7th Sunday of Easter – A LSB #525:1, 3-5
Text – John 17:3
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, & Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
THIS IS ETERNAL LIFE
Two weeks ago, during one of the beautiful spring days we’ve had, I was walking along the fence line near our home. At several spots along the way there are lilac bushes growing & they were in full bloom. I decided to smell one of the blooms & that fragrance, combined with the warm spring sunshine, brought back a powerful memory from my childhood days.
I was taken back immediately to the yard of the farmhouse where my grandmother lived. There were lilac bushes growing around the front porch of her home. I used to play there by climbing the trees in the front yard on nice sunny days. So I have memories of spring time that are tightly connected to the aroma of those blossoming lilacs.
My fond recollection of those times include a carefree life in an almost paradise like condition. Sunshine warming my skin with the smell of lilac blossoms on a gentle breeze. I have no idea why it’s blooming lilacs instead of tulips or dandelions, but the memory was unmistakable the moment I tasted the scent of those blossoms just a couple weeks ago.
Maybe you have memories like that as well of times in your life that seemed to be paradise. Can you picture the place in your mind? Can you feel the surrounding walls or scenery? Maybe you hear voices & other sounds that bring those memories to living color.
The reading from the Gospel of John this morning gives us a picture of Paradise. As Jesus prays to His heavenly Father, He says, “And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, & Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3 ESV) When you think of paradise is it palm trees that come to mind in bright sunshine with a comfortable breeze coming in off the ocean? Jesus says that knowing God is eternal life because that relationship is the only remedy for what makes all of our current world a lot less, much less, than paradise! And yet, people the world over are searching for paradise in all the wrong places. For your benefit, it will do you well to consider where you have been searching.
As Christians, we’ve been taught not to value the things of this world too highly, where moth & rust destroy. Yet, is it really as easy as we pretend to keep our main focus on the things above? You’ve never thought how nice it would be to spend the winter in Florida or Arizona? You’ve never set your hopes on a fulfilling marriage or career?
I know a bunch of us follow the Spartans & a few of you follow that Maize & Blue team. I’m going to guess that Americans spend ten hours following their favorite sporting teams for every one hour they spend getting to know the only true God. How does that square with Jesus’ definition of eternal life? Where have you been searching for paradise?
So let’s do a 180 right now, & completely turn the search on its head. Think about this question instead, “Where would you guess is the absolutely most unlikely place that anyone could ever find paradise?” Hell would be an obvious answer, but, by God’s design, it can’t be the place. I’d throw out life on a submarine. If you’ve seen combat you might say, “War.”
Here’s a clue, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Do you remember those words? Do you recall where they were spoken? Who was on the receiving end of that gift & that promise? Yes, on that very day, one of the criminals who were hanged with Jesus found paradise in the absolutely most unlikely place – while dying on a cross.
Yet, not long before, he too was insulting Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew tells us: “…the chief priests, the teachers of the law & the elders mocked [Jesus]… In the same way the robbers who were crucified with Him also heaped insults on Him.” (27:41, 43 NIV) Something changed for one of those criminals, as he was dying on that cross, & he came into possession of eternal life because of it. It wasn’t obvious to him at the beginning, yet was clear as a bell by the end of his suffering & his death. You may recall another man for whom it wasn’t so obvious. St. Matthew recorded this conversation after Jesus predicted that He would suffer & die:
“And Peter took Him aside & began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But [Jesus] turned & said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Matthew 16:22-23 ESV)
On the cross, in the most brutal suffering of his life, the criminal found paradise. What changed, from the beginning to end of the crucifixion, is that he came to know the only true God. He came to that relationship through Jesus Christ whom God the Father sent in the flesh. This Jesus was not some abstract warm & fuzzy ideal, but a suffering & dying human being.
Probably not your idea of a good place to find paradise or eternal life. As noted earlier, St. Peter would have agreed with you. Yet there, on the cross, the criminal hanging next to Jesus finally saw the Truth & the Way & the Life. “Today,” Jesus explained, “you will be with me forever.” The Son of God offered the criminal eternal life, & he took it gladly.
Knowing the only true God is eternal life. It is paradise, & since you already claim to have it, your task now is helping others get to know the same, only true God. Here’s an example from one of Jan’s friends in St. Petersburg, Russia. Sasha writes in his newsletter:
“Twice a month on Saturday we meet early in the morning for prayer & accountability, where we pray for the nonbelievers we’re in touch with. There are usually 6-9 people at each meeting, people who are eager to make disciples. I am praying for unbelieving men, that God would give me the opportunity to speak with them, & He is answering these prayers. In the last month, I’ve had 3 meetings with men who are no believers. I would like to tell you about one of these meetings. I met this man at our son’s soccer practice. When he found out I was a believer he often asked me about different religious sects & told scary stories about how these cults take away people’s money & apartments, hinting that I was one of them.
