Would You Rather?

John 20:19-31   
April 8, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

If you are looking for games that provoke a lot of discussion, laughter, and occasionally disgust, you might want to try a game called “Would you rather?” I’ve been playing this game for years with my youth group but for those who would like to try it at home, it’s now available as an app on your phone. The game is simple: it consists of questions like, “Would you rather eat slugs or worms? Would you rather lose your sense of smell or your sense of taste? Would you rather never be able to speak again or never be able to stop talking?” I rattle those off because I don’t actually want you to spend the rest of the sermon thinking about them but there is one question that once caused so much discussion among the youth that I remember it to this day, a question that I do invite you to mull over yourself this morning. The question is, “Which would you rather be: a pathetic wanna-be or a wasted has-been?”  

Think about that choice for a moment.  Would you rather be a person known primarily as a daydreamer, someone who has glorious plans for the future but never follows through on them, someone who talks big but lives small (a pathetic wanna-be); or would you rather be someone who was once known as a grand success, but whose star flamed out, and who fell hard from your pedestal, a sad forgotten wreck of a person living on the ashes of memories (a wasted has-been). If you absolutely had to choose one over the other, which would you choose? Would you rather have people murmur to one another at your funeral: “It’s too bad, she was really always a pathetic wanna-be,” or “You know, he’d really become a wasted has-been?”

Both are pretty pitiful scenarios but when the youth group encountered that question, they decided that given the choice, they would choose to be wasted has-beens rather than pathetic wanna-be’s because at least they would have lived.

The author Jack London wrote: “I would rather be ashes than dust. I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. A proper function of a [person] is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them; I shall use my time.”

I think that in spite of our fears and our failures, most of us would side with the youth on their choice: we want to live; we don’t want to just exist.  We don’t want to go through our years simply sleeping, waking, eating, and turning finally back into the dust from whence we came so that at our funeral the best thing anyone can say about us is, “Well, he was really good at metabolizing nutrients.”  Each of us would like to believe that our lives ultimately mean something more that.  We want to know that we don’t simply exist, but that somehow it matters that we are here, and that even if we don’t succeed in fully becoming the people we envisioned, at least we gave it our best shot.  

John, the writer of the fourth gospel, would absolutely come down on the side of giving it your best shot, of risking everything to live fully and become the people Christ envisions us as capable of being. The gospel of John is a wonderfully poetic gospel which not only tells the story of Jesus’ life but populates it with a multitude of images that capture the transforming power of Christ’s salvation — bread, wine, living water, spirit, breath. The gospel opens with that beautiful passage that reminds us of the stories of Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Remember, John says, how God’s Word at the very beginning of all things caused the earth to come into being, and drew the sun across its soil pulling the green shoots of saplings toward it, warming the blood in the veins of the animals?  We are part of that creation, John reminds us, and yet, he adds, we are so much more than that.

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people,” John finishes. In Christ, the Word moves from creation of flesh to creation of spirit. In Christ, the Word touches human hearts, lifts human hands, and whispers into our souls, “and now, let there be Life.” We may be made of flesh and blood, of the dust of the earth, John declares, but life is more than just existence and if we listen to Christ’s Word for us, if we follow Christ’s Way for us, we can be re-born into a spiritual life of meaning and purpose, of depth and wholeness, a life that has eternal possibilities. John weaves parallels to this new creation throughout his gospel — think of Nicodemus’s conversation with Jesus about being born of flesh or being born again of the Spirit, or in our scripture reading today when Jesus breathes peace into the disciples after his resurrection just as God breathed life into Adam. As I said, John is the most poetic of the four gospels and throughout his account, John paints vivid images of the experience of salvation, but at the end of chapter 20, it’s as if John is suddenly afraid that the metaphorically challenged are still lost so he drops the poetry and spells it out in straight forward prose just to make sure that we get it:

“These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

I sympathize with John’s attempt to simplify everything he has been relating in one simple declarative statement, but the whole reason John has been piling up the metaphors and the poetry for 20 chapters is that he knows what Jesus offers really can’t really be turned into a treatise statement. Maybe that’s why even though this verse at the end of chapter 20 feels like the ending of the gospel, John then goes on to add another whole chapter, returning to story and poetry and some more wonderful images to get at the heart of the life Jesus’ offers.1 Some Christians have made the mistake of trying to strip the poetry from the gospel of John and make it into a prosaic operating manual saying that if you say, “I believe in Jesus as my savior,” you’ll get a ticket to heaven, but that’s not what salvation is about in the gospel of John. When Jesus says to his followers, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he isn’t talking just about what happens to us after we die but he is talking about the kind of existence we have right here and right now. Jesus asks the crowd, “Is not life more than food….?” and he says to the eager young scribe, “If you would have life, love God and love your neighbor.”  Eternal life doesn’t begin after we die, Jesus says; eternal life is what is happening in our lives right now. It is about what you do when you leave this sanctuary; about the choices you make and what you do with your time in your Monday through Saturday life. In contemporary terms, Jesus is challenging us with the question: “Do you have real life or are you just a pathetic wanna-be spending your days metabolizing nutrients until you turn to dust again?”   

In a book about children Surviving Cancer,” Erma Bombeck told of a five year old boy named Bert, who was suffering from neuroblastoma.  Bert loved to draw, and one day an adult watched him sitting with his pencils and crayons sketching away and the adult said to Bert, “Are you going to be an artist when you grow up?”  

Bert’s response was indignant.  Without looking up at her, he declared, “I am an artist.”

Eternal life begins now, at this moment. We are not to spend our lives twiddling our thumbs waiting for heaven to come to us; Christ offers us the possibility of life right now, in every moment that we live. And I’m not talking about bucket lists: the gospel of John is not intended to be the biblical version of Carpe Diem reminding you that time is slipping by and you should seize the day while you can.  You might pile every day full of exciting activities — you might scuba dive in the Caribbean, climb to the peak of Mount Everest, sky dive over Paris, do the lindy in Louisiana, and guzzle beer in Berlin but when all is said and done, you will not have had the life that Christ is calling you to.  At the end when you die, your life will still not have had any eternal consequence because everything you lived for will die with you when you go. The Life that Jesus offers you, however, is not activity; it is meaning. It is life that has purpose, that lives the world a better place because you were here. It is the opportunity to hitch your heart to the very heart of God and to become part of God’s creative activity. It is a complete circle:

“In the beginning was the Word… and what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

“These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

When we open our hearts to the life that Christ offers, we become part of the ongoing creative activity of the Word, a Word that makes a difference, that is deep and meaningful, and that lasts even on into eternity. Eternal life begins right now; because when you become part of Christ’s life-giving Word, what you have lived for will last an eternity.

Footnotes:

1. Some scholars argue that Chapter 21 was added by a later editor but either way, whether it was John or a later editor, someone felt that more material was needed to fully explain the gospel’s intent.