Our Gospel reading today is again from Jesus’ “Farewell discourse” from the Gospel of John; today, we read the first ten verses of Chapter 17:
NJB John 17:1 After saying this, Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and said: Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you; 2 so that, just as you have given him power over all humanity, he may give eternal life to all those you have entrusted to him. 3 And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 Now, Father, glorify me with that glory I had with you before ever the world existed. 6 I have revealed your name to those whom you took from the world to give me. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now at last they have recognised that all you have given me comes from you 8 for I have given them the teaching you gave to me, and they have indeed accepted it and know for certain that I came from you, and have believed that it was you who sent me. 9 It is for them that I pray. I am not praying for the world but for those you have given me, because they belong to you. 10 All I have is yours and all you have is mine, and in them I am glorified. 11 I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep those you have given me true to your name, so that they may be one like us.
Please allow me again to pray for all of us:
It is really a blessing to have Nancy Blank playing a prelude for us these past several weeks, and doing so on Saturday afternoon, when we are having these recorded services so that despite our not holding regular Sunday services, those who so choose can have at least some sense of having their own at home by opening up the email in which I send the links to our videos. By Nancy’s playing on Saturday afternoons, she is forgoing her great love for and talent at soaring, flying gliders high above the deserts of Arizona.
Nancy is not the only one whose weekend schedules are not what they were before the restrictions imposed by various governors, originally to avoid flooding the intensive care units of hospitals, an objective fairly easily — or at least quickly — achieved, because these stay-at-home and similar social distancing practices have clearly succeeded in slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, so that soon we should be able to have Sundays seem more like what we church-going Christians — aspiring-to-be Christians, in my case — we should be able soon to resume Sunday morning worship, not because of what a President or Governor says, but because of what your elders, considering the guidelines of our denomination and presbytery, determine adequately safe for all of us.
While all of us are aware that COVID-19 originated in Wuhan, China — and so I strongly disagree that to call it “Wuhan Virus” is in any way “racist,” —the extent of the virus is truly worldwide, and it is affecting many more people than us who are here today or watching whenever you do so. One of the places it is apparently hitting especially hard is my favorite place in the world outside of home, and that is . . . Brazil!
Yes, my favorite place aside from home is Brazil. I am not sure that I had ever imagined the possibility of visiting there when, fifty years ago this summer, my boss at U.S. Steel called me into his office to tell me he was sending me there to do a study for him, a study he wanted done because the minority owners in a Sao Paulo company in which U.S. Steel had bought the majority wondered about the possibility of taking the company public, that is, having its shares listed on a Brazilian stock exchange, which I imagine was spiked by the desire of one of those owners, a Jewish immigrant who left Germany before World War II broke out, and who was older and not in good health, would have liked the option of selling his shares to someone other than US Steel.
So I set off to Brazil for about ten days. It was my first business trip outside the U.S., and the first time I would be away from Carol and not-quite-two-year-old Michael for more than a night or two.
I have mentioned before, I am fairly sure, a scene from the late 1960’s French movie, “A Man and a Woman,” in which the woman — a widow by the time of the movie — in which the woman’s husband had returned to France from a trip to Brazil in which he had become completely enamored of, had become completely enthralled by, and in love with, Brazil, and his story was related visually against a musical background with a song by the Brazilian pop-singer, Baden-Powell. When I returned to Pittsburgh, I told Carol that I now understood that movie character’s experience; I, too, had fallen in love with Brazil: the custom of always offering cafezinho, the small cups of coffee that were almost more sugar than coffee, the energy of the people one would meet, and their incessant musicality. I sat with, I don’t know, six or so Brazilians around a piano in a bar-restaurant across from the celebrated beach of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, each tapping a spoon or knife against his glass in beat with the piano player’s music.
And the music! The national music, the dance, of Brazil is the samba; the celebrated Carnival of which we have all heard involves competition among the various samba clubs, or “schools.” Samba, but by the time I went to Brazil, a slower version of the samba, the kind of music Baden Powell sang in “A Man and a Woman,” had become popular, and you are all familiar with it even if you don’t recognize its name — think of composer Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “The Girl from Ipanema,” Ipanema’s being the beach just south or west of Copacabana. The music, of course, is the bossa nova.
And I really wanted to get to bossa nova for a very simple reason:
Do you know how or when the “bossa nova” first appeared?
Well, it appeared in a movie soundtrack, a soundtrack composed by Jobim and Luis Bonfá, for a 1959 Brazilian movie, “Orfeu Negro,” in English, “Black Orpheus.”
The movie reset the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in contemporary times in a slum — the Brazilian expression is flavela —in Rio de Janeiro.
Ironically, I suppose, this same Greek legend that led to the bossa nova led to one of the landmarks in the development of opera, but that story needn’t be told now.
The Orpheus legend basically involves two lovers, Orpheus and Eurydice. Eurydice dies and goes to the underworld, to Hades, as the Greeks called it, and Orpheus is permitted to go there to bring her out. But he is told that if he turns and looks at her before they are all the way back from the underworld, she will die again and be returned there, returned to Hades; you can guess what mistake our eager young Romeo makes.
The underworld, the Greek, Hades, the Jewish or Hebrew, Sheol, was not a place of punishment, not a Christian “hell,” just the place where the dead — or their “shadows,” for the Greeks — the place where all the dead went. There was an understanding that these were actual spatial, physical places, somehow beneath the surface of the earth, hence, “underworld.”
