This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Advent day 20: Eternal life enfleshed in Jesus

Krista Showalter Ehst is a farmer and pastor who lives just outside of Bally, Pennsylvania. She pastors part-time at Alpha (N.J.) Mennonite Church, and also runs a small-scale, diversified CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) with her husband, Tim. She continues to enjoy finding ways of intersecting her commitments to sustainable agriculture with her commitments to the life of the church.

The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted his testimony has certified* this, that God is true. He whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath. John 3:31-36

As a farmer and pastor who believes deeply that God calls us to be rooted stewards of this earth, John 3:31-36 did not immediately speak to me. In fact, it kind of turned me off. The denigrating tone used to speak of “the one who is of the earth;” the utter separation of Jesus from creation, the “one who comes from heaven [and] is above all;” not to mention the concluding threat of God’s wrath. At first glance, this passage seemed only to speak to a picture of a God and Savior who lord over a depraved creation from a far-off distance, exercising threat and promise to bring that creation under control. Not the picture I usually warm to when I’m anticipating Jesus being born in an earthy Bethlehem stable.

As is usually the case, however, a closer reading revealed a much different picture. First, it helps to realize that these words are John the Baptist’s final ones in the Gospel of John.

John is once again trying to make clear that his role is to prepare the way for Jesus, the Messiah—not to pursue the success of his own ministry.

John’s disciples have been feeling a bit jealous of Jesus’ ministry, complaining to John in 3:26 that “the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”

In response, John seeks to again differentiate Jesus from himself. “This is no mere human preacher,” John says, “This is one who holds the whole vast picture of creation in his hands.” John knows his own limits as a preacher-man speaking in a very local time and place. And he knows that this Messiah whom he prepares for, while situated in that same time and place, has the incredible, divine capability to see the whole picture; to hold and redeem not merely this narrow section of Judean countryside, but in fact all things in heaven and earth.

What we also need to remember is the way the Gospel of John begins: with a testament to the Word becoming flesh. The beautiful paradox highlighted by John is that this One who is above all and holds all things together decisively did not remain aloof and distant, but became one of us; entered completely into our earthy, fleshy, joyful, sorrowful, human experience.

And to what end? Well this passage’s concluding reference to “eternal life” might lead you to think that Jesus came to be with us only to give us an escape route from earth to some far-off heavenly bliss. But as one commentary points out, it’s important to note that the gospel writer often uses present-tense verbs to describe eternal life. Hence, we can read “eternal life” as “a metaphor for living now in the unending presence of God; [for a] life lived according to God’s categories.”[1]

The One who is above all does not in fact pull us up out of our earthly experience, but joins us on earth so that God’s life and love can be made known in flesh and blood.

God’s life transforms the very fabric of our lives, empowering us to live according to God’s shalom even in the midst of a broken, fragmented, death-dealing world. But, as John sharply reminds his listeners, those who do not respond to the Word-made-flesh will “not see life (3:36).” Rather than the categories of their lives being transformed and defined by God’s love and life and wholeness, their lives will continue to be dictated by categories of violence, exclusion, death, and despair.

And so at the end of the day, my farmer-pastor self finds both resonance and challenge in this Advent-season passage. The Word, the eternal divine presence that holds all of creation together, is coming to be present, to be rooted on earth with us. How will this gift of divine solidarity continue to transform my own life and presence on this earth? How will my categories of relating to myself, to others and to the earth be transformed by the eternal life enfleshed in Jesus Christ?

[1] Gail O’Day & Susan E. Henley, John (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY) 2006, 45.

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