The Words of Eternal Life
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
August 27, 2006
Scriptures: Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6: 56-69
“You have the words of eternal life” –John 6:68
We are back again with that recurring theme of the Gospel of John, life, and not just transient life, but eternal life. John speaks of life and how to experience it, in many ways – by metaphors like water and bread, by mystical or philosophical images like light and Logos – but here he attributes it to the discourse of Jesus. Eternal life comes in and through what Jesus has to say.
It is significant that Peter the respondent does not say “You speak the words of eternal life,” but rather “You have the words of eternal life.” The difference between speaking and having is important. Jesus asks the shaken disciples, who remained when others were shocked into apostasy by the demand that all eat his flesh, “Are you going too?” and Peter answers “To whom Lord shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” He says not “speak” but “have.” The idea is perhaps best translated by the idiom used above, “…have to say.” Eternal life comes through what Jesus has to say.
Why is this small difference important? Because if we say the power is in what he speaks, we can hear the message, detach it from the messenger, and take it away with us to use on our own. If however, it is in what he has to say, we cannot leave because he himself is the substance of what he says. His whole being is an expression in time and space of what he has to say. This interpretation is confirmed by the reference to coming and going: “are you also going away? …”To whom shall we go (come)?” So the important image in play here is one of going to Jesus and staying with him no matter how shocking he may be from time to time, of not leaving no matter what happens.
The scene before us is touching: Jesus tells us not just to eat him but more emphatically, to chew his flesh and suck all the juicy nourishment out of it, and wash it down with his blood. The portrayal is extreme. No wonder many said, “This is too much to take, were leaving!” Jesus is testing our loyalty and our trust. Just as Jesus’ mother said to the servants at the Cana wedding in Ch 2, “Do whatever he tells you to do,” and the water changed into wine, so now the Gospel implies the same instruction, and the true disciple obeys, while the shaky disciple can’t take it and leaves.
All of this teaching is already there in the Gospel passage before we come to the central question of “What are the words of eternal life?” So let us register this preliminary teaching before we try to go farther. In order to get it right we must go to Jesus and stay with Jesus whatever happens. This going and staying is not easy; Jesus reminds us that only God the Father can make it possible, and thus it is the Father who initiates the gift of eternal life, just as he initiated our temporal life in the great gift to us of our birth (vs. 65). So, the context in which the words of life sound for us it the intimate and loyal relationship Jesus offers us and we receive in response to the Father’s call and creating grace.
Thinking within the context of this relationship we begin to understand how these words of eternal life are exchanged, not like a public announcement, nor like a recipe, theorem or prescription, but like a conversation, like an intimate conversation. Let me give you an example: this week I saw a strip of photographs of Queen Victoria aged in her forties. Two things came to me, one that my maternal grandmother, whom I loved dearly as a little child, looked just like Queen Victoria, and two, how different my Granny was from how the Queen appeared, so utterly unwelcoming and unapproachable. Thinking over this sermon in that connection I recalled that the Queen once said of her famous Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone, “I hate that little man, he always addresses me as if I were a public meeting.” She said this to her Conservative Prime Minister Disraeli when he was back in office, perhaps because he dealt with her more subtly and flattered her shamelessly – she called him “Dizzy.” ( Her gillie and later chief of homeland security, so to speak, Mr. John Brown, we are told, called her “Woman,” in a broad Scots accent, as in “Woman, Behavior, yerself!”).
The point is that the words of eternal life do not, according to this Gospel, come as public speeches or general announcements, but rather as the deep substance of real conversation. For this reason I value our Bible Study classes so much; they do from time to time become real conversations, in which we share ourselves with God and one another. Sometimes such a conversation happens and it is always life giving when it does.
So the words of eternal life are personal not general, private not public, embedded in the reality of a sustaining relationship. The first such relationship is, of course, the bedrock relationship of our life, the relationship with God, where we suck on the breast of original creativity and hear the voice of the creating Logos; but there are other levels of life-giving relationship in which intimate words are also essential. C.S.Lewis tells of conversations he had with his wife as she was dying of cancer, which he described as “nourishing.” All significant human transactions employ words and it is along the lines of words that life flows in and out of literature, business, and ordinary life with family, friends and strangers. We all know this life-bearing function of words by our experience of the ability of words to hurt and to heal, to abase and to exalt. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can break my heart,” I said once in a sermon, and then saw it later in Dear Abby. I claim it as original to me, if only in the sense that I made it up for that occasion and did not copy it from somewhere. In any case the saying is true. There are words of life and words of death. And then there are, words of eternal life.
What is the difference? We creatures can use the gift of words for many good and bad purposes, to build up and break down, only God’s words give eternal life and create world. The difference between our words and God’s is that God creates and we merely procreate, which, however, is not an unimportant function by any means. Our words can be nourishing if they are procreative in the sense of channeling the divine creativity to others, life giving in the sense of bearing the divine life to others.
In our Gospel we witness a paradoxical rhetoric that speaks in opposites. We must crudely eat the flesh and we must discount it in favor of the word and the Spirit. This exposition by opposites is well known in rhetoric and we need not feel that we have to choose either/or; John wants us to choose both/and. If we do we shall see that we are dealing with the very act of worship we are making here, both word and sacrament, both spirit and matter. The divine is not to be separated from the human, the spiritual from the material; both subsist in relationship to each other, in forms that are appropriate to the context in which we find ourselves, that is, in this world matter predominant but spirit always in, with and under, in that world, spirit dominant and mater transformed.
We could say so much more about the importance of words in human life, for instance we might reflect on the probability that it is the ability to use words in the first place that made the pre-humans human and the whole concept of spirit possible (that is, spirit as a existence beyond matter, existence in the gap between thing and idea, mediated by words). We could ponder the mysterious role of listening, the other side of words, in healing and restoring; how it is not just the dearth of hearing that kills, but perhaps ever more the dearth of being heard. That is why I describe the words of eternal life as a conversation with Christ, with listening and hearing, back and forth. So much more to think about, but we must stop. Let it be sufficient for now that we know that Jesus embodies the words of life and that he wants us to be with him and engage in a nourishing conversation with him. And let us come to his table to eat his body and hear his words of life.