“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke 10:25
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How many people in any church ask such questions? How many ever stop and ask where this life is going? If people don’t ask questions like those, shouldn’t they ask ourselves why they are in church?
In her poem An Old Shepherd’s Prayer, the poet Charlotte Mew tried to imagine how an old farmer, frail and lying in his bed, might have thought of eternal life.
“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 that in which my grandparents lived. 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 thoughts about what is believed 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 the church. “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. Saint John Chapter 20 Verses 30-31 say, “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these 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.”
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, Jesus’ followers are 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, in Acts Chapter 5 Verse 29 and he 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 people ask the same question? What is it that they believe about life to come? Most of the time, they probably don’t give it much thought.
At the heart of our faith, and at the· heart of the church’s identity as Christians, there is this man Jesus who dies and rises again and who says that people can share this new life with him if they want. Yet there is a sense of embarrassment when anyone talks in such terms. People don’t seem at ease with the thought of eternal life.
The thoughts of the old shepherd in the poem are very far removed from Scripture. The Bible doesn’t say that heaven is going to be what he wants, 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 people to account and who offers an eternal reward.
The whole Gospel story is a response to the lawyer’s question. John writes so that people may believe and that believing they may have life in Jesus’ name. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How do people answer when they are asked?