul can never be. This isn’t a story about a kid defeating the odds; it’s a story about a kid trusting that God is with him in his life journey. We don’t know where our life will take us. We don’t know which Goliaths will come into our path. And we don’t know all the battles we’ll face or how they will turn out. But we do know that God is with us in all things and that, through Jesus, we are heirs to God’s promise. With Jesus, our final victory has already been won. So the question is: do we really trust that? 



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A reflection on 1 Samuel: David's annointing

Our first reading is from 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Last week in 1 Samuel we heard the story of the creation of the monarchy in Israel. Samuel, prophet and leader of the people, is old. People are concerned who will rule next. Looking around, they see kings who are able to protect their cities and people. So the people, against Samuel's advice and God's counsel, ask for a king. Saul is crowned and wins a few military victories over the hated Philistines. ext. But, almost immediately, Saul loses God's favor. HIs behavior become erratic. He stops listening to God. He becomes paranoid. As Saul begins to self-destruct, God seeks a new king and leads Samuel to some fields outside Bethlehem to meet Jesse and his 8 sons. 

Now, there's a lot about this passage that is striking. In verse 15:35, we hear God feeling sorry, regretting making Saul king. This is just amazing because when does God, the creator of the universe, actually have regrets? God's all-knowing - and we know that God warned the people about what kings do. But God here expresses remorse, showing that God is more than just a powerful being in the distant sky. We find God weeping for the members of God's family when they are wronged or suffer injustice. God is connected to us, emotionally engaged and committed to those God claims. 

The other striking part of this story is just how dangerous the situation is. Samuel is visiting Jesse to anoint a king while there is a king currently sitting on the throne. This is an act of rebellion and treason. Samuel is in a pickle, stuck between his king and his God. He chooses to follow where God takes him but even Samuel fails to fully see what God is doing. Samuel follows the standard protocol, looking for kings from Jesse's eldest sons. He announces that the new king must be there, worshipping God like they are. But God reminds Samuel that God doesn't do what we do. God is more than just our expectations. God isn't looking for more than who we think should get the job: God is looking for a king. And a king will be found with the shepherds, which is an ancient biblical and near eastern metaphor for who a king is. A king should be caring, feeding, and watching those entrusted to them. And those who watch will be found out there, in the fields, tending God's sheep. 



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New Doors [Sermon Manuscript]

[Jesus] also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Mark 4:26-34

Pastor Marc's sermon on Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 14, 2015) on Mark 4:26-34. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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I’d like all of us to try something a little different to start off today’s sermon -. Let’s take 30 seconds to scan through this reading from gospel according to Mark - and find those words that jump out at you. What are they - and shout them out loud as you come to them. 

Give space, time for the words. Wait to see if anyone says shrub. I doubt it - so continue with that. 

Now, how many of us were struck by the word shrub? It’s an odd word to notice really. I’ve read this passage more times than I can count and “shrub” has never jumped out to me before. But this week - it did. And maybe it’s because I’m now living in the garden state - and I’ve got a dozen overgrown shrubs in my yard that I have no idea what to do with. And that’s because shrubs are - they’re kind of a background plant. They frame what we’re looking at - shaping an image of the landscape that can be beautiful, or just okay, or something downright scary. Shrubs are these mid-size lawn decorations that we see when we look out our car windows and into the wider world. And maybe it’s because of it’s size - that’s why the word “shrub” struck me this week. Because even the greatest of all shrubs is no where near the height of the average tree sapling. Shrubs can be big - but they’re not that big. They’re not that mighty or strong. And I think that’s kind of the point of Jesus’ words today. There’s something about the kingdom of God - about God’s presence and love that can’t be measured in strength or in might; it can’t be compared to a mighty oak or an everlasting Sequoia, towering and covering all things. God’s love and God’s presence is something else entirely. 

