My son and I watched a little video yesterday about Christmas today. He loved it and I did my best to enjoy a film made for a 3-year-old. Due to my heroic efforts I caught some interesting tidbits. They talked about Christmas encouraging us to be generous, the challenge of Jesus’ humble birth, and Christ’s mission to lead us to heaven. It was that third topic that came to mind again as I read the first reading, particularly, “[Jesus Christ] is the true God and eternal life.” For John to call Jesus ‘eternal life’ seemed strange to me but I believe that is a failing on my part, not a peculiarity of John.
John’s language would be immensely appreciated by a friend of mine who likes to say, “Heaven isn’t Iowa, people.” Meaning, Heaven is not this place I can’t wait to vacation to over there. Heaven isn’t the happiest place, it is the participation in the pure joy that is the life of the Trinity. In the same sense, eternal life is not a thing that I have or don’t have. Having eternal life isn’t like owning a pair of shoes. It isn’t even about being immortal. We all possess immortal souls. Instead, John challenges us to break our normal perception of eternal life so that it shifts from a thing to a person.
Eternal life is God, the eternal wellspring of all life. Therefore, to have eternal life is to have God dwelling within us. It means that we partake in the divine nature. Thus, in turn, heaven is not some place over there but the fullest participation in that communion with eternal life. Heaven is not us finishing the race and God rewarding us with something other than Himself. It is not about finally eating without getting fat, or watching the best movies without getting bored, or always doing our favorite things forever. No, the reward of heaven, rather the gift of heaven, is God Himself.
This perspective change is healthy for us. Sometimes we try to walk in God’s grace as disciples with this second guessing in the back of our minds. We question whether we are seeking to please the Lord because we love Him or because we want eternal life. That is only a dilemma when we forget that the Lord we love and serve is eternal life. Instead, to remember that God is the eternal life He promises opens me to pursue His heart and will with single-minded obedience.
There is no dilemma between keeping our eyes on God and on the prize when we remember that the prize is God Himself.