4 pictures on the screen. Which is the odd one out?
A letter from the former US President Jimmy Carter
A Philharmonia Orchestra performance of Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5
Three lego figures
A picture of the Sydney Opera House
The odd one out is the Lego figures. The other three were all contained on the Golden Records, sent into space on the Voyager spacecraft, as a message to any intelligent lifeforms out there in the universe.
The Lego figures have also gone into space. Figures of Galileo, Juno and Roman God Jupiter are on board the spacecraft Juno, currently orbiting the planet Jupiter. If Juno were intercepted by aliens, they might have an odd idea about life on earth!
Over the last half century or so, humans have been exploring space, seeking to uncover the mysteries of the universe. But underneath it all, there’s one question to which we really want to know the answer.
Is anyone else out there?
In Silicon Valley and the University of California in Berkeley, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, train large antennae on the sky, scanning for radio signals that could be generated from another world.
They ‘re searching for Signs of Life.
Part of that search is looking for planets, moons, which have the kind of conditions which can support life, or on which life can flourish.
Meanwhile back here on earth, much closer to home, even just up the road in Northwick Park Hospital, at regular intervals doctors and nurses which check the temperature, blood pressure, pulse and rate of breathing of their patients.
These are called Vital Signs. They indicate not so much that life exists, they’ll hope to find something, but together these things can help tell key professionals our state of health, whether we’re recovering or deteriorating, whether we need to be watched more closely… he says, like he knows anything about this, rather than relying on Wikipedia.
In their way they’re checking for signs of life.
If the John who wrote the letter from which we shared this morning ever wanted a subtitle for his book, he could have done a lot worse than call it Vital Signs. The search for ‘signs of life’ is one of main activities in which he engages in writing this book.
We have three letters attributed to John towards the back of our Bibles. They’re amongst the last parts of our Bibles to be written.
When he wrote them John was an elderly man. But he has spent a lifetime following Jesus. He was by the Sea of Galilee, probably in his early teens, and was cleaning his nets after a night’s fishing, when Jesus had walked along the shore and called, first Peter and Andrew, then John and his brother James, and said Follow Me. And they did.
Many years have passed since then. John’s the last of those original 12 disciples still around. Most of the rest have been killed for their faith. John’s reflecting on what a life of following Jesus is all about and he’s putting it into words. Committing it to paper, or parchment at least. He lets us know why he’s writing it towards the end of his letter.
I am writing this to you, so that you may know you have eternal life…
He’s asking us to read and reflect on what he has to say to us. He wants us to search our hearts, to train the antenna not up into the sky but inwards, on our own inner lives, and search for signs of the kind of life John talks about. He calls on us to explore the state of our hearts and ask what we find there. Do we find conditions in which the kind of life John is writing about can exist and flourish?
He wants us to examine ourselves as a medic checks our breathing, pulse, blood pressure and temperature, to examine the state of our lives, of our relationship with God. Are we strong and healthy? Or is that life weak, possibly just hanging in there.
Are we growing, getting stronger, or are we deteriorating?
But how will we know?
Well, John offers us a few indicators, a few vital signs, if you like to help us acknowledge or recognise it in ourselves. Over the next few weeks we’ll explore some of these.
But ‘what is this life John’s talking about?
Some of you might remember that over the summer last year we looked at a single verse of the Bible. It was also written by John. John 3:16.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
This series follows on a bit from that, so for the really observant among you, some of what I say this morning might sound familiar.
John had spent perhaps 3 years following Jesus around, witnessing the events we read about in our Gospels. John saw more of Jesus’ life than almost anyone else. More even than most of the rest of the 12 disciples. There are several incidents like the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration, or when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, asking for the cup of suffering to pass from him, where we see the kind of access to Jesus John had. Jesus asked other disciples to wait behind, but he took Peter, James and John with him.
I wonder… if you or I had that kind of experience what would stick with you most? What would really leave an impression on you?
We might say ‘he told the greatest stories and said the most amazing things.’ Others might point to the crowds he fed with just a few fish and loaves. How he walked on water, made the blind see, healed lepers with a touch. He raised at least 3 dead people.
And all those things did leave an impression on John. Yet for all the reflection on Jesus, none of those were what really blew John’s mind. Years have passed. But it hasn’t caused the memories to fade. Rather they’ve changed his perspective. It’s enabled him to view them from a distance which see a bigger picture. He looks beyond all the details to see what it was really all about. What was really going on. What it’s about.
You get the same sense from his Gospel and his letters. He begins and ends them with the same idea.
His Gospel begins by telling us that
in him was LIFE, and that LIFE was the light of all people.
It ends with an explanation of why he wrote it.
These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have LIFE in his name.’