Now, Jesus’ words today come to us after he’s been on a boat. A large crowd has gathered around him. They can’t hear him speak or even really see him - so he gets in a little boat, anchors just off shore, and lets the water reflect his voice so that all gathered along the shore can see and hear him. And while on the boat, Jesus tells a parable - a short story with a point - about a farmer who throws seeds all over the place. Some seed lands on rocks, others among thorns, and some lands on the sidewalk so nothing grows. But some of that seed lands in good soil and it grows, and grows, and grows. Jesus’ disciples ask him just what is he talking about. And so Jesus explains it - explaining this parable of the sower to be all about God’s word being thrown all over the place. But Jesus follows up his explanation with more parables - including these two we hear today about  shrubbery. 

Now, I tend to not experience mustard in most seed-like form. The mustard I partake in usually comes in a plastic yellow tub or is splattered on a hot dog. But when Jesus speaks today, he has a specific plant in mind. He’s thinking of a mustard shrub that, well, isn’t well behaved. This isn’t a plant that grows nicely, leaving other plants alone. The plant Jesus has in mind is basically just a giant weed. It shows up in your garden unexpectedly, quickly pushing out the beautiful flowers, as it gobbles up space, territory and sunlight. This isn’t a plant that anyone wants around - and it is definitely not a plant that anyone is actually planting and growing. It’s the creeping charlie, the kudzu, or if you’re in my backyard, the wild grape vine, of Jesus’ world. It’s the kind of plant that we spend tons of money and time trying to get rid of it. We do all that we can to just get it away from us - away from our gardens, our lawns, from all the things we’ve carefully cultivated, grown, and maintained. And that - Jesus says - that’s what the kingdom of God is. It’s not a towering tree that can’t be cut done; it’s not a well groomed or beautiful vegetable garden or an amazingly meticulously well planned plot of roses. The kingdom of God is invasive. The kingdom of God is a trouble maker. The kingdom of God is annoying. because it’s going to get inside of us - push us around - get into our stuff, our plans, our expectations, and undo all we’ve laid down. And God’s kingdom, as it gets inside us, uprooting our expectations and plans - it doesn’t just leave us there; God’s kingdom grows, branching out, giving us a space to rest - a place to nest and call home, no matter where we find ourselves.

Yesterday, I went into Manhattan to meet with one of the few connections I have to my old life as a freelance web designer. When I graduated college and moved to New York City, building websites was my plan. It was my career - a skill I had stumbled into but one that I enjoyed, found challenging, and it actually paid the bills too. And I’m still a part of one of the projects I worked on in my past life. So after taking a jitney into Manhattan across the George Washington Bridge, I did what I always use to do: jumped on the A train to meet my team in Midtown. And the whole journey went just like it use to be. They were power washing the station so the subway platform was more humid than it needed to be. I was surrounded by tons of people so when I got on the train, I didn’t get a seat. And there was construction going on somewhere in the subway system so the train was running local, and, at every station, it seemed like it was being held in the station by the train dispatcher for reasons that I’m not sure even even God really knows. And as I stood there, gripping the subway pole, living out my old daily life once more - I saw the kudzu - the shrub of the gospel. There’s nothing towering about our daily commute, nothing mighty about going through our daily life on the journey God has called us on. We have our starts and stops, we’re surrounded by people we know and people we don’t. And it always seems like there’s some kind of delay or unexpected detour that takes us someplace we didn’t plan to go. We can feel like we’re caught by the wind - being drawn through life in unexpected ways by forces we sometimes don’t see or even fully understand. But through our daily living, the kudzu of God - the creeping charlie of God’s presence - the wild grape vine of God’s love is with us. Because God decided to get invasive. God decided to step into our world. God decided to live a human life, to walk with us, to be Jesus to us - no matter where life takes us, even to a city in a state called Georgia 900 miles south of here. 

In a bit, we’re going to live out that truth of the gospel - by doing a very hard thing and say goodbye to two families who are, very shortly, going to find themselves living a new life in a new place. Words can’t fully express what they mean to us - and what blessings we know they will be in the new communities they’ll call home. [9 AM: Goodbye to the R. Family] [10:30 AM Goodbye to the B. Family] 

Y’all live your faith out loud - showing us how to live out our faith too. 

