I’m going to tell you a fable. There was a family in a faraway country. For an unknown reason, the family had to leave the village they were living in and find a new village to live in. So they gathered their things together and began their journey to find a new village. They traveled for a few days and, finally, they came to another village. An old man was sitting at the entrance to the village. The members of the family asked the old man what the village was like. They wanted to know if it was a nice place to live. Before answering them, the old man asked them a question. “What was the village you left like? Was it a nice place to live?” he asked. They replied, “Oh no. It was a horrible place to live. The people who lived there were stupid, there was nothing to do with our free time, and our neighbors never kept their house or yard up. We were happy to leave.” The old man sighed and said, “I’m sorry to say that this village is the same way. You’d be better off if you found another place to live.” And the family went on their way.
The next day, another family, who also had had to leave the village they were living in and who were also looking for a new place to live, came upon the same village the other family had come upon. As with the day before, the old man was sitting at the entrance to the village. The members of the family asked him the same question the other family members had asked. They asked the old man what the village was like. Was it a nice place to live? The old man replied the same as he had the day before. He asked, “What was the village you left like? Was it a nice place to live?” They replied, “Oh yes. It was a wonderful place to live. The people who lived there were so kind and thoughtful. There were so many things to do in our free time. And our neighbors were delightful. It was a joy to live next to them. We were sorry to leave.” The old man laughed and said, “You’re in luck, then. This village is the same way. You’ve found your new home!” And the family entered the village and began their new life there.
You see, the old man knew that our experience of things is dependent on us – what we believe colors our experience of life. The old man knew that the first family would recreate the same reality in this village that they had created in the previous village. He knew the same thing about the second family. Therefore, he could answer them the different ways he had. We take ourselves with us wherever we go, and we experience the world through those selves.
What we believe has an effect on our experience of life. That is really what the gospel reading for today is about. First, we hear, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). When we hear this passage, our tendency is to think of perishing as physical death, and eternal life as living beyond physical death, as living forever, into eternity. But I believe that John was also talking about perishing while living, before actual physical death, and having eternal life while living, before actual physical death. Eternal life doesn’t only refer to length of life, but to the character and quality of life. John 17:3 states that, “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Eternal life is life lived in the knowledge of God. Life lived in the knowledge of God is life lived in the love of God and the love of neighbor. In John’s gospel, the only commandment that Jesus gives his disciples is to love one another: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34). Eternal life is life rooted in the Kingdom of God.
Perishing, then, is not knowing God. It is life not lived in the knowledge of God. It is life not lived in the love of God and the love of neighbor. It is life that is not rooted in the Kingdom of God.
I’m going to tell you another fable. There was a castle. In this castle there were two dining rooms. In both dining rooms there were tables upon tables filled with glorious and sumptuous food. There was so much food, it was almost more than the eye could take in. In the one dining room, the people seated at the tables were starving and morose. They were staring at the food, but they weren’t eating. The utensils they had to eat with had such long handles that they couldn’t get them to their mouths. They could fill the forks and spoons with food, but they couldn’t get the food to their mouths. So, they were starving and morose.
In the other dining room, the people seated at the tables were well-fed and joyous. They were laughing and talking and having a wonderful time. They, too, had utensils that had long handles. But they were feeding each other rather than trying to feed themselves and, when you are feeding someone else, it doesn’t matter how long the handles of the utensils are! So, they were well-fed and joyous.
Those in the first dining room were not living eternal lives, whereas those in the second dining room were. Those in the first dining room were perishing, whereas those in the second dining room were thriving.
When the gospel reading goes on to say that “those who believe in [the Son of God] are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already” (Jn 3:18), this is what John is talking about. Those in the first dining room were condemned because they were not loving one another. They were each concerned only about their own welfare. They were literally starving, but they were spiritually starving, too. They were perishing. Those in the second dining room were not condemned because they were loving one another. They were concerned about each other’s welfare as well as their own. As a result, they were literally well-fed and spiritually well-fed. They were living eternal lives.
We were made in the image of God. If God is love (1 John 4:8,16) and we were made in the image of God, then our true nature is love. We are not condemned when we embrace and honor our true nature. We are condemned when we don’t embrace and honor our true nature.
Believing in Jesus means believing in the presence of God in the world. It means believing in the presence of God’s love in the world. It means believing that that love is in us, too. But belief doesn’t end there. What we believe has material results. What we believe is expressed in how we live our lives, in the impact we have on the world. The epistle reading for today, Ephesians 2:1-10, states that, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (10). If we believe in the presence of God’s love in he world, if we believe that that love is in us, too, then we do good works, for we believe that that is our way of life – to love one another, just as God in Jesus Christ has loved us.
If you were to leave your village today, how would you describe it to the man at the gate? Are you perishing, or are you living eternal life? Perhaps, for most of us, it’s a little of both. But God calls us to claim our true nature; to live into the image in which we were made; to grow in faith, hope, and love; to sit at the banquet table well-fed and joyous, our feet firmly rooted in the Kingdom of God, living eternal lives. May we do so! Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, May 1, 2016, the Sixth Sunday of Easter.