“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
We know the verse by heart. It’s the promise that is made through Christ, the promise of life eternal. But what does this eternal life look like? Surely it can’t just be “endless life,” as we, having souls from God, are already “unending.” And beyond what this life eternal is, how is it to be obtained? The answer in John 3:16 is obvious enough: by believing in the Son whom the Father sent. But what does that mean in at the practical level of our every day lives? What does this belief look like?
Regarding the first question, we get a glimpse of what this “life eternal” looks like on Mount Tabor in the Transfiguration. The disciples see Jesus arrayed in spectacular, even blinding, light and splendor. It’s a breaking through of the divine into the world. In that moment, the disciples catch a glimpse of who Jesus truly is. And it’s not just Jesus present. Moses and Elijah appear as well, at his side. For a brief moment, the disciples see what glorified man will be. This is not merely an endless life. This is a completely transformed life, in which man exists in his full potential, in perfect love with God.
“What is revealed here is not only the glory of pure, angelic spirit, but of the spirit through the body, glory of the spiritualized body of man. Not the glory of God alone, not a piece of disclosed heaven, not only the sheen of the Lord as it hovered over the ark of the covenant, but the glory of the God-Logos in the Son of Man. Life above life and death . . .”
-Romano Guardini ("The Lord")
This is the “life eternal” we are promised. Not only an avoidance or superseding of death, but a complete elevation of life itself. And how is this to be obtained (again, in the practical sense)?
Christ gave us the Church. He founds it at Caesarea Philippi, when Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Son of God, and Jesus responds: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). The Church is founded, and will act as Christ’s representative on Earth after his death. While all the evils of the world will attack it and seek to tear it apart, the Church will stand as a “rock” and never fall. It is through the Church that Christ’s mission will be carried out, and Christ’s message will be proclaimed to all the ends of the world. Thus our duty as Christians is to bind ourselves to Christ’s holy Church, and participate in that sacred duty and mission.
Though a question arises immediately here. Christ was rejected. His Kingdom-to-be did not arrive, because we killed him. If this rejection had not happened, would the Church be necessary? If Christ had not been rejected, and was able to bring about this Kingdom as it should have been, would it not then be individuals responding to the Kingdom rather than needing the Church?
Guardini gives an emphatic: No! The Church was always intended, if only purely because of the nature of man. Recall what Jesus calls the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. These are not two commands, but one. They cannot be separated. You cannot love God if you do not love your neighbor, and you cannot truly love your neighbor without loving them in reference to the God who created and loves them (I’ve written about this previously here). We are inherently a “we,” as fundamental to our personhood as our being an “I.” This “we,” more than merely the sum total of a collection of individuals, but rather a nation, a chosen people, “product of a long history, vocation, guidance and destiny, and in its turn bearer of history, the history of God in the world.”
The fact remains, however, that we rejected Christ. That fact changes everything. The Church we have is neither the Church which could have been, nor the Church which will be. We have a Church which is scarred by the horrific decision that was made. But even with that scar, she remains the holy Bride of Christ, “Mother, constantly bearing and rebearing heavenly life.” And so our duty, in the practical sense, is to join ourselves to this Church, as a member of the Body of Christ, with all her flaws and failings, and participate in that sacred mission: to spread the Good News to all the ends of the Earth, and to love one another as God has loved us, and to love God above all things. That is true belief. That is how life eternal is made possible.
Every day of Lent, I am writing a reflection piece on two chapters of "The Lord" by Romano Guardini. If you'd like to read or follow along, you can find the full calendar of where we're at below, or Click Here for the main landing page.