“Time passed, our relationship continued & his opinion of me changed – I even became for him, ‘An expert on cults.’ When his friends started going to various groups he would ask me about this or that church. Then his son transferred to another soccer team but I continued to keep up the relationship with him through regular phone calls.
“About 2 years ago there stopped being an answer at that number. I figured he’d changed phone numbers. In February I made a list of acquaintances who are not believers, including him, & started to pray for them all. About a week later he called me & started sharing how everything in his life was bad: his business had fallen apart, he had debts & creditors & everything like that.
“I was really surprised by his call & encouraged that God had answered my prayers. We set a meeting & had a good visit. I shared the Gospel with him, gave him a NT, suggesting he read it & that we meet again to talk about what he had read. He started to comment on his background, how he is a Muslim from the Tartar people group, so he cannot read the NT.
“I recommended that he read it anyway, saying that Jesus loves all people, regardless of their nationality.” And that’s where Sasha’s story ends for now, not the most satisfying ending because there’s no report of a conversion like there was with the thief on the cross next to Jesus. Yet, we need to remember the earlier question, “Where have you been searching for paradise?”
Eternal life is found in knowing the only true God. It is not found in anything else, not even in a satisfying conclusion to well over 2 years of witnessing to the same person. Paradise can even be found in death by crucifixion if that is where Christ chooses to meet us. Frustration over not finding paradise comes from our unwillingness to meet & know our heavenly Father at the place of His choosing. If church services are no longer as exciting or interesting as the latest TV episode of Survivor then people are more than willing to leave the 3rd commandment behind & search for paradise in greener pastures.
In that short-sighted view of things we’d rather have Jesus deliver us from the cross He’s called us to bear than have Him rescue us from hell. The reading from 1 Peter 4 gives us a radically different take on what our lives on earth should be like:
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” In other words, God is telling us that fiery trials are normal in this broken & sinful world. Then Peter writes, “…rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice & be glad when His glory is revealed.”
Jesus came to earth for the purpose of suffering, not to find paradise. If we think life here should be heaven then we don’t understand the 1st thing about our Savior’s purpose for taking on human flesh & being born in Bethlehem. We are not greater or more privileged than our Master. We are also not worse off than Jesus. We already know the one true God & that is eternal life.
The Bible reading from the Gospel of John occurs on the night when Judas will betray our Lord. It’s known as the great high priestly prayer because Jesus is praying that God almighty would guard & protect the Apostles over the coming days. Their view of Jesus’ ministry is about to be turned upside down & inside out. Nothing they thought was true will be left unchallenged.
Jesus prays for them because the powerful hand of God alone is able to keep them as members of the holy Christian Church. Their view of paradise is going to be completely reconstructed in the coming days. Maybe you’ve had experiences like that regarding what you once thought it was to be a follower of Jesus. The thief on the cross came to know God in a way that hopefully, you & I will never have to, but he also came to know paradise in a way that none of us ever has. For it is in the world’s most desperate suffering that the God who is love stands out in the clearest contrast as the only beacon of hope. To know our heavenly Father in that way truly is eternal life, whether you are here on earth or already in heaven.
As we wrap up our meditation on this Biblical text of Jesus’ prayer, St. Paul’s 1st letter to Timothy teaches us about our practice of prayer:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, & thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings & all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful & quiet life, godly & dignified in every way. This is good, & it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved & to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2:1-4 ESV)
Knowing the truth is to know the one true God, & Jesus taught that such is eternal life. He suffered, died & rose from the dead in order that all people might be saved from the corruption of sin. Those experiences you have from this life, that are a picture of paradise to you now, will be multiplied a thousand times & more once you reach heaven’s shore. Amen.
Crown Him with many crowns, the Lamb upon His throne; hark how the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own. Awake, my soul & sing of Him who died for thee, & hail Him as thy matchless king through all eternity. Crown Him the Lord of life, Who triumphed o’er the grave & rose victorious in the strife for those He came to save. His glories now we sing, Who died & rose on high, Who died eternal life to bring & lives that death may die. Amen. LSB 525:1, 4.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet