I’ve reached a tipping point.
Up until just a few years ago, I primarily went to funerals for friends, colleagues and relatives who were in the generation ahead of me.
Oh sure, there was the occasional early death of a contemporary resulting from an accident or what appeared to be an unforeseen disease, causing shock and deep grief.
But more recently that has shifted with more and more members of my own generation dying of natural causes or out of despair about their situation.
Let me tell you – those of you who haven’t yet reached my age – this tipping point gets your attention!
I even find myself listening more intently and carefully to what is actually being said at these rituals when we say goodbye to those close companions in our shared span of life.
If it is a Christian service, there is usually reference at one or more points to the concept expressed by Nicodemus in that well-known section from the Gospel of John – the one about “eternal life.”
As in other places in the New Testament, here the promise of that life eternal is tied to a belief in the person and work of the Son of God, the Word of God, Jesus, the Anointed of God.
There are passages in the New Testament that declare that the nonbeliever doesn’t even have life now – which I take to mean that the earthly existence for the nonbeliever amounts to absolutely nothing … adds up to zip … in the final accounting, nada.
And there’s another thing I’ve been noticing about these funerals related to the life eternal: Almost always reference is made to the deceased now having “eternal rest.”
In fact, I realize I’ve used those kinds of words myself, when I’ve officiated at those services. One of my cherished prayers at the graveside goes like this:
Support us, O God, all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and our work is done. Then, in your great mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and complete peace in you, through Jesus Christ, our savior and sovereign. Amen.
But now, as I’ve begun to pay more attention to those standard words of assurance at funerals and memorial services, I’ve also begun to ask myself why, if we are talking about an eternal life, do we think of it as “rest”?
Yes, I’m still alive when I sleep. True, sometimes I have lively dreams! And, yes, I recognize that sometimes sleep and rest are enjoyable.
Moreover, I recognize that rest is absolutely necessary for all the parts of my active and conscious life.
But the more I reflect on it, I’m not at all sure I want to spend eternity resting.
Especially as a Christian, with a founding rabbi who taught his disciples actively to live out the truth of God’s reign and an early apostle who claimed that God’s grace toward us in Christ leads to a life of redemptive action, how can I possibly accept that my eternal life is a kind of perpetual, completely passive, retirement?
So I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to edit my graveside prayer, asking God not to support us when our work is done and not to grant us a holy rest, but rather to gird and strengthen us for the work that can now be undertaken untiringly for God’s reign eternally – in our eternal life.
Not eternal repose but eternal vitality. That, it seems to me, is the necessary implication of making the Christian faith claim of eternal life.
I don’t know if Nicodemus had reached my tipping point, age-wise, when he asked Jesus about unending life in that realm of God that Jesus was proclaiming. All we know is that he was a Pharisee and a leader and teacher of his people. But I don’t sense he came to Jesus to seek eternal retirement.
After all, Nicodemus came to Jesus by night because he had taken notice of what Jesus was doing and recognized that those actions could only be taken by someone from God and who lived in the presence of God.
It’s that origin and that immediate and abiding presence with the divine that leads to the ensuing discussion about being “born again” and living the new and active life by the Spirit – a Spirit (of God) that isn’t bound by the laws and norms of a fallen world but is instead free as the wind to “blow where it chooses.”
If Nicodemus was intrigued enough by what Jesus told him that night in order to learn more about eternal life, he would have learned that there was not just new birth and a new life, but also a new law and norm that governed even the Spirit in all of its freedom.
The lifeblood or life-force of the new earthly and eternal life is love, according to Jesus, which is the very character of God and the essence of God’s abiding action.
And, thus, it is the norm – the law – for life from God and in enduring relationship with God, expressed in the self-giving and mutual care among God’s human creatures in every dimension of their lives.
Tipping point or not, the quest for Nicodemus and the rest of us must not be for an eternal and holy rest, but for everlasting vigor, everlasting energy, everlasting liveliness, everlasting love – which is the mysterious but demonstrable gift, in Word and Spirit, of the God of eternal love and life.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.