“Word, words,” sang Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, “I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do? Don't talk of stars burning above; if you're in love, show me!” Probably all of us are sympathetic with Eliza Doolittle’s complaint about her suitor’s failure to match deeds with words. Words by themselves seem puny and anemic. Words hardly seem adequate when death and disaster strike. What good are words when terrorists crash airplanes into skyscrapers or a city and tens of thousands of its citizens practically disappear beneath the waters of the Gulf of Mexico? However, in today’s gospel reading, Peter tells Jesus that he has “the words of eternal life.” What do you suppose these words are, and is there any justification for Peter’s outrageous claim?
Words, both spoken and written, are central to the Christian faith. From the beginning to the end of the Bible words play a central role. In Genesis God speaks the heavens and the earