What is Eternal Life? Eternal Life is an important concept in John, especially in today’s Gospel. Is it life after death? Many Hebrews in Jesus’ day believed the dead would rise from the grave on the Last Day, to face God’s judgment. Their Greek contemporaries were more inclined to believe in an immortal soul that shed the body at death. The earliest Hebrew traditions believed in a sort of underworld, a place of rest for the tired dead. In today’s First Reading, quite a few Israelites are headed that way.
This reading from Numbers poses questions tough enough to sidetrack any discussion of Eternal Life. Is God the sort of person who sends poisonous snakes to kill people who don’t like God’s cooking? If looking at the serpent cures the poison, why can’t we just look at pictures of cancer and cure that? And…if God accepts the repentance of the Israelites, why not just heal them and get rid of the snakes? This bronze serpent seems like an unnecessary step. Almost every biblical story means more than its literal sense. This scene in Numbers narrates how God is present in life as we know it.
The people of Israel have been wandering since the Law was given at Sinai. The generations that knew slavery have been dying, gradually replaced by a new generation. God sends the people on a detour around Edom, and I guess the scenic route is a deal breaker for Israel. They wanted to take the Toll Road. The people complain to Moses and to God, “You brought us out here to die. We detest this miserable food.” The food they reject is the manna, the miraculous bread that God gives them six days a week (with a double portion on Friday so they don’t have to work on Saturday). They tell God that they know better than God, they reject God (who has kept them alive), and they reject the means by which God has kept them alive. They condemn themselves. God sends a symbol: the serpent, rich in meaning in that world, but especially representing life and eternity. That symbol of eternal life was what tempted Eve and Adam in the Garden. To Israel, the serpent is forever a symbol of our grasping at being God, our telling God that we know better, our rejection of God and the things by which God gives us life. God responds to our rejection by sending a symbol of our rejection.
God also provides that by which the relationship is mended. God says to Moses, “Make your own serpent, your own symbol of brokenness, your own symbol of sin and the fall. Every time one of the symbols of brokenness that I sent bites someone, show them the big one you made. Say, “Eh? Hey? Remember? Garden of Eden? Broken people? Yeah.” Those who do this live and can follow God. The serpent of bronze symbolizes our grasping at being God. Whether we attempt to storm eternity and take it by force, or think we can stealthily insinuate ourselves into eternity, or just pretend that God isn’t the Eternal One and won’t notice, we try to claim eternity as our rightful possession. God reveals that in the serpent of bronze, and when we look at it and admit to it, healing begins.
Numbers 21 narrates what Lutherans call the Second Use of the Law. Last week, I spoke of the First Use of the Law—the Law protects us. The Second Use of the Law belongs to the Holy Spirit, who uses the Law to drive us to depend on God. Luther and his contemporaries speak of our failure to keep the commandments, a failure which condemns us, and drives us to despair, at which point we turn to Christ and see that we must depend on Christ for everything. You can see that in the story. The people fail to accept God’s gracious gift, terrible consequences follow, when the people are confronted with the symbol of their brokenness they accept that they require God. This particular understanding of the Second Use of the Law owes much to Luther’s personal faith journey, and to the embedded (and bad) theology against which the Reformers fought.
We can also think of the Second Use in terms of our finitude, our limits. We cannot do it all, we cannot always be strong, we cannot force people around us to be happy or healthy, we cannot force God to love us. That’s the Second Use. We can also think of the Second Use as our never-ending need for the First Use, the one that protects us from each other and ourselves. For example, private industry will not self-regulate. It won’t happen. Centuries of experience prove this. What are workers to do? Workers form a union. Unions are prone to corruption. Sorry, it happens. Who can referee this? Ah! Government. We can have government oversight! Government oversight can become an end in itself. How do you get anything done? Maybe private industry will self-regulate…And it goes on like this. Second Use of the Law: we’re a mess, people. It’s why we need Jesus.
In the Gospel today, Jesus declares that his cross is to us what the serpent of bronze was to the Israelites. Just as God gave manna to the Israelites and they rejected it, so God gave light and the people loved the darkness. Just as those who grasped at being God in the wilderness condemned themselves, those who do not believe in Jesus are already condemned. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” on his cross, so that we may look at him. And he says, “Eh? Hey? Remember? Second Use of the Law: we’re a mess, people.” And this, so “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus drives home—in the Gospel today and on the cross at Golgotha—that eternal life is from God, and is ours when the crucified Christ confronts us, when the Holy Spirit preaches the cross to us, and we accept that we don’t own eternal life as a rightful possession, but rather that we live eternal life because Christ gives it to us. We “have” it to the extent that we live it. When we think of it as our possession, we stop living it, because we’re usurping God, and so the Holy Spirit preaches the cross to us, again: “Remember? You’re a mess?” Right. My bad.
What is Eternal Life, then? It’s not the same as biological life. That ends, but it doesn’t end just because you’re not following God. When biological life ends, we don’t know exactly what happens, but we know that whatever happens belongs to God. The one who grants eternal life is the one through whom all things are created. (The Jesus on the cross granting Eternal Life is the Jesus in Eternity creating the universe.) Whatever you believe about the dead, it’s going to follow God’s rules because there is no place where there is no God. Eternal life is not only life after biological life. Eternal life is present now. Eternal life is our life when Jesus on the cross confronts us, when the Holy Spirit preaches Christ crucified to us and thereby calls us to live the life by which God lives, and we turn from living as though we are God and instead live the life God lives. It is the life Christ promises we will live in the resurrection, and it is the life God calls us to live now.
We find, perhaps, an analogy between ourselves now and the people wandering in the wilderness. I mentioned the rise and fall of the generations. The people who fled Egypt knew only slavery. They knew only what it was to be a subject people, a defeated people, an oppressed people. Despite ten plagues, crossing the Red Sea, receiving the Law at Sinai and enjoying God’s abiding presence, the people rebel ten times. Long before today’s scene, God says to them, “I’ve given you ten chances to trust me and you’ve opposed me at every one. I don’t think you’re going to do it. It is going to take new life, newly created people who don’t have the baggage of slavery in Egypt. Letting that happen naturally will take, oh, forty years, which I can wait, seeing as how I live an eternal life.” The Hebrews wander as the old defeated mindset dies and a new mindset is born and grows to maturity. There are moments that are great, where the people trust God and live the life God calls them to live, and there are moments like today’s First Reading, where they reject God just because God won’t let them take the Toll Road. Eventually, they do cross into the Promised Land.
So, also, we know well life in this world at the mercy of worldly powers. The nations rage at one another. The planet aches with the wounds humans inflict on it. We know that we, here, are, in cosmic terms, small. We may struggle with the mindset of Israel in bondage. We may say, “we’ll never feed the hungry of Valparaiso—there are too many—the percentage of the population that can’t afford the basics keeps growing.” We may say, “We’ll never house those without houses—it’s too big a problem and no one cares.” “We’ll never keep the ground and the water clean and healthy.” “The old will never see the Church flourish, the young will drift away, and those in the middle will never have any time for God.”
But the Holy Spirit preaches Christ crucified to us. The cross cries out, “Why are you trying to be God? I am what happens when you try to do that. Yes, if you try to do these things yourself you will fail. Lucky for you, you’re not alone, because there is no place where there is no God. Also lucky for you, you can let Jesus take all your lame attempts at running the show, and let Jesus crucify them. And then, you can start living eternal life.” And when that happens, yes, there will be moments when we stumble. But there will be moments that are great, moments when the people are fed and housed and and healthy and loved and here and praising God—moments when life here is almost life hereafter. And eventually, we will cross into that promised land.