Eternal Life: A Beginner’s Guide
Eternal Life: A Beginner’s Guide
I recently took a look at a collection of books with the title “Beginner’s Guides.” What I discovered is that they usually deal with very complicated topics. You would think they would focus on simple things, but they do not. For instance, I found:
A Beginner’s Guide to Web Development.
The Beginner’s Guide to Conversion Rate Optimization.
A Beginner’s Guide to Aerodynamics.
On Friday, we witnessed the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump. Like every other occupant of that office throughout history, he would probably benefit from A Beginner’s Guide to the Presidency of the United States. No other job in the world is quite that complicated.
But of all the books I saw, my favorite was A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe. Maybe the Lord God Almighty followed that one when he said, “Let there be light,” and there was light (Genesis 1:3). Light was step one … followed by sky, seas, dry land, plants, fish, birds, land animals, and finally humankind. Simple, right?
Another complicated topic is old age. Fortunately, a columnist named Michael Kinsley has written a book called Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide. Although he is only 65 years old, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when he was 43. “Having Parkinson’s is very much like growing old,” he observes — he feels that he has reached old age several decades before he should have.
So, what has he discovered? For starters, old age is not a place where achievements and acquisitions matter much. He asks the question, “You’d happily trade them for more time with the grandchildren, wouldn’t you?”
Next, he has found that longevity is not so great if you outlive your mental capacities. “The real game is cognition,” he writes. “Who can keep their marbles the longest?” We all want to hold on our marbles, not lose them.
Each of us has to make some important choices about where we will put our time and energy as we age. In the end, our relationships with God and with the people around us are going to matter much more than achievement and acquisitions. “Even the most successful people die eventually,” Kinsley writes, “and they spend more time dead than alive.”
Because we all are going to die, eventually, we need a Beginner’s Guide to Eternal Life. Yes, this is complicated topic, at least as difficult as web development or aerodynamics. But it is an important area, and it is at the heart of what we are doing here at Fairfax Presbyterian Church. Eternal life is connected to everything we do in the Christian church. It is the center of our life together, in every time and place and situation, whether the White House is occupied by Barack Obama or Donald Trump or anyone else.
Now I realize that some of you might be thinking that eternal life is limited to heaven. But it is not. It begins in this life, and it continues in heaven. I like what pastor Rob Bell says in his book Love Wins: “Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now. It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.”
Eternal life starts now. It begins with those things that have eternal significance in this life, such as our relationship with God and the people around us. The words of the Bible. Beautiful music. Sharing the love of Jesus. Acts of service to people around us. Truth and beauty and goodness.
Today, I want us to focus on eternal things. And since our congregation is now planning a capital campaign to raise funds for our building and mission, our church leaders need to hear from you. You will see on the back of today’s bulletin a box with a blank space in it. This is a place for you to use your own words to complete the sentence: “At FPC, I find eternal significance in …”
I want you to think about this, and write your answer in a single phrase. Do this between now and the morning offering. Then tear it off and put it in the offering plate. You do not have to write your name. Complete the sentence: “At FPC, I find eternal significance in …” If you’d like to share more, include your name and phone number and I’ll be in touch.
Our Scripture lesson for this morning helps us to focus on eternal things. Taken from Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is a kind of Beginner’s Guide to Eternal Life.
So what does Paul tell us? First, he says, “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (6:13). Paul is convinced that Jesus has broken the power of sin in our lives, so evil should never be our ultimate authority. Instead, Paul asks us to see God as our master, and to present ourselves to him. We have each been brought from death to life by the resurrection of Jesus, so we are now free to trust in him and to do God’s work in the world.
A generation ago, the songwriter Bob Dylan — recent winner of the Nobel Prize — said, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Each and every one of us is required to serve. “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord,” he sang, “but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” His point is that we all have masters in this world, and we can choose the one we want to serve. But each of us has to serve somebody.