As we’ve seen this morning, he does the same with his letter. He begins by slowly building layer upon layer…
That which was from the beginning…
which we have heard…
which we have seen with our eyes…
which we have gazed at…
which our hands have touched…
this we proclaim about the word of LIFE!
He ends by saying
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal LIFE.
Notice a trend? For John, the central point about Jesus, the thing Jesus gives us is LIFE. For John, the whole thing is about LIFE! There was something about the life Jesus had that stayed with John.
And something about the life Jesus gave to others. That he had given to John. A life that’s available to you and me. He moved past having met the man, to experiencing the life Jesus came to bring. He says that life appeared, and it changed everything.
Thing is we can get distracted by the words John uses. He speaks of eternal life. We can get hung up on the eternal, when the word John wants us to focus on is life.
We hear phrases like eternal life and think he’s talking all about heaven. We think we have life now, then some day we’ll die, then, if we believe in Jesus we will get eternal life.
But that’s not how Jesus, John, or any part of the New Testament talked about it. John is not talking of eternal life as something we’ve been promised, that we’ll get one day in the future. When John tells his readers that they can know that they have eternal life, he speaks of them having it now.
He’s telling them to search their heart and check for signs of that life in them now.
John is saying ‘you think you’ve experienced this thing called life. So did we. Then Jesus came and that changed everything. It wasn’t easy but once we experienced it, none of us wanted to go back.’
But there’s something else he says about it. He says it’s always existed. But in verse two he says it’s become visible. He’s saying we’ve always had the potential to live this kind of life, but it wasn’t until Jesus came along and lived it that we realised it was possible.
I’ll offer a trivial example of the kind of thing I’m talking about from my own life. Last season I was playing a league match at the Tennis Club. The heights of NW Middlesex Division VII. Amongst the six players in the opposing side was a young lad, probably about 14, 15. As we introduced ourselves he said to me ‘nice racquet’ which I thought was odd, cos there is nothing that special about my racquet. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s hardly top of the range. Then I realised. He was using the same racquet.
Now in my experience, when a team turns up with a young lad like that, it means one of two things. Either they’ve really struggled to get a team together, so they’ve brought along one of their juniors to make up the numbers.
More common is that they’re sickeningly good and you’re going to spend the next hour watching a greeny-yellowy blur fly past you before you’ve even realised they hit it. You know in the first couple of points which it’s going to be.
Unfortunately my experience that evening was more of the second kind of variety. Forehand, backhand, smash, drop shot… he had the lot. At the end of the match as we shook hands I joked with him I never knew this racquet could play those shots.
But of course, it wasn’t the racquet. It was the one in whose hands it’s held. The person who was controlling it.
John says something similar about what happened when Jesus came amongst us. John says they watched Jesus life thought ‘I didn’t know this was possible. I didn’t know life could be like that.’
Now at this point we might be tempted think, that’s all very well. That was Jesus. He was God. And, well, I’m not.
Trouble is, Jesus doesn’t seem to think that’s a problem. He doesn’t say ‘well, there’s something you should bear in mind… I’m God, so whilst I can do this, you can’t.’
Quite the opposite. Jesus called on people to repent, to leave behind their old way of life and embrace a different one. He calls people to follow him: to imitate him, to learn from him, to live as he does.
He called disciples to watch him at work, to see how he lived, then sent them out to do the same for others, who in turn were to be sent out to keep the chain going. It wouldn’t make sense for Jesus to ask people to follow him, to imitate him, to live as he lived, if the only reason he could do it was because he was God. That would be setting them an impossible task. In fact as we saw last week, Jesus said they would do even greater things than he had done.
After a life time’s reflection on Jesus, the most important thing John found in Jesus was that a different kind of life was possible. What Jesus revealed wasn’t something completely new. He revealed something that was already true about us. This kind of life was already possible. John was not just saying that he and the other followers of Jesus had experienced that kind of life, but that we can too. He’s writing this so we can know if we have this kind of life.
It wasn’t that Jesus flesh and blood was different to ours. It was the One in whose hands his life was held. The one who was in control.
One of the main themes on the scriptures is God offering us life. And one of the main reasons we reject it is that we don’t realise we need it. We think we’ve already got it.
In English the problem is made worse by the fact that we use the same word, life, to describe something to for which the Greeks had two words.
One word was psyche. The other was zoe. What’s the difference?
Psyche is what we normally call life. It’s stuff that happens to us. Relationships, finances, achievements, failures. It begins when we’re born, and it dies with us. It’s rooted in and affected by our circumstances. The psyche is a life which begins and ends. But it has one main feature. It’s constantly changing.
