"Our Present Experience of Eternal Life" - on 1 John 3:11-24 by Joe Ellis — February 27, 2022
Last Sunday we heard this verse in 1 John 2:25: “And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.” As I was commenting on that verse I said something like, “For John, eternal life doesn’t start in the future, it starts here in the present.” As I said that, I thought, “I wonder what I mean by that.” What might it mean that eternal life starts now?
When many of us think of eternal life — we start with the literal meaning where eternal life means unending life. Our relationship to death has indeed forever changed because of our faith in Jesus. We know that death does not have the final word, yet we all still have to face our death. What else comes to mind when you think of eternal life? Maybe a life without pain, a life without suffering or strife? Is that the aspect of eternal life that’s begun in the present? Some do argue that if a Christian has enough faith, God will shield us from all sorts of pain and suffering. Unfortunately, experience doesn’t bear this out — Christians don’t seem any more immune to pain, sickness, and suffering than the rest of the world.
What else comes to mind when we talk about eternal life? This is where it can get fairly personal — where we can start projecting our desires onto heaven: heaven will be a place with streets lined with our favourite shops; heaven will be a place where we have special superpowers like being able to fly; heaven will be a place of infinite adventure — adventure without mosquitoes. If heaven is the place where all our desires are fulfilled (which I’m not sure that it is), this certainly is not the Christian experience here and now. So, what does John mean he says that eternal life has begun now?
There is another aspect of eternal life that we haven’t yet touched on: unmediated, unbroken, intimate relationship with Jesus. We certainly can begin to enjoy this aspect of eternal life here and now. Both in this letter, as well as in John’s Gospel, eternal life has everything to do with our faith and love for the Son whom the Father has sent. That life starts here and now. The Christian walk is one of growing in intimacy and love with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now we are drawing closer in on the Eternal Life that John is speaking of — to know the Son whom the Father has sent. I do believe this is the first part of experiencing eternal life here in the present. Yet fellowship with the Son is not the only aspect of eternal life that John is focusing on in the passage we heard this morning.
See if you can pick up on the other aspect of eternal life in the present when I read verse 14 again: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” Did you hear it? You’ll know that you have passed from death to life because we love one another. For John, the sign that we are experiencing eternal life, the life of the age to come, the sign that we have passed from death to life is that we love one another. When we love each other, we are experiencing eternal life here and now. The experience of loving others enables us to say, “Oh, so this is something of what eternal life will be like.”
Paul says something very similar 1 Corinthians 13: “Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside.” Life in the age to come won’t require spiritual gifts like prophecy, or supernatural knowledge, or speaking in tongues — those won’t be needed anymore. But love will. We will endure forever. We will never not need love. Love never ends. This means, that as the Spirit empowers us to love here and now, we know that we have already transitioned from death to life and that we are beginning to experience the life of the age to come.
Love. So what are we talking about? Love? John is pretty explicit of what he means by love, and he’s not talking about romantic love, he’s not talking about falling in love as an experience of eternal life. But let me go on a little rabbit trail — just because John isn’t talking about romantic love doesn’t mean that we can’t. Now, I have been accused of pooh-poohing romantic love and its importance for the Christian Life. I’d quote the psychologist M. Scott Peck who defined falling in love as temporarily going insane. So, I was surprised to learn the other day that Charles Williams, one of my favourite members of the Inklings (which is the writers group that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien belonged to), Charles Williams actually had a theology around romantic love. Williams thought that falling in love with someone was almost like having a mystical vision. Williams said that when you are falling in love, you are for a period of time able to see the person you love just as God loves them. When you see young couples staring into each others’ eyes, oblivious to everything, they are able to see each other through God’s eyes. This is quite beautiful, especially when you pair this up with Peck’s belief that falling in love is temporarily insanity.
From our vantage point, God’s deep love for us does appear insane — he loves us so much that he would send his only Son to die for us so that we might receive forgiveness, be united with him in Spirit, and enjoy eternal life with Him in the age to come. I think we get other glimpses that we can have of the way God loves us beside romantic love. Like the love exchanged between a parent and child in a good snuggle. Or deep love between two friends, or even the bond of love between someone and their pet (I’m especially thinking about dogs). In these moments of intimate love — take a moment to rest in the truth that this is a taste of God’s loves. This is a taste of eternal life.
