Three social workers were sitting in the waiting room outside the pearly gates when St. Peter called the first one up to the desk. “So, what have you done to deserve to come in here, my dear?” asked the old gatekeeper.
“Well, I was a psychiatric social worker at the local hospital. I worked many long hours under stressful conditions and helped to save many lives,” she said. “Come right in, then, and make yourself at home for all eternity,” St. Peter told her.
When asked what she had done to deserve to walk the streets of gold, the second social worker replied, “Well, I was a social worker at the local mental health clinic during my lifetime. I worked many long hours under stressful conditions and helped the team save many lives.” “Come right in, then, and make yourself at home for all eternity,” replied St. Peter.
“Now, tell me what you have done to deserve to sing with the angels,” he asked of the third social worker. “Well, I worked for an HMO during my lifetime. I worked many long hours under stressful conditions and I helped to save the company a lot of money,” she beamed.
St. Peter looked puzzled for a moment, and then said, “Come right in and enjoy the wonders of heaven. But don’t get too comfortable . . . you can only stay three days!”
Have you ever counted on something to last forever? Not that you really thought it would last forever, but you lived as if it would?
I mean things used to last forever, or almost: My parents’ washing machine and dryer, their dishwasher, our pink telephone in the kitchen. Man, these things just kept going for years and years and years. Nothing like the junk made now. Back then you could have a reason to believe some things just might last forever. But not anymore.
You buy a new laptop. And perhaps you decide to pay a bit more money to get a Mac. Sure, they’re a bit more expensive, and sure, there is a bit of a learning-curve, but at least you know they’re reliable. And you will use it for years. For pictures, documents, taxes, etc. Your whole life gets put in there. You trust it to store important work, record thoughts, and keep memories.
And then of course comes the day when you realize your computer doesn’t last forever. It’s the day it freezes up. It locks down. No moving the
mouse or typing on the keyboard, turning it on and off again, no escape button works. Nothing works.
And when you go the next day to the experts to see if it can be repaired, you’re told your hard drive crashed. And that’s when he looks at you and says, “So . . . you have everything backed up, right?”
What was supposed to last forever doesn’t. Nothing lasts forever. Not our health, our house, our work.
But one thing does. Scriptures says it this way: “The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God endures forever.”
We want an eternity and forever box but none of that stuff we normally put in there belongs there.
This is what Jesus and his disciples are dealing with in our reading. He’s telling them not what they want to hear but what is true. And a whole bunch of them are thinking this doesn’t sound right, or doesn’t sound so easy, or doesn’t sound doable on their schedule.
And so Jesus asks his smaller band of merry men (and women), “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answers him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
In that simple question, Peter basically admits, “We’ve considered it. We’ve thought what it might like to leave you. But wherever we looked for another way, another philosophy, another view of God, another salvation, another meaning, they all came up short. We can’t walk away; you have the words of eternal life.”
I have always loved this question and this answer. Since I was in high school, I’ve read this and it has spoken to me. This is why this is one of my top four favorite Jesus stories. It always works for me.
It has always worked for me because it simplifies everything. It’s as simple as: If not Jesus, then who? If not this life, then whose life will you trust with your life? If not this teaching, and these healings, and this passion, and this vision, then whose are you going to accept as the one that should guide you and you should believe in?
For me, the beauty of this passage is it strips away all the crud and bad blood and human failings of the Christian Church that have attached themselves like fungus to a rock. It strips it all away and leaves me able to see the ultimate question, the eternal question: If not Christ Jesus, then who?
For me, there has never been anyone else. I believe Jesus is the holy one of God who has the words of eternal life.
Now before you get the wrong idea of why I am saying this, let me tell you what New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright says, “Despite what many people think, … the point of Christianity isn’t ‘to go to heaven when you die.’”
Eternal life means life that is better, that has God’s more in it but is now. The words of eternal life are the words you need today. Following the holy one of God is not to be put off till later. That’s not today and tomorrow and the next days agenda.
In the famous and beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace,” John Newton set his spiritual autobiography to verse. Newton was pressed (forced into service involuntarily) into the Royal British Navy. After leaving the service, he became involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1748, a violent storm battered his vessel so severely he called out to God for mercy, a moment that marked his spiritual conversion.
However, he continued his slave trading career until 1754 or 1755, when he ended his seafaring altogether and began studying to became a curate or priest. It is estimated that “Amazing Grace” is performed about 10 million times annually.
There is a line in the song that stands out as difficult to understand. I’m not talking about the part about being a wretch. It’s in the second verse. Take a look at the song. It’s on page 5. What line strikes you as odd or not right?
The first one, right: “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.” That’s definitely not how we think of grace. Grace helps us. It forgiveness, undeserved blessing. It’s Christ gift to us on the cross. How can grace teach us to fear? Why should it?
What John Newton was talking about was how fortunate he knew he was, how blessed he was, that that storm came into his life. Without fear he never would have turned to the Lord.
And here’s the biggie! Without turning to the Lord, he would have lived his whole life as a slave trader, a life and practice he came to abhor and repent of.
He always knew it was grace that opened his heart, that pricked his conscience, which allowed him to see how far off God’s path he had lived, that gave him a holy fear for his soul. It was this amazing grace that opened his eyes to see what his life actually was and led him to change it so dramatically. Without that happening first, the wonderful next part of his life never would have happened.
Now of course most people are going to say, “Yeah, well, the guy was the scum of the earth. He traded African men, women, and children as slaves. I’m nothing like that.” Agreed. Then again, don’t forget, that was legal at the time….
The problem is we can always make that contrast with someone worse than ourselves. “I’m not like so-and-so, so I’m doing fine.” Which again is always going to be true, right?
We have this huge and not so good habit of deflecting truth of our own life. You see, this really isn’t about someone else. It’s about us. We think being teflon is helping us, but it isn’t.
The difficult part of this is because we want the more without the less first. We want more, the eternal stuff, the God blessing, without having to let go of anything that we already have.
John 12:24 says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Seed isn’t any good until it’s planted in the ground. That’s reality.
Scripture is often a reality check against how we things to be but (fortunately) aren’t. You see, some people want the fruit but they don’t want to go through the process. They don’t want to be uncomfortable. They don’t want to stretch nor deal with adversity nor realize they’re not doing as well as they could be, as they would be if they dug a little deeper into their life with the Lord.
But often we are just so close to what is really good for us and blessed by God. The Lord knows how close you are to the blessed path.
In her book, An Altar in the Wood, Barbara Brown Taylor tells about an eye-opening moment for her. “Many years ago now, a wise old priest invited me to come speak at his church in Alabama. ‘What do you want me to talk about?’ I asked him.” ‘Come tell us what is saving your life now,’ he answered. It was as if he had swept his arm across the dusty table and brushed all the formal china to the ground. All I had to do was figure out what my life depended on…how I stayed close to that reality as I could.”
Does your life need any saving? Do you need words of eternal life? Do more of the saving your life stuff and less of the other.
Let grace show you is really happening in your life. Stop avoiding the closer look at your life, your choices, and direction. And turn to the Lord to accept words of eternal life, of a blessed living, of a fruitful faith.