Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life -John 5:24
November invariably brings with it a mood of somber reflection. The misty mornings indicate the onset of winter and the beginning of another dying year. It also celebrates the lives of saints who spurned worldly gratification to attain everlasting life in Christ, and the souls who journey on till they reach their final destination.
While the subject of life, death and its aftermath have been discussed threadbare, our perception about spiritual death and eternal life deserve greater attention and focus. It begins with Christ’s ministry on earth, and we understand how His Passion and Death was a redemptive sacrifice. The crucifixion was the ‘ransom’ that Christ paid in return for freedom from sin and death for all mankind.
This is man’s first stage of liberation. Through baptism, we are freed from the shackles of a permanent punishment. We become eligible to receive God’s grace— but it does not ensure us a place in God’s kingdom. In this context, we can be compared to Abraham’s descendants, who were God’s chosen race. He liberated them from slavery, and set them in the direction of the Promised Land. But their faith failed them and they turned to idol worship and depravity. None of those who set out from Egypt reached their destination. But God’s promise held good, and their descendants lived and prospered in Canaan.
Similarly, our life in this world, as practicing Christians or otherwise, does not automatically hold out the promise of eternal life in the spiritual sense. For that, we must come into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The inclusion criteria for those who will finally make it to God’s kingdom does not depend on rigorous religious practices, or adherence to righteousness, or even superior biblical knowledge. It is based on one’s sincere and undivided faith in Christ and His Word. In no unclear terms, John’s gospel reiterates the one and only condition that forms the fundamental dividing line between those who will gain their place in heaven and those who are shut out forever— “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” -John 6:40
Even among devout Christians, there is a certain level of confusion about what constitutes true belief in God. To my mind, it can be viewed as a step-ladder, the first rungs of which bring us within sight of Him. We may go to Him praying for a miracle, or for a way out from a critical situation. God’s response is not based on whether we have led righteous or sinful lives. He responds with love, and we feel His unmistakable presence leading us through a tough terrain or even directly answering our prayers.
Our progress up the ladder depends on our reaction to these encounters with Christ. Looking back to these moments of blessings, how have we responded? In the normal course , we are happy with the results, but we soon get busy with the business of everyday living. Our next encounter would usually wait until the next crisis appears on the horizon of our small world. If we don’t get immediate answers, prayers are discontinued, other options are considered. In short, the problem is primary, and our best efforts are expended in finding a logical and satisfactory solution to that. More often than not, we offer to God our well-thought-out solutions, and not the problem. Our only petition is that He should work things out as we have planned it.
However, there are some who are specially blest with the grace of God . They look beyond the miracles and answered prayers, and unmistakably recognize God’s presence in their lives This is when a new relationship with God takes root in their hearts , and they move further up the step-ladder. Curiously enough, we cannot take credit for this wholehearted response to God’s blessings. The Bible tells us that it is only the grace and mercy of God the Father that enables us to open our hearts to Christ and seek Him. Jesus Himself underlines this fundamental condition— no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them-John 6:65.
However much we reflect on this, we cannot come up with any logical criteria on which this choice is made. The Bible speaks of Nicodemus, a respected teacher of the law, who had studied the Scriptures and was quite sure that Jesus was the Messiah that the old prophets spoke about. He came to meet Jesus to confirm his doubts. And yet He failed to understand and connect with Jesus. In comparison, we have the Samaritan woman, a sinner and an outsider, whose life changed with one meeting with the Savior.
The Lords grace rested on a strange mix of people – Zachaeus the tax collector, Mary Magdelene, one of the thieves on the cross next to Jesus, Saul the persecutor of Christians, His apostles who were faithful from the start, and many more. His grace continues to pour down on people upto this very day, Those who receive it understand that it comes undeserved, and can be attributed to the Lord’s infinite mercy alone.
As this fledgling relationship deepens, our whole being undergoes a metamorphosis. Jesus does not mince words when He tries to explain this to Nicodemus. Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again-John 3:3. This left Nicodemus aghast, unable to comprehend what he had just heard from the Master. And yet, neither Mary Magdelene, nor the thief on the cross, nor St Paul experienced this stumbling block. Their lives changed forever. As St Paul wrote-Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!- 2 Cor 5:17
When we reach this stage, we have reached a highpoint on the ladder to God’s kingdom. Fortified and secured by God’s faithfulness, we find it easy to face challenges that threaten our wholehearted and constant commitment to God. Our fears and anxieties, selfishness and unforgiveness belong to the past and are cast away forever. God’s grace, along with the infilling of the Holy Spirit, shapes a new person out of us. Every action and decision is now guided by His Word and His truth.
Of course, the decision to follow this path is still with us. Inspite of being chosen for this encounter with Jesus Christ many of us find this commitment to Christ too hard. Though the grace of God strengthens us spiritually, there is a tendency to look back. For some, the sinful habits of the past, positions of power and luxury, and other worldly pleasures prove to be irresistible. Faith falters on these stumbling blocks, and people begin a downward descent that leads to sin and spiritual death. John 6 describes an instance when many of His disciples left Him saying His teaching was too hard. When our lives have been changed by Jesus, He calls us to an absolute commitment to His Word. The Holy Spirit helps us to reach these highest rungs on the ladder, and the rewards are a life of peace and love on earth and a place in heaven.
Jesus Christ rejects all attempts for a lukewarm relationship with Him. Belief in Christ means all of this, and any attempt to straddle both worlds is not acceptable to God. Most of us are comfortable with a bit of both, but belief carries with it the notion of total commitment to His Word. Our hesitation to take this on stems from our misgivings about our own capacity to follow His Way. But God never demands what we are incapable of giving. Christ gives us the living water, and the Father fortifies us in faith with His grace. In course of time, this living water becomes a spring inside of us, which wells up and overflows to those around us.
True belief in Christ is the only criterion on which we will be judged. Our past achievements, failures, attitudes, righteousness, sinfulness – nothing matters if we are able to commit ourselves in a relationship with Christ in union with the Father, who will guide us and strengthen us through the Holy Spirit. If we choose to turn away, we have signed on our own spiritual death warrant. Describing Himself as the true vine, and His Father as the gardener, and all of humanity as the branches, Christ gives us a clear message-If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned-John 15:6