Hespeler, 9 September, 2018 © Scott McAndless
John 3:1-17, 1 John 2:21-25, Psalm 27
here was once a king in Northumbria (in the northern part of England) – an Anglo-Saxon king named Edwin. And Edwin was a pagan – a worshipper of the old Germanic gods like Thor and Wodin. But Edwin married a half Frankish princess who just happened to be a Christian and that is where all the trouble started.
      His new queen brought some Christian priests with her and they insisted on constantly preaching the Christian message. But the king resisted that message. What need had he for a God like Jesus Christ – a defeated God, a weak God – and not a strong warrior god like the ones that his ancestors had worshipped?
      But the priests persisted. They were very insistent. And so eventually the king convened a meeting of his closest advisors. They gathered in the king’s mead-hall in the dead of winter. They drank the king’s potent mead (which, in case you don’t know, is brewed from fermented honey – yum!) and they talked about whether or not it was prudent to do what the priests were urging them to do. The discussion went on and on with very few viable reasons being offered to take the step of conversion and baptism. But eventually they decided that they would do it. They would convert – they and all Northumbria with them – creating the first beachhead for Christianity in Northern England.
      And do you know what it was that tipped the scales for Christianity – why they decided that that was the way to go? Was it because they thought that Jesus was more powerful than the old gods? No, in all honesty I suspect that they saw Jesus as laughably weak compared to Thor. (I mean, Jesus never made it into The Avengers.) Was it the benefits that might come from Christian learning and literacy? No, they had little time for such things. What convinced them was something that an unnamed courtier said. A sparrow flew through the mead-hall. It flew in out of the cold and snow through one door, swooped over the bemused royal gathering a few times and then out another door and back into the ice and darkness.
      That was when the courtier spoke up. He said that it seemed to him that life in this world is like what happened to that sparrow. According to the Venerable Bede, these are the very words of that courtier: “So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to be followed in our kingdom.”
      What was he saying? He was saying that, as important as this world may seem, it is totally outweighed by the reality that came before it and that will exist after it. Why is that other reality more important? Apparently because of sheer quantity. There is just more of it – an infinite amount, in fact. Infinite time is what we call eternity. That’s just math – eternity is always going to add up to more than even the longest human lifespan. He was saying that the strength of Christianity – the only thing that really recommended it – was that it could claim to know something about eternity and could maybe even give you a leg up in it.
      Of course, he was kind of implying that Christianity was no benefit, or very limited benefit, in this present life. In fact, he may even have been saying that Christianity was a negative thing or caused problems in the present life. I mean, the ancient Anglo-Saxons seem to have had little patience with things like church services and monks and vows. But, he was saying, maybe that was something that they could just put up with for the brief time that they were swooping around the mead-hall for the sake of that enormous amount of time that would come when they were out in the unknown of eternity.
      Now, apparently, that courtier was very persuasive in this observation. He convinced King Edwin, he convinced the theigns and even the pagan priests. Northumbria became Christian and England was changed forever. But I wonder, what do you think of his argument? Is he right? Are we just sparrows who happen to fly through mead-halls? Does the interior of the mead-hall not really matter because the reality that actually matters is to be found beyond the confines of this world? And is the Christian church the only source of reliable information on what that other life is really all about?
      I’ll tell you something: that sparrow might have convinced the old Anglo-Saxons that Christianity was the only way to go – the way of the future – but I am not sure that it is still working its magic on their modern descendants and other western people.
      For one thing, Christians seem to have gotten a bit of a reputation in recent years for being so caught up with their concern for what’s outside the mead-hall that they are only too happy to neglect the inside. Christians, the criticism goes, are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. There are many, for example, who would blame so much of our present ecological crisis on Christians because some people have used the Christian idea of eternity to justify not taking care of the earth. While we are here on earth, they suggest, we can feel free to take whatever we want from the earth, to profit from its resources, pollute its skies and its seas because we don’t have to worry about the future of this world; our future is elsewhere.
      Now, I would be quick to say that that has definitely not been the attitude of all Christians down through the ages, nor even of the majority. But there has been a small and very vocal and well-funded minority who have been only too happy to preach that message very loudly. They have been so successful that many people do think that is what all Christians believe. So, no, the focus on eternity has not necessarily been a big selling point for Christianity over the last few decades.
