“what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke 10:25
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Do we ever ask such questions? Do we ever stop and ask where this life is going?
I’m 50 this year; maybe it’s the sort of moment to stop and ask questions.
I went home to Somerset for two days at Easter, spending three and a half hours touring around one morning. I never went more than four, or perhaps five miles, from parents’ house. Langport, Huish Episcopi, Aller, Somerton, Long Sutton, Pitney—little towns and villages that were very rural and very English. It was a time to be quiet, a time to remember the people I had known, a time to think about the years gone by.
At Huish, I went to my grandparents’ grave and stood silently. It didn’t seem three years since I had buried my grandmother. Standing there I thought about all my memories of them. The General Election had just been announced on the BBC. I knew they never voted, my Grandad once said that their votes would simply cancel each other out—which in Somerset would mean that one voted Liberal and the other voted Conservative, I used to try to guess which, I suspect my Nan was the Tory.
I wished I had brought a poetry book with me; there was a poem my Nan, who was devout in saying her prayers, and my Grandad, who thought this life was our lot, would both have liked.
One of the last times I saw Nan was on a summer’s evening. She lay in bed in her low ceilinged room. The view from the window was unchanged from my childhood memories; her neatly kept front garden, the cast iron railings which had escaped being cut down and taken away to be melted down during the war; across the road fields rolling away into the distance; to the left the entrance to the farmyard; to the right, across the road, the house of the Becky family. Even the sounds were familiar, cattle and tractors and voices. Lying in her bed those summer evenings, I wondered what memories she pondered, what hopes she still treasured.
I would have loved love to have had Charlotte Mew’s poem “An Old Shepherd’s Prayer” with me that morning. Maybe it would have captured something of how they both felt.
“Over, from under the eaves there’s the starlings flyin’,
And down in the yard, fit to burst his chain, yapping out at Sue
I do hear young Mac.
Turning around like a failed-over sack
I can see team ploughin’ in Whithy-bush field and
meal carts startin’ up road to Church-Town;
Saturday arternoon the men goin’ back
And the women from market, trapin’ home over the down.
Heavenly Master, I wud like to wake to they same green places
Where I be know’d for breakin’ dogs and follerin’ sheep.
And if I may not walk in th’old ways and look on th’old faces
I wud sooner sleep."
In my mind’s eye, the shepherd’s room is in a farmhouse like my grandparents’. The old shepherd has white hair and gnarled hands, lying in an iron bed with the hand-sewn quilt over him. There is a jug on the washstand beside the bed. His breathing is wheezy as his strength ebbs slowly away and he hears all the sounds including the bark of his collie sheepdog called "Mac". The old shepherd’s wish for heaven is for rolling green hills and old friends and for work to do like he’s always done, and if heaven is not like that, well, he would just rather not wake up.
It is a very evocative poem and I think it challenges our thoughts about what we believe about this life and about the life to come.
Belief in a world to come amongst people today is vague. The Church is concerned with the here and now, with getting on and doing things, with numbers, with being relevant, with having a good image, it’s not concerned with talking to people about dying and eternal life.
The disciples would have been astonished at us. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” asks the lawyer. It’s the question right at the heart of the Christian Gospel. When Saint John writes down his account of the Good News it is to answer this question. John writes that he has written his book so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing we may have life in his name. The old shepherd would have understood what John was saying, he has no doubt about the life to come, his only concern is what this life might be like.
Read the story of the early church, and it is about inheriting eternal life. In the Acts of the Apostles we see Jesus’ followers being prepared to give their very lives for this hope of heaven. They are summoned before the Jewish Council who have forbidden them to preach about Jesus and Peter stands up and says, "We must obey God rather than men". Read from Revelation, that last book in the Bible, and it is about the hope of eternal life. Jesus will return in glory, he is the beginning and the end, the one who was, who is and who is to come. No timidity there. No blurring of the message. No vagueness about what they are hoping for.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” asks the lawyer. Do we ever ask the same question? What is it that we believe about life to come? I suspect, most of the time, we probably don’t give it much thought.
At the heart of our faith, and at the· heart of our identity, there is this man Jesus who dies and rises again and who says to us that we can share this new life with him if we want. Yet there is a sense of embarrassment when we talk in such terms. If someone got up at a vestry meeting and said and said, "Isn’t it great that we can live forever?" there would be a cringing sensation and we would quickly go back to talking about the accounts or groups and unions, or whatever.
The old shepherd in the poem is very far removed from Scripture. The Bible doesn’t say that heaven is going to be what we want, but at least the old shepherd has a hope of heaven. Faltering as he may be in his faith, at least the old shepherd believes in a heavenly master who calls us to account and who offers an eternal reward.
The whole Gospel story is a response to the lawyer’s question. John writes so that we may believe and that believing we may have life in Jesus’ name. Do we believe this? Are we prepared to stake all that we have on our hope of heaven?
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How do we answer when we are asked?
Regular blog readers will recognize the “Old Shepherd’s Prayer”; it has often featured on the blog