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Psalm 23 and Eternal LIfe
Test: Psalm 23
Note: This sermon preached by Vicar Craig Simenson
Psalm 23 is a favorite psalm. It is a familiar psalm. So familiar and etched into our memories through its frequent repetition—(didn’t we just hear this a few months ago?)—that we may have stopped paying much attention to its nuances. When we do stop to take notice, the different translations that we might (or might not) be familiar with pose interesting interpretative questions for us to make meaning of.
For example, in the end, is that I am to dwell in the house of the LORD forever (as the King James and this morning’s version goes)?
or is it only my whole life long (as the New Revised Standard Version, the Bibles that are in our pews) renders it?
As Pastor Stein highlighted for us in his sermon on the psalm this past summer, attention to the actual Hebrew used suggests that the psalm does not here refer to any notion of an eternal life. Rather, more literally, the psalm here speaks to the length of these days, on this green earth, beside the still waters of this time and place. Psalm 23 speaks to the comfort that is available to us even now in the darkest valleys of this life.
Interestingly, attention to the actual Greek used in John’s gospel this morning poses similar interpretative complexities.
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
Yet, what is translated here as eternal life, while denoting life that is ever-lasting or eternal (in other words, infinite) can also mean life lasting for a definite period of time: an age, a generation or a lifetime.
Similarly, when John tells us that Jesus says that his sheep will never perish, the Greek literally (and perplexingly) tells us that they will never perish into the age.
With this in mind, we come to an important interpretative question:
What age exactly does John refer to here?
My own guess (for what it’s worth) is that behind John’s words is belief in an age that is to come. An age, a world, a new way of life that Christians continue to speak about, when in the words of the Nicene Creed, we say that we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
Importantly, this notion of ever-lasting life that we find both in John’s gospel and in the Creed does not seem to be a life that we can necessarily wholly abstract from our experiences of this life: a life lived within and bound to a particular world and a definite period of time. There is the life in this world, and there is the life in the world to come—each life bound to a particular, though apparently different, kind of world.
Yet, picking up the puzzling language used in John’s gospel would also seem to hold open the possibility this morning that we each re-examine and reflect on the ways in which we, as Christians, might often—and mistakenly—go too far in distinguishing our lives in this time and place from the ever-lasting life that is to come.
When John tells us that Jesus’ sheep will never perish into the age, the use of the preposition here suggests not a disconnection between this world and the next, but a certain continuity. Rather than abstraction, John’s language here would seem to suggest that those who follow Jesus now already live into the age that is to come.
This morning, Jesus speaks to us of an ever-lasting life that does not exist wholly beyond the length of these days, on this green earth, beyond this time and this place:
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
Importantly, Christian faith cannot be limited only to the life that awaits us. For Christians, ever-lasting life is not apart from, but inclusive of the lives that we live into now. Inclusive of who we choose to listen for and follow now.
Importantly, for Christians, the life in this world and the life in the world to come are bound together.
Importantly, for Christians, the resurrected Christ who appears to us this Easter season is the Christ whose resurrected body still bears the marks of his former death. This life and the life of the resurrected world to come are bound together.
In our readings from the Acts of the Apostles, even the Christ already gone away into the clouds in chapter 1, already seemingly passed into the world to come, is the Christ who is still present among us—the Christ who is still healing the sick and bringing the dead to life.
Importantly, the Easter storyline is not one in which ever-lasting life stands wholly removed from this life. Rather, Easter is the story of resurrected life breaking into this one.
Even Revelation, a book often characterized in over-simplified terms of future happenings, arguably offers Christians not a picture of the life that is only to come, but also a vision of who we are already becoming. A vision of how God is already shaping us.
From every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, crying out in worship, singing to our God, Revelation reveals to us who we are when we gather together every week. Revelation’s words are our words.
Blessing, honor, glory to the Lamb. Holy, righteous, worthy is the Lamb.
Revelation’s words are our words.
And the Easter storyline is our story. The story of the slain Lamb who has already overcome death, who—by his resurrection—shows us just how expansive life is. The God who is and who was and who is to come. Who reveals to us ever-lasting life stretching out in every direction, in every time and place, in every life and lifetime.
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
Christ, speaking to us still, speaking to us always. Who leads us in right paths, but not necessarily always easy ones.
The Christ who, instead of eternal safety and security, promises ongoing relationship. I know them, and they follow me.
The resurrected Christ who leads us beside still waters, where God wipes away every tear from our eyes that they might become the water of life. Where even betrayal, violence, and criminal execution are turned into empty tombs, resurrected lives, healing, and hope for this world and the world to come.
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life—life that does not end, life in these days and in the days to come—and they will never perish.
May we keep on listening for that shepherd’s voice.
May we keep on following this resurrected one in our midst calling us to love one another.
To give our lives to one another without fear.
To live abundantly into the ever-lasting life already here.