And maybe that’s why it’s fitting that today, of all days, is the day we hear about this invasive, kudzu, wild grape like kingdom of God. Because this isn’t a kingdom that we sow. The shrub that God grows isn’t something that we somehow plant or grow all on our own. We’re not called to plant the kingdom of God - but instead, to live that Kingdom out. To live out our faith - our love - our hope. To share the gifts God gives us with the people around us, and with people whose names we’ll never know. We’re called to live out God’s love, to spread that love in all that we do and say; and to bring hope to the hopeless, justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, and be a presence with the lonely. And to do that - we’ve gotta be a bit like kudzu too. We’ve gotta get out into our communities and neighborhoods, into our networks of friends and family, and be that love - be that hope - be that presence. Because we know that the world needs more of God’s love. And we know what God’s love looks like in what the [R./B. families] have done in their time with us. And now as they, like the birds in the branches, head to new places - let’s be like those birds too - finding our nest and home in God, knowing that no matter where we fly, no matter where the wind takes us, no matter what God’s love drives us to do, our home, our nest, our God, - is never far away. 

Amen. 
 



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A reflection on 1 Samuel: the birth of Kings

Our first reading 1 Samuel 8:4-20;11:14-15.

This text from 1 Samuel isn't about governing systems. If we read this text and bring our contemporary political battles and opinions into the text, we're missing a central part of the story. 1 Samuel 8 doesn't allow us to demonize who we see as the politically powerful (say a Democratic President, a Republican Congress, or whoever controls the boards in our towns). Instead, 1 Samuel is centered on God - and the first commandment. 

We're now a few generations after Exodus. God freed the Israelites from Egypt, sending them into the modern day areas of Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Syria. With this new territory and as a new people, the Israelites need to figure out how to rule themselves. Joshua, the heir to Moses, arrives and then a system of judges (including a woman named Deborah) follow. But as things go from bad to worst, a prophet named Samuel is raised up and leads. The question for the people is who should follow next. Samuel's kids are bad apples so the people look at the nations around them. They notice that they have kings. So the people ask Samuel, out of their fear and concern that another nation might destroy them, to name a king for Israel. 

The people are afraid and have decided to put their trust in kings. The nations around them viewed kings and rulers as divine representatives. They were gifts to the people, with god-given rights. But not so for the Israelites. The people, not God, wish for a king. Even when God shares all the terrible things a king will bring, the people don't change their mind. Their trust is being placed in someone other than God. The people are breaking the first commandment (You shall have no other gods but God). 

This text invites us to ask questions about what we trust. Do we trust money to keep us safe? Do we value our own opinions over others? Do we trust in our own health, intelligence, and wisdom to get us through any problem? Or do we not think about who we trust, instead just going through life as we can? What we trust is not an easy question to answer and we might not enjoy the answer we find. But God's grace pierces even our mistaken trust. God tells Samuel to listen to the people and name a king. A monarchy rules (poorly) for 400 years. Empires come, oppressing Israel for centuries. But the line of kings - the Davidic family line - continues, leading to the one King who God brings to all: Jesus.



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Haunted Texts [Sermon Manuscript]

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 3:20-35

Pastor Marc's sermon on 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (June 7, 2015) on Mark 3:20-35. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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So, to be 100% honest, I’ve never thought about putting coins in a car cd player. It’s never really crossed my mind which is probably why I didn’t think much about the little pile of pennies, dimes, and nickels piling up on my dash. But - would you actually believe that there is someone I know - someone who is about 3 feet tall and who kinda looks like me - who thought putting coins in a car cd player would be a really good idea? I know - it’s shocking - but it’s true. And my car doesn’t like it one bit. Every time I take a sharp turn, or any turn, the coins that are now inside the cd player, move. That causes the cd player to think that a cd is now inside it. So the green light on my dash turns on, and I can hear the cd player looking for the disc. The little motor turns and turns, trying to load some music off of Lincoln’s face or George Washington’s nose. And when it doesn’t work - it starts to grind, making this GRR GRR GRRRR noise. And it keeps looking for a cd, even after I turn the car off. Even when there is no key in the ignition, the cd player grinds and grumbles, gnaws and shakes, trying to find the ghost within it. I swear it sounds like my car is haunted as the pennies and nickels and dimes grind inside. And that’s what this text from Mark today can be like - it can haunt us, grinds at us, making us wonder just what blaspheming against the Holy Spirit means and whether we, deep down, have done something - that makes us unforgivable. 

