If any of us were asked to define it, we likely would not give a very biblical answer…or a very Christian answer. And by “Christian” I mean, defining it as Christ does in the words of the Gospel reading this Sunday.
Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
Knowing God is eternal life. If eternal life were just living forever, as a matter of length of time, then those in hell, those in punishment, those outside of the grace of God, also have eternal life. That is forever, too, but obviously not what Christ means by “eternal life”. Eternal life is not about length of time.
Eternal life is life itself, outside of the bounds of time. It is life which is always eternal: in this very moment…eternal. As a side note, this is how some of the saints “see the future”, prophesy, or have the gift of clairvoyance: in whatever moment they are, they are in God, not confined by time, seeing eternal, past and present and future, and seeing the future in the present.
Maybe a more helpful way to think of the term “eternal life” is to think of it as ‘living in Life himself, in the I AM, the ever-present one’. Jesus Christ being the I AM, Jesus Christ being eternal life itself, is important to such a degree that the Church has built it into every icon we have of Christ. There, written around his head: Ο Ων…I AM.
I challenge you to read through all the Gospels, focusing only on the word ‘eternal life’, and you will see that Christ is talking about himself, life in him, not some future time, not a state we go into after we die. These words of Christ are not to give us a hope of something we might attain after we die.
Just before this passage, this High Priest Prayer, as it is called, he says, In the world you have affliction, but have courage! I have conquered the world.
In this world you have affliction, tribulation: this life that we now know, not eternal life, is full of trials and struggles. But have courage, he says, I have said these things to you so that in me you may have peace. I have conquered the world…in me you have peace.
All these words were spoken in Roman times, obviously, during the Pax Romana, the ‘Peace of Rome’, an assurance that if you lived within the boundaries of the Roman empire, you could rely on Rome to maintain peace, to not have to worry about enemies, to be able to live your life in some sort of surety. But that was a violent and oppressive and threatening peace, a peace full of death, enforced by the sword.
We live in, or, at least, could live in the Pax Christiana, within the bounds of Christ’s kingdom. In the world you have affliction, but have courage! I have conquered the world. I have said these things to you so that in me you may have peace. …Father, the hour has come! Glorify your Son. …in his victorious peace. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. …I have revealed your name to the men whom you gave me out of the world. …And I am no longer in the world, and they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given to me, so that they may be one, just as we are. …And now I am coming to you, and I am saying these things in the world so that they may have my joy completed in themselves. Or, “that they may be completely filled up with my joy.”
Do you see where Christ has taken us in just these few words? In the world we will have affliction, but he has overcome all that, not by doing away with it, not by making everything easy, but through that affliction, through our every difficulty, through the struggle of daily exercise and practice, to come to know him, to live in him, to have the assurance within us of the peace of Christ, the Pax Christiana of his kingdom. We can endure, we can find this courage that he speaks of because we know that this victorious peace has already been established.
When we pray…in church with our brothers and sisters, but especially in the silence and quietness of our personal prayers, we connect with, enter into, and really experience life. This is eternal life: to know him. Knowing someone is intricately connected with speaking with them, communicating with them, spending time with them, and even eating with them, as we do at the Eucharist.
Every morning, enter into eternity. He is the I AM. Every evening, experience eternal life. He is the I AM. Come to church, and come into the victorious peace of Christ. He is the I AM. Eternal life is here…not just now, but here, in Christ.