This past Thursday was what we Christians call “Ascension Day,” forty days after Easter — forty is so recurrent in the Bible, — the day the writer of Luke and Acts tells us that Jesus literally ascended into heaven.
Ascended into heaven, and ascension, ascending, going “up,” into a heaven that is spatially above us would make sense to a people who consider the underworld, hades or hell, an actual space below us; hence, Jesus ascended into heaven — or so Luke and Acts tell us.
Now, it is not important to what I want to say that I do not believe in a physical, spatial hell. Different terms are used by the writers of the two of the four Gospels that mention the idea we call “hell”: the word translated in English as hell in the Gospel according to Matthew is the word, gehenna, or valley of Hinnon, a garbage dump outside Jerusalem that had, in pre-Hebrew days, been a site of human sacrifice, and the Greek word, hades, to which I already referred, is used in Luke.
So just as I like to suggest that there is no spatial, no physical place that is hell, I want to suggest today that we not get hung up either on the idea of a spatial, geographic, even temporal heaven, either.
But please, don’t throw anything at me yet!
What we Christians mean by heaven starts with our belief that we shall know life after death — an idea in which I most certainly and unequivocally believe, or I would not be here! But I want to turn from Ascension to our reading today, our last of such readings from Jesus’ “Farewell discourse,” the extended passage from the Gospel according to John from which we have read these past three Sundays.
In today’s passage from that “farewell discourse,” Jesus is addressing God the Father, and says,
“Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son so that your Son may glorify you; 2 so that, just as you have given him power over all humanity, he may give eternal life to all those you have entrusted to him. 3 And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
“And eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Do you notice something? There is not a word there about “Eternal life begins after death”; not only is there no spatial or geographical sense to what Jesus is saying, there is no temporal sense, which is to say, Eternal life is not something for which we must wait until we die! It is a condition, not a place.
Eternal life is not something for which we must wait! In the context of what went before it in the history of the Jewish people among whom Jesus walked, this was truly remarkable — and it is remarkable for us, even today, yet it is the reason I proclaim to you over and over again that I am not concerned with what happens to any of us when we die, Jesus took care of that by going to the cross two thousand years ago; what I am concerned with is how life changes when we accept Jesus, and through Him come to know the Father, for that is when eternal life for us begins. Death, as I say, though I regret that I usually say so only at funerals and memorials, physical death marks not an end, but a transition, but I too often fail to add to that: For the believer in Christ, eternal life has already begun.
And that is why I say that what I want most for you is to appreciate the change in your life that faith brings — but I also fail almost always to say that we cannot fully appreciate the way that life changes unless, unless we give praise and thanks to God! Daily give thanks and praise to God.
I do not mean we must sing hymns, and as much as I encourage truly deep engagement in daily prayer, I mean, well, a simple giving of sincere thanks when sitting down to a meal, a giving thanks for family, if we are so blessed, for friends, for life! Praise God every day by saying, “Thank you, God!”
This past week, one of the Israeli scholars whose advertising emails I receive had a neat piece in which he tied the Gospel concept of hell into the very limited Old Testament references (primarily Daniel) and put forth this: Hell described in the Gospels will only come into being at final judgment, when Jesus would return to the earth.
But this wonderful scholar ignores that Hades is very equivalent to the Jewish Sheol, which, again, like Hades, was the spatial place, presumably under a flat earth, where all the dead resided.
But what was the tragic aspect of Sheol if everyone went there? In Psalm 6[:6] we get, and not for the only time, this idea: For death holds no mention of You. /In Sheol, who can acclaim You? “You” being God.
To be in Hades, to be in Sheol, means to be unheard by God, unseen by God, away from God! To a modern reciter, at least to this modern reciter, when we say in the Apostles Creed, “He descended into hell,” I think we mean, “He,” Jesus — and let's get trinitarian of a moment — “He was away from, apart from, God the Father.” It’s not a concept that has to have a spatial or physical meaning, nor, clearly, does it depend upon one’s being dead.
“Final judgment” is indeed a late Old Testament era concept that carries into orthodox, that is “orthodox” with a small “o,” carries into orthodox Christianity, with strong backing from Jesus as he is presented in the oldest of the Gospels, Mark, and, indeed, by the earlier letters — though not the final letter — of Paul, written before the Gospels themselves were written.
And if we accept the idea of Paul and of the writers of the three synoptic Gospels, Mark and Matthew and Luke, our beloved dead are not in a spatial of even figurative heaven, they are simply dead until a second coming at the end of time.
But the Gospel of John gives a message of real meaning and hope, not for a distant future, but for now! Let me suggest that most of you will probably with me be drawn to what Jesus says there.
Two weeks ago, we read the transcendently reassuring, “In my father’s house there are many mansions” — or if you prefer, “many dwelling places” — “If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” I will not dwell today with the undeniable physical nature of the metaphor Jesus used; if you want to argue with me, you are welcome to do so, but recall how he finishes that part of the discourse: “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
He is indeed the way, the way we come to know God and in doing so the way we come to know eternal life — now!
Let us indeed know God through Jesus Christ now, know God by praising and thanking Him, thanking Him for showing Himself to us in Jesus Christ, who ascended, yes, who ascended, yet is here with us, even now, during this COVID-19 crisis as He is with us through all the crises of our lives, and with us in this world, not in an underworld that doesn’t exist nor in a heaven that is some different place.
With us, yes!
I think I want to dance to that good news. Maybe a samba! No, let’s do something slower.
Bossa nova, anyone?
In Jesus’ name. Amen.