With this in mind, let’s hear what John is thinking of as he talks about love as an experience of eternal life. What sort of love does John have in mind? Look at verses 16-18: “We have come to know love by this: that Jesus laid down his life for us; thus we ought to lay down our lives for our fellow Christians. But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow Christian in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth.” John here is speaking of love that shows up through our actions — especially in our caring for those in need. When we love others in practical ways — such as blessing others with our time, talents, and gifts — when we bless others, we are experiencing life in the age to come. How is loving people in practical ways an experience of eternal life? Here is where we might need to shift our perspective a little bit — shifting from focusing on our personal experience of eternal life — to focusing on the bigger picture of all that eternal life involves. Here is where that part about Cain and Abel and people being murderers comes in.
In the Christian worldview, a war is taking place between the world as it is, and the world as it will be. The world as it is is exemplified in the story of Cain and Abel. In this story, Cain was jealous of his brother Abel, so he killed his brother Abel. Murder, John tells us, is the fruit of hatred. Apart from God’s grace and loving care, this is the state of the world as it is now. We’ve been watching this play out this last week as we’ve watched Russia invade Ukraine. In the Bible’s worldview, there is a war between the world as it is, and the world as it will be. The world as it is is hostile to the world as it will be. This is why John says in verse 13, “Do not be surprised, brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.” There is a war between the world as it is, and the world as it will be.
Yet, the world as it will be is continually emerging. It cannot be stopped. The life of the age to come is emerging. This was Jesus’ first sermon: “The time has come, the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.” With Jesus' presence on earth, eternal life began breaking into the world as it is, and has continued ever since. Death cannot stop this eternal life. Eternal life continues to break in as followers of Jesus show love in action. You see, although the world as it is and the world as it will be are at war, they have altogether different ways of waging war. The world as it is wages war with hate, murder, lies, guns, aggression, and violence. That is not the way followers of Jesus wage war. We wage war through love in action.
We wage war through love in action. When we love others with our actions, the world changes — it becomes more like as it will be. When we show hospitality (as many of you have with the Hope House); when we bless others with our time and talents (as we see when the Quilters from the Heart give the gift of a quilt to a grieving person); when we give away our money (at the AGM we marvelled at the financial generosity of our church family); when we love with our actions, the world changes. The world becomes more as it will be, bit by bit, inch by inch. As we love others with our actions, we become more like who we will become, and the world becomes a bit more like it will be in the age to come. We take ground against the world as it is. As the world becomes more as it will be, as it more resembles the Kingdom of God, we begin to experience eternal life here and now. I’ve used a lot of different names to describe the same reality — Kingdom of God, eternal life, life in the age to come, the world as it will be, they are all names for the same reality. We begin to experience this reality as we love others with our actions and the world transforms around us.
Now, we don’t do this perfectly. You can’t help but look at this world’s needs and you can’t help but look at the needs in our community, and instantly be aware of how imperfectly we are able to love in action. John, aware of this reality, says in verse 19, “and by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything.” God knows our weakness and shortcomings, and he will forgive what we lack in our actions. And knowing that we are forgiven, we can live without condemnation. John says, “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” In the name of His Son Jesus, God has commanded us to love one another in action. In obeying this command, we are partnering with God in making this world more as it will be. We are partners in this with God — coworkers with God in this Holy War, armed with the weapons unique to love in action. Weapons with names like charity, kindness, compassion, mercy, hospitality, gentleness, justice, and hope. As we are in the battlefield, take ground for the Kingdom by obeying God’s command to love. As we do, John tells us in verse 22 that, “We will receive whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments.” We are on the same team as God, working for the same end result, to see this world as it will be when the Kingdom of God is fully here.
As we strive to change this world through the actions of love, we will soon discover that we are in way over our heads. The pain, the hurt, the hate, the brokenness of this world as it is is too great. Yet we are not alone — we have the weapon of prayer. Prayer is powerful and effective. When the world as it is seems to be relentlessly taking ground; when its tactics of violent war seem to be getting the upper hand; when our acts of love seem to be swallowed up in the hurts and pains of this world; we come to God in prayer. We say, “Heavenly Father, it seems like we are losing ground. Heavenly Father, the need that we see in the world as it is seems far greater than our ability to change it through love. Please, come into this situation with your transforming love. We will continue to love in words and action, but we need something greater than the love we can offer. We need your divine love to come and transform, heal and restore this world as it is. Please, Lord, in this moment where we see so much need — come quickly. We pray this in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
As we act in love, as we pray in love — the world around us will change in small and big ways. If we pay attention to these changes, we will begin to experience something of eternal life in the present. We will experience the goodness of the world as it was always meant to be, and one day, as it will be. This life is coming. It cannot be stopped. God set this life in motion through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus. The world as it will be is coming even now. In love, we get to join Him in this beautiful work and experience eternal life even now.