CYCLE A | EASTER | WEEK 7
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
A young celibate white missionary in an African village was taken aback when he asked a village grandma what she understood by eternal life and she promptly told him that eternal life means that whoever is born should also beget another i.e. an unbroken reproductive chain or family tree.
We usually understand eternal life as meaning life without end. But, in John’s Gospel it implies not just everlasting life but such life in the best quality. The devil and his angels have everlasting life in that they never die, but they do not enjoy eternal life which is a life of perfect happiness and peace in union with God. The human soul desires, not just everlasting life, but eternal life, a life of perfect union with God which cannot be diminished neither in duration nor in satisfaction.
This is the fullness of life that Jesus gives: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). To have eternal life is to be fully alive. In this Sunday’s Gospel, as Jesus rounds up his Last Supper speech with a long prayer, he points out the way to eternal life: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”.
It might be surprising that Jesus talks about “knowing” rather than “believing in” God. But knowing is used here in a typically Hebrew sense of intimacy as expressed in the statement “Adam knew his wife Eve and she conceived…” (Genesis 4:1). As the Jerusalem Bible comments: “In biblical language, ‘knowledge’ is not merely the conclusion of an intellectual process but the fruit of an ‘experience’, a personal contact. When it matures, it is love.”
Eternal life demands “that they may know you, the only true God.” To understand this assertion better we need to insert the adverb “as” between the two parts of the statement. The statement would then read, “that they may know you AS the only true God”. It is a statement that has meaning in a context where there are many competing claims to divinity. At the time of Jesus, there was multiplicity of gods and even the Roman emperors claimed to be gods and were worshipped as such.
But Jesus maintains that eternal life lies in recognizing that there is one, only true God, the God that Jesus calls his Father, and that every other person or thing claiming to be God is false. Thus, to know God and to know Jesus is to acknowledge their unique place as the source and end of all we have and are. It is to have as full as possible an understanding of Jesus’ message and to have assimilated it into one’s whole life. It is not just a knowledge of recognition but a mutual identification of vision and values.
Many gods demand our unquestioning allegiance today; power, fame, sex, approval, pleasure – self-gratification, unmitigated capitalism whereby everybody has a price; humans are valued according to their monetary value, blind nationalism which supports racism etc. Jesus invites those who seek eternal life to give absolute allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ as the only true God. Every other idea or institution is to be evaluated by how they stand in relation to the values of the kingdom of God.
Jesus notes in the conclusion of his prayer that his disciples, chosen from the world, will remain in the world, though not sharing in its values. In fact, they will give glory to Jesus precisely by challenging the values of that world and purifying them unto the ‘eternal life’ they enjoy in Jesus.
Eternal life demands knowledge of two things: “they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Here again we need to insert the adverb “as” to clarify the meaning. So the statement would read, they may know you AS the only true God, and Jesus AS the Messiah/Christ whom you have sent.” The basic Christian faith of the early church was the faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
The important significance of this confession is that the one true God who in Himself is invisible and unknowable has made Himself visible and knowable in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the revelation of God. He is Immanuel, God with us. The life and teachings of Jesus, therefore, become for us who are on the way to eternal life, the standard by which the words of any person or institution in this world are to be judged. We know the only true God and we know Him through the one he has sent to make Him known, the Messiah Jesus.
Everyone is looking for long life and the good life. Eternal life is unending good life. This is what we all seek. Jesus today tells us how to attain this all-important goal of life. We need to cultivate an intimate, personal relationship with God and with Jesus the Messiah whom He has sent to make Him known to all humankind.