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 machines and dryers, 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’s supposed to last forever doesn’t. Nothing lasts forever. Not our health, our house, our work. But one thing does. Scriptures says, “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.” Seek God’s will so what you say and do belong to eternity.
We want an eternity and forever box but the truth is so few of the stuff we hope belongs in there does. This is what Jesus and his disciples are dealing with in our reading. Prior to our scripture 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,” he professes.
I have always loved this question and answer. Since I was in high school, I’ve read this scripture 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 Peter’s profession doesn’t mean he thinks Jesus is the way to heaven, because for Peter Jesus is the way of heaven first. Christ transforms mere words into God’s words, touches into healings, and eventually death into resurrection. Heaven is for real, but not just for some somewhere else.
Eternal life in John’s Gospel 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. 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. That’s probably tough enough for many especially in today’s world of rising self-esteem. I agree. It’s tough to call oneself a wretch. Next time we sing the hymn, we could best think of the word as indicating how much we suffer for where we’ve gone wrong and done wrong. What a wretched state we’re in, would be more to the idea.
But for our purposes, it’s the second verse that also may trip us up, where it says, “’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, he never would have been changed. It was God’s gift of fear, he believed, that opened his heart to Christ and changed his walk in this life. Or rather, it was grace that helped Newton to be afraid to the point so he might turn to the Lord. Without the grace that made fear break through to his heart, he may 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, an eternal silent word, 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.
Grace is God’s silent word reaching out to you, to save you. It’s word that changes our view of ourselves, others, and our world.
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. See where the Lord is using even fear as the means to reach you. As scripture says, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Start taking steps, even small steps, on Christ’s path. 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 and 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. Where is God’s grace trying to break in? Where does a godly fear want you to turn in a different way? Whose words mean the world to you, this world and the next?
Let grace show you what is really happening in your life. Listen for God’s silent word of grace. Turn to the Lord to accept Christ’s eternal life of blessed living and a heavenly banquet in God’s everlasting presence.
Can the church say Amen?