One of the difficulties in talking about faith, in talking about Jesus, is that different folks mean significantly different things by the very same words. Often, for instance, when I am chatting with someone who is sceptical about church – or, for that matter, who is hostile to church – I’ll clue in pretty fast that we mean super disparate things by the word God. By that word, I mean something like what scripture means when, in 1John, it declares that God is love. Whereas frequently my conversation partner is using that word to mean The old, angry man in the sky.
The word hell is another example. Thanks more to Dante than to scripture, lots of people hear that word and imagine fire and pitchforks and gluttons being ironically fed more doughnuts than they could ever eat. Whereas I mean something more like those times of alienation we pefer selfishness to the love of Christ.
Or what about the words that we hear Jesus use today? What do we mean when we say Eternal Life?
If we were to ask this question on Family Feud, what would the survey tell us is the most popular answer to that question?
Well, probably something like living forever or getting into heaven. And that answer isn’t mistaken. God’s love is too big for this life to be the end. We will see again those people whom we love who have died, you and I will not be snuffed out like forgotten candles when we die.
That answer isn’t mistaken. It’s just wildly incomplete.
Karl Marx famously said that said that religion is the opium of the people, and my guess is that when Jesus and Marx met, Jesus said to him,
you’re not 100% wrong.
Because there are lots of expressions of religion, lots of expressions of Christianity, that focus heavily on living forever and not so much on life right now. And if religion is what lets us put up with injustice today or exploitation today, if religion’s promise of heaven is what makes it okay that we have neighbours living in destitution and refugees at our southern border greeted witgh cruelty an earth that is getting ever hotter, then Marx is right and we have a serious theological opiate crisis.
But, thanks be to God, getting into heaven later on is not and never was Jesus’ focus. If you want to figure out what happens after we die based on Jesus’ words, you actually have surprisingly few verses from which to draw. Jesus is not all that interested in life after death.
Jesus is really interested in life before death. Jesus is interested in life right now.
We read Jesus’ words in translation. (Translating a sacred text, by the way, is not something that every tradition does. When someone becomes a Muslim, for instance, part of the deal is that thet start learning Arabic so that they can read the Quran.) And the Gospels themselves translate Jesus. Jesus probably knew Greek because it was the language of the wider world, the language of commerce. But much like a Dutch person today who speaks English, Greek is Jesus’ second language. It is not the language that he speaks with his friends and his followers.
Most of the time, probably including in this passage, Jesus would have spoken Aramaic. Scripture reminds us of that periodically. Think of Jesus on the cross in Matthew and Mark. His dying words are recorded in Greek. But the first two evangelists think that it is so vital that we hear what our Lord says as his earthly life ends that they record his words in the original Aramaic.
The trick with translation – especially a double translation, Aramaic into Greek and then Greek into English – is that every language brings with it a way of encountering reality. I am monolingual, a fact that I regret; I wish that I spoke another language. And when I speak with people who are deeply proficient in another language, it is common for them to share that they actually act differently, that their cognition, their encounter with the world, is different when speaking and thinking in that language. My friend Eleanor says that she has a whole different set of mannerisms and even facial expressions when she speaks German!
When Jesus speaks of the food that endures for eternal life, the Greek phrase that most translations render as eternal life is zoen aionion. So here is a word that we sometimes use in English, Aeon. The scholar N.T. Wright, on whose work I am drawing heavily this morning, tells us that in the Gospels and in Paul’s Epistles alike, zoen aionion refers to the ancient Jewish belief that time is divided up into two aeons, the present age, or ho-olam hazeh in Aramaic, and the age to come, ha-olam ha-ba. The age to come is when God will bring God’s healing justice, and peace to a hurting world.
Notice that: God will bring the Kingdom to the world, not God will rescue us from the world and take us to a Kingdom somewhere else. In the age to come, God will rescue the world itself.
Wright, therefore, suggests that we translate Jesus’ words as the food that endures for life in God’s new age or the food that endures for life in God’s coming age. Maybe we could even try the food that endures for life in God’s inbreaking age.
To eat the bread that Jesus offers is to participate in the new thing that God is doing. It is to discover that God is not, and never was, elsewhere. That the Kingdom is not, and never was, elsewhere.
Think of the prayer that Jesus taught us. Listen to it through the promise of life in God’s coming age, life that is suffused with justice and healing on earth, today.
Your Kingdom come, your will be done
On earth, here, as it is in heaven.
Give us our bread
For the Kingdom and the power and the glory are yours
Later on after we die?
Now and forever.
When we talk about Jesus, about faith, about being Christians, about discipleship, remember this good news: God does not call us to patiently wait until we die so that our real lives can begin. God call us to work with God to invite the new aeon into being on earth, right here and right now.