However those things are not who you are. That’s zoe life. The difference is probably best explained by an example. Psyche is like the clouds, or the weather going on all around us, the zoe is the sky which is always there; the backdrop on which all those weather patterns take place. It might look different to us, but the sky isn’t actually changed by the clouds.
There’s something else that’s important about zoe. The source of psyche is the events which go on around us. Sometimes within our control, sometimes not. The source of zoe is God alone. Zoe is the life that God has given you. It belongs to God but he shares it with us. We can ignore it, but no-one can take it from us.
It’s not a case of we have psyche now, then when we die we get zoe. Both are going on all the time.
It’s just most of the time we’re only paying attention to the psyche.
Zoe is the life, or person God created you to be. It’s that part of us that connects to God. It’s that part of us into which God speaks and assure us that we’re loved, that we’re his children, and whatever the psyche type of life throws at us, God can keep us safe and bring us through. When we pay attention to that kind of life, it creates the conditions in which the kind of life God wants for us can flourish.
All too often we live purely at the surface level, all our energy focussed on keeping the show on the road, and we can fail to connect with who we really are, with the person we are created to be. We keep our life firmly in our hands. We firmly maintain the controls. We don’t place it in the hands of God.
We think we’re alive, but we’re settling for existence.
Let me offer you another way of looking at this. Rooted more in the here and now. Your breathing.
How many people here can breathe? All of us. We mastered it pretty quickly. We had to, else we wouldn’t be here. I don’t want to sound like I’m showing off, but I can breathe without even thinking about it!
But let me let me tell you something about breathing. You will probably take over 26,000 breaths today. You’ll take in around 14,000 litres of air in doing so. But how will we breathe?
We should breathe from our stomach, but often we don’t breathe as deeply as we should. We tend to breathe from our chests. This means we don’t need to take as many breaths as we do. You’ll tend to breathe more and shallower when you are stressed. Ever noticed how at the end of a really stressful day you’re shattered? Well one very good reason for that has been your breathing.
If we breathed as we’re supposed to, we would gain the vast majority of the energy we need from breathing. But what proportion of the energy available to us from breathing do you think we are accessing?
We think we’re breathing, but we have all this power and energy available to us, and we’re not connecting with it.
That’s what we’re like that with God. He has been reaching out to us, offering himself as a source of life. Yet all too often we have not been connecting with that source of life at all, or we’ve being doing it in very limited measure. Then Jesus comes to us and shows us a life that is possible, a life that is lived in loving, trusting relationship with God. Allowing it to be held in the hands of that God.
It’s not a life based on circumstances. I mean, let’s face it, Jesus lived most of life on the wrong side of circumstances. But in all of those things God could be trusted. A life better in his hands that ours. Under his control than ours. A life that once experienced, everything else seemed so much less.
But the question is how do we access this kind of life?
Why do we find it so hard?
I think it’s because we often try to approach a relationship with God more like Batman and less like Spiderman.
Does anyone know what the big difference between Batman and Spiderman is? They’re both superheroes who fight crime or whatever, but they do it slightly differently. Batman doesn’t have and superpowers as such. He’s just a rich guy who has lots of technology and gadgets which he carries around in a utility belt to get the job done.
Spiderman is different. Peter Parker became Spiderman because he was bitten by a radioactive spider. This led to him acquiring spider-related abilities, such as clinging to surfaces, shooting webs and so on.
Most of us turn to God and the scriptures like Batman. We want something we can pack into the utility belt when we need it. But again like the tennis racquet, it’s still us firmly at the wheel. It’s still basically the same us. There is some room for that. Paul talks about the Armour of God in those kind of terms.
But what God wants is for us to be bitten by the life he offers, so that it becomes who we are. So that it transforms us into something we would not be without him, into the people he created us to be, living the life he created us to live.
The path of Batman is easier, but the path to life, to the real life is the Spiderman route. The Batman route is more attractive cos it’s a life we make. The Spiderman route is about who we are becoming. And it’s offered to us as a gift. To receive it, all we have to do is ask and open ourselves to receive it. To make space to connect with it. It won’t happen all at once. But we start small and allow it to grow in us. It isn’t easy. But it’s worth it.
Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good, or to make good people better. He didn’t come to make sick people well. He came so that we might know life. Life where we can live in a relationship of trust, knowing that whatever the circumstances, whatever we face we are loved and we are held.
That was the life that Jesus revealed. The kind of life Jesus came to offer us. An indestructible life that is possible for each one of us. Over the next few weeks we’ll explore some of the vital signs, signs that can help us know if we are living that kind of life.
John was able to tell us so, because he had seen it in Jesus, he’d experienced it for himself
and he says that we too can have that kind of life.
The kind of life that the more we experience it, the less we’ll want to be without it.