So, we’re back in the gospel of Mark and I find that to be pretty exciting. For a couple of months now, since Easter, we’ve been in the gospel according to John, soaking in Jesus’ words to his disciples right before his betrayal and arrest. But today we’re shifting back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been baptized, he’s called his disciples, he’s preaching in synagogues, healing people, and casting out demons like it’s going out of style. Crowds are gathering around him - the religious authorities aren’t too sure what to do with him - and people are curious who this Jesus is. Jesus is busy proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is here - and he’s acting like it is here. So in the middle of this high energy beginning, Jesus goes home. A large crowd follows him and Jesus goes out to teach, heal, and feed them - because that’s just what he does. Jesus goes to the crowd to be Jesus - and that’s when we see Jesus being opposed. His family follows, trying to restrain him. The religious leaders from Jerusalem have labeled Jesus as a child of the devil. We see two different sets of people - from two very different places - coming out to stop Jesus from being Jesus. His family thinks he’s lost his mind; the religious authorities can’t see anyone who’s welcoming outcasts as being sent from God. Jesus is surrounded. He’s surrounded by his family - by the religious authorities - and they’re collapsing in on him, challenging and denying who he is, while he’s in the middle of a crowd - a crowd that’s looking for healing, a crowd that’s looking for hope, a crowd that wonders just who this Jesus is. And Jesus lashes out.

I think it’s important to not downplay the words Jesus is using here. His words are violent. He talks about tying up a strong man, and then plundering, robbing, their home. He goes on to the say something that seems almost un-Jesus-like - that’s there actually an unforgivable sin. And Jesus wraps up this whole section by severing his family connections and replacing them with someone else. These aren’t words from a meek-and-mild Jesus. These aren’t words from a Jesus who only speaks softly. It’s hard for me to hear these words and not to hear a Jesus who’s angry. His voice is raised. He’s not just teaching - he’s also standing up for himself. He’s saying, bluntly, that he’s Jesus - and he’s not going to stop being Jesus just because his family thinks he’s lost his mind. This is a Jesus who is feeling pressure from all sides to stop being who he is. They’re trying to collapse him, restrain him, bind him up, and grind him down. So he stands up - pushes back on the walls his family, friends, and religious authorities are putting around him, and instead tears them down, while standing in a crowd who need Jesus to be Jesus. The walls being placed on Jesus are the walls already surrounding the ones who Jesus is with - folks who are poor, sick, tax collectors, and prostitutes - the ones who society says that Jesus shouldn’t be talking to - and as Jesus tears the walls others try to put on him, he also tears down the walls we put up to keep us from others. 