Because of this, the first step in Paul’s guidebook is “present yourselves to God” (v. 13). Make God your master, your supreme authority. Put your trust in Jesus, the one who was sent by God to be your Lord and Savior. Don’t allow anything to become a higher authority. The decision to present yourselves to God has eternal significance.
Next, since you have been set free from sin, “become slaves of righteousness” (v. 18). Now this is a tough one for us, since we naturally have an aversion to slavery. We think of slavery as terrible, and it is — we don’t want it for ourselves or anyone else. But as far as Paul is concerned, we are all enslaved to something, whether it be sin or righteousness. Given a choice between the two, the best choice for eternal life is righteousness.
As Michael Kinsley’s book makes clear, each of us has to make important choices about where we will put our time and our energy. As we age, we can focus on achievement and acquisitions, or we can focus on our relationships with God and with the people around us. We can be a slave of one or the other, the choice is ours. These are critical choices, as Kinsley reminds us, because even the most successful people die eventually. Getting on the right track now is what keeps us on the right track for eternal life.
But what does it mean, exactly, to be a slave of righteousness? I don’t think it means that we are perfect servants of God who always do the right things. We are still human beings, with weaknesses and limitations — every single one of us. But if we are committed to being a slave of righteousness, then we are going to try to follow where Jesus is leading us.
For me, one important way to follow Jesus is to practice Christian hospitality. This means welcoming strangers just as Jesus did. Since we are living in a time in which many people are suspicious of strangers, this work is more important than ever. Over in Harrisonburg, a pastor has started a grassroots movement that sends a message of welcome to immigrants. He created a sign for his church lawn sign that said, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”
He wrote the message in three languages — English, Arabic and Spanish — because these are the three languages spoken in his multicultural neighborhood. “This is a symbol of Jesus’ command to love your neighbor,” he says. “As followers of Jesus, we follow someone who was himself a refugee.” Whenever you see a refugee, remember that Jesus himself was a refugee. Being a slave of righteousness, and following where Jesus leads you, has eternal significance.
Finally, Paul tells us that if we present ourselves to God and act as slaves of righteousness, then the “end is eternal life” (v. 22). This everlasting life comes to us as a free gift from God, and is not based on our acquisitions and achievements. All we have to do is accept it.
At the end of today’s passage, Paul says that “the wages of sin is death” — that is, the final paycheck for a life of sin is death. But on the other side of the coin, there are no wages. Instead, the payoff for a life of righteousness is a free gift from God: “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23).
So what will this eternal life feel like? Paul’s letter to the Romans does not give us much detail. The Book of Revelation says that God will be with us, wiping every tear from our eyes. “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (21:3-4). Augustine, the fourth-century bishop, said that “we shall rest and we shall see; we shall see and we shall know; we shall know and we shall love; we shall love and we shall praise; behold our end which is no end.”
That’s beautiful, isn’t it? Resting, seeing, knowing, loving, praising. That’s eternal life, and it begins right here, right now. So take a minute to complete the sentence that I talked about earlier, tear it off and put it in the offering plate. “At FPC, I find eternal significance in …”
As I look around this church, I see so many people who are presenting themselves to God and acting as slaves of righteousness. You are following where Jesus is leading, seeking a life of resting, seeing, knowing, loving and praising.
As Michael Kinsley reminds us, even the most successful of us will die, and spend more time dead than alive. So let’s begin our preparations for eternal life today. Amen.
Augustine. “Our End Which Is No End.” The Lion Book of 1000 Prayers for Children (Oxford, England: Lion Hudson, 2013), 214.
Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 59.
Domonoske, Camila. “A Message Of Tolerance And Welcome, Spreading From Yard To Yard,” The Two-Way, December 9, 2016, www.npr.org.
Dylan, Bob. “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Bob Dylan Lyrics, www.azlyrics.com.
Lindbergh, Reeve. “For boomers, a cheerful guidebook on aging and death.” The Washington Post, April 22, 2016, www.washingtonpost.com