I want to take a brief look at the reading from Philippians (2:1-13) today instead of the gospel reading. It is interesting in two ways. First, it may be the last extant letter that Paul actually ever wrote, and secondly, the received academic wisdom is that the main body of this passage that starts “Though he was in the form of God.....etc” is actually an early Christian Hymn and as such is a beautiful example of poetic theology that is quite far reaching.
It mirrors John’s prologue in proclaiming the pre-existence of Christ, his acceptance of earthly life and death, and his exaltation to the right hand of God.
We should have no problem with pre-existence, at least physically, for Christ or for you or me or anything else. The first law of Physics is that nothing can be created and nothing destroyed. The same amount of matter exists now as it did at the moment of creation – just existing in different form. In terms of the physical stuff our bodies are made of, we have always been here and we always will be!
You and I did not come from nothing, we come from something. When we die, we do not go to nothing we go to something. Physically that is the truth of the matter, and the religious minded person would also say the same about our essence, our spirit, our “soul” if you prefer to use that word.
If you believe in God, you might want to say that we come from God and go to God – however you want to imagine God. Because you see, the concept of “eternal life” transcends mortal existence.
We talk about eternal life without necessarily understanding it. Eternal life is not a prize waiting for us if we have been good little boys and girls after we die. Eternal life is instead a natural state of being. We have it though we don’t realise it. We have it because we are made in the image and likeness of God, which is what the hymn in Philippians means when it speaks of Jesus “being in the form of God”.
Because Jesus was a human being, not innately different from any of us, he is a template for human existence – a revelation of who we all truly are. Like Jesus, we came from God, will live and die, and then return to God. We are of course bound by language, so we have to use phrases like “sitting on the right hand of God” (as in the creed), even though we know that God is not a person, has no right hand and there is no place for Christ to sit, and yet we kind of get what is meant by it.
“Sitting at the right hand of God” means for me, being with God for ever and knowing that consciously. That is as good a description of heaven as I can muster. Knowing that we come from God, live in God, and go to God as a continuum is “eternal life”. Knowing it and living it from the heart, eternal life becomes a quality of life that comes from realising that you are continually held. That for me is the meaning of the phrase “life in all its fullness”.
The alternative the “life in all its fullness” is a degraded limited understanding of existence that is bound by your physical birth and death, and also life here on earth is truncated and flat – the materialist view – with no spiritual dimension. i.e. no depth. Comprehending the meaning of eternal life means seeing your life against an infinite horizon. The boundaries provided by birth and death and atheistic materialism are broken. The length, breadth and depth of life become infinite.
Again, bound by language and metaphor, a favourite Christian image is of a child held in the palm of God. Eternal life though means that we know God knew us even before we were born as a child.
Jeremiah 1:5 says it beautifully “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”
Jesus as the revelation of what it means to be human, that what is true and possible for Jesus is true and possible for us is the essence of what it means to say that Jesus is Lord. It then follows that the way he lived, his nature and character lived in the knowledge of his intimate walk with God is the way that we should attempt to follow.
Such exalted ideas are exciting and liberating. They produce a kind of inner peace that we also call joy. When concepts like life and death, being born and dying have been transcended by the notion of eternal life we are set free. As John says (8:32) “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”
Let me end with some more words of Paul in this same vein taken from his letter to the Romans (8:38) and which are truly inspirational and have helped me enormously. Eternal life is to know the God who is love. What I am about to say is the best description of eternal life that I know of in the Christian canon;
“For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”.