That’s the context - that’s the flesh - behind verses 3:28-30 - those verses that are one of scripture’s haunted texts. Jesus seems to be defining an actual unforgivable sin - an action or a thought that if we do, we’re toast. We can’t be forgiven. Our next vacation will be at a lake of fire. And what makes this text so tough is that it’s also so vague. Because what does blasphemy against the Holy Spirit actually mean? What does it look like? And have I, have we, without realizing it, actually done it? This is a text that haunts because it grinds. Once we see it, once it gets lodged into our soul, it just grinds there, generating questions - thoughts - and fears - all on its own. I’ve known folks grind away at this text, going through their entire life stories, trying to decide if actions they did, thoughts they had, might have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen adult Christians who joined the church later in life, dig through their past lives, fearful that the same Holy Spirit who brought them to be baptized had already condemned them from God’s presence. And I’ve seen folks stop reaching out, doing something new, because they’re worried that God’s commandment to love will be trumped by Jesus’ words here. One of the sins of the church is taking pieces of scripture like this and using them to haunted folks, letting these words grind people and their families up while they live through a tragedy such as suicide or they struggle living with mental illness or in the other countless ways we have decided what are the individual acts that are supposedly crimes against the Holy Spirit. We take Jesus’ words - and do exactly what his family and the religious authorities were trying to do. Jesus isn’t in the crowd, trying to collapse people, trying to bind them up, or to haunt them. He’s doing the opposite. He’s healing - he’s loving - he’s transforming people and society so that all can love as fully as God wants them to love. The unforgivable sin is denying that forgiveness - that God’s love - can’t do what God says it does. Jesus is being Jesus. Jesus is loving people not because they’re perfect or they look right or because they’re the right type of people to help. Jesus is loving everyone because everyone is a beloved child of God, worthy of God’s love. In Jesus, forgiveness comes. In Jesus, healing flows. In Jesus, love for everyone grows. 

Now, I’ll admit that it’s sometimes easier to be like Jesus’ family in today’s text than to be like Jesus. It’s easier to carry our own expectations, our own experiences, and assume that our story and what’s happened to us is really the only way to love, to live, to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. It’s easier to make our story the default on how things should be - to make our story, experiences, and opinions, the rules that everyone should follow. But the Holy Spirit isn’t our property. We don’t get to define where it goes. We don’t get to say what Jesus does or who Jesus does it with. Only Jesus gets to that. Only Jesus gets to be Jesus. Our job isn’t to define Jesus but to see where Jesus is; to look around our neighborhoods, our communities, to all the places we go - and to see just how Jesus is living there. Jesus isn’t only here. He isn’t only in the bread we’re about to share. Jesus is out there, walking alongside people we know and people we don’t. Jesus is breathing life into people we can’t stand and bringing God’s love into people we don’t understand. Jesus is out there, being Jesus. What’s unforgivable is not seeing God as forgivable. Our job isn’t to try and limit God’s love. Our job isn’t to grind love and hope out of other people's’ souls. Our job is to see Jesus; to point out where he is, and to see how the walls we build between us are breaking down and how we can break down those walls too. Jesus is with us. Jesus is with those outside too. So let’s go out and see where God is and what God is calling us to do. 

Amen.
 



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What does eternal life look like?

Pastor Marc's article for the Messenger, our monthly newsletter.


I've been thinking about this question during the last two months. We've been in the gospel according to John for most of April and May and 'eternal life' keeps popping up. In fact, one of the most favorite verses from scripture, John 3:16, mentions "eternal life." So what does eternal life look like?

We might say that eternal life means "never" dying and that it's an opportunity for immortality. Eternal life is the next step in our journey through God's creation. We're born into the world, spend the next decades living our lives as human beings, and then die, only to transform into a slightly better, and more immortal version of our past self. We'll spend forever in our favorite shirt, drinking our favorite beverage, while relaxing on our own private beach in heaven. 

But that isn't necessarily the vision of 'eternal life' that Jesus talks about. In a reading we heard last year, Jesus is praying right before he's arrested. He's prepping his disciples for his eventual resurrection and ascension into heaven. Jesus asks his Father to protect his disciples. He also asks that God help his disciples to love as he loved. And in the middle of this prayer, Jesus describes eternal life. Eternal life is knowing, and being known, by God (John 17:1-3). There's no talk about a life after death. There's no mention of heaven. Instead Jesus says in one short verse that eternal life is knowing God and knowing Jesus. That's it.

That feels a little simple, doesn't it? Yet I find grace in Jesus' words. His words show that eternal life can't be separated from our current life. We don't need to think of eternal life only something that happens after we die. Jesus knows us and we know Jesus even if we are sometimes confused by what Jesus is doing - or not doing - in our lives. And since Jesus continues to make himself known through worship, readings, and holy communion, we're have eternal life. Eternal life isn't about what comes next; eternal life is about our lives right now. So if we have eternal life, just what is God calling our lives to look like today?



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