Three social workers are sitting in the waiting room outside the pearly gates when St. Peter calls the first one up to the desk. “So, what have you done to deserve to come in here, my dear?” asks 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 says. “Come right in, then, and make yourself at home for all eternity,” St. Peter tells her.
When asked what she had done to deserve to walk the streets of gold, the second social worker replies, “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,” replies St. Peter.
“Now, tell me what you have done to deserve to sing with the angels,” he asks 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,” he beams.
St. Peter looks puzzled for a moment, and then says, “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: Washing machine and dryer, dishwashers, telephones that hung on walls. Man, these things just kept going for years and years and years. Nothing like what’s made now.
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.” And, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives 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’s true. A whole bunch of them are thinking this doesn’t sound right, or doesn’t sound so easy or doable on their schedule, or that it’s in their portfolio. They’re heading for the exits.
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 he’s considered it. He’s thought what it might like to leave Christ. But when he looked for another way, another salvation, another life’s purpose and meaning, they all came up short. “You have the words of eternal life.”
I have always loved this question and answer. Since I was in high school, I’ve read it and it’s spoken to me. It always works for me. It works 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, there has never been anyone else. 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.’” Peter’s profession doesn’t mean he thinks Jesus is the way to heaven. Not that I’m saying he doesn’t think heaven is part of the picture. But it’s just that eternal life means more than an after death forever life.
Eternal life means a here and now life that’s better, that has more of God in it. It’s the life Christ calls us to live when he says, “Take up my cross and my follow me.” It’s the life he talks about in his parables when the 99 sheep are left to find the one that’s lost, and a person sells everything she owns to acquire the one most precious thing on earth. The words of eternal life are the words you need today. Following the holy one of God is not to be put off until heaven.
Listen for Christ’s call. Hear God’s word that changes your heart. The Lord seeks to bless you and keep you and make God’s face to shine upon you.
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 the beginning of his conversion.
However, he continued slave trading until 1754 or 1755, when he ended his seafaring altogether and began studying to become a priest. It’s estimated that “Amazing Grace” is performed about 10 million times annually.
There is a line in the song that’s hard to understand. I’m not talking about the part about being a wretch. It’s in the second verse. “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.” That’s not how we think of grace. Grace helps us. It’s forgiveness and undeserved blessing. It’s Christ gift to us on the cross. But grace doesn’t teach us to fear. Why would 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 that storm, without the fear, without God’s grace that opened his heart to change, he never would have turned to the Lord.
And here’s the biggie! Without turning to the Lord, he possibly would have lived his whole life as a slave trader, a life and practice he came to abhor and repent of.
Newton knew he hadn’t opened his own heart. It wasn’t his own goodness that had done this work. Grace opened his heart, pricked his conscience, and allowed him to see how far off God’s path he had lived. Christ’s grace gave him a holy fear for his soul.
It was this amazing grace that opened his eyes to see what his life was, not what he told himself it was, not what he glossed over and left out. Grace opened his eyes and he could see what he had done and where he had ended up—on a slave-trading ship in the middle of the ocean with a powerful storm possibly sending him to a watery death.
God had reached out to save him. Grace gave him the vision and will to change his life.
Though it took him some time to fully realize the impact the Lord had on him that night, Newton began to live an eternal life. He accepted Christ as the teacher of his life. John Newton started to believe Jesus Christ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He took steps on that way and in that truth and following that life.
Often, we are close to what is good for us and God-blessed. Let grace be your guide. Accept fear of the Lord as the first step of wisdom. Start taking steps, even small steps, on Christ’s path. Give up something less to
get God’s more. Follow Christ’s words so you can move forward in eternal life.
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.”
What is saving you now? Great question. Implies you may not be the same as you were before. Implies you need to figure this out. Implies it’s important to stick with what saves you vs. so many other possibilities.
Let grace show you what is really happening in your life. Stop avoiding the closer look at your choices and direction. Turn to the Lord to accept words of eternal life, of blessed living and fruitful faith.
Can the church say Amen?