      Even more damaging, however is the fact that Christianity seems to have lost the key thing that made it so attractive to the Anglo-Saxons. It has lost the monopoly over knowledge about eternity. The Anglo-Saxons simply accepted that, since they spoke with such certainty, the Christian priests knew exactly what eternity was like and how you got to be part of it.
      How many people today would just accept the notion that only Christians could possibly have anything meaningful to say about the afterlife? What about Hindus and their teaching regarding reincarnation? What about the atheists and their confident assertion that they know exactly what will happen to you after you die? And what about the statistics that indicate that huge numbers of people in our society, who have absolutely no connection to any established religion whatsoever, still profess to believe in an afterlife. So, if we are counting on the idea that we are going to attract people to the church simply by saying that we are the only ones who know anything about what’s outside the mead-hall, we may have another think coming.
      Jesus did talk about eternal life. We are told in the Gospel of John that he gave Nicodemus, that nocturnal Pharisee, what is perhaps the most memorable promise in all of Scripture: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And if we, by believing in Jesus, may have eternal life, doesn’t that mean that that old Anglo-Saxon warrior is right? If we can have an infinite amount of life outside of the mead-hall, then what is the point of worrying about the brief time that we spend flying around inside the mead-hall? Are we not just here in order to do one thing and that is to make sure that we reserve our place in eternity?
      Well, maybe that would be true if that was what Jesus meant when he made that promise of eternity, but I don’t believe that when Jesus said that, he had the image of a sparrow flying through a mead-hall in his mind.
      What did Jesus mean when he spoke of eternal life? He was speaking of an infinite expanse of time, but here is what is different about his approach to the approach of that Anglo-Saxon retainer: the expanse of time that Jesus was talking about was not merely outside of the mead-hall.
      First of all, Jesus says that eternal life is something that may originate from elsewhere, but it begins in the here and now. Jesus says, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” and then he says again “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” you see, we tend to think, like that Anglo-Saxon retainer, of eternal life as this thing that is just outside of the mead-hall – outside of our present knowledge and experience. But Jesus speaks of it differently. He is telling Nicodemus that he can enter the kingdom of God (which he later connects to eternal life) and that he can enter it right now. You, Nicodemus, can have it now by being born from above – being born again from God, but it is a new birth that takes place on earth – inside the mead-hall.
      In other words, for Jesus eternal life is not some mysterious thing that happens completely outside of our knowledge. You can know it now. And when I think about it that way, that is a much bigger selling point for the Christian faith than a sparrow flying through a mead-hall because this is how Jesus is thinking of his followers: they are a group of people who, in the here and now, are actively living out life eternal. There is another place where Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” (John 10:10) and I think that he means much the same thing as when he was talking to Nicodemus. Eternal life, for Jesus is not just an infinite length of time, it is an abundance of life itself – life that overflows in joy, love and service. Now imagine that that was what people knew about Christians, not that they had supposed secret knowledge of some other life outside the mead-hall but that they knew that Christians lived a life so full, so abundant, that it overflowed like that?
      That is why I believe that it is time for the Christianity to stop thinking that we can attract people by saying that we can give them a special mysterious new life someday outside of the mead-hall. Yes, it is good to know that the eternal life that we begin to live here will continue even after we die, but that is not our selling point. The thing that will be truly attractive to people is if we begin to live that abundant life right now. And Jesus teaches us how we may do that. All that is required, he says, is belief – faith. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
      Now he doesn’t mean by that belief in various dogma or teachings. It is not by believing the right things that you can start to live that eternal life. In fact, I personally find that worrying about whether you are believing all the right things can easily get in the way of living an abundant life. No, what Jesus is talking about is faith that is trust. “Believe in me – trust in me,” he is saying. “Learn to depend upon me for the small and the large things of life. That won’t just get you the life of a sparrow somewhere outside of the mead-hall, it can transform the way that you live every minute of every day of your life.
      I know that that does not come easily to any of us, but will you commit yourself to do one thing this week: trust Jesus for one thing that you’ve never trusted him for before. Just start with one thing. Trust him for something that has been worrying you. Just let go of the worry and leave it in his hand. Or maybe trust him enough that you can do something that you have been afraid of doing because you know he is with you. Trust him enough to give what you can’t afford to give. Trust him enough to take a risk. Just pick one thing, but do it and do it this week. See if you don’t find a new abundance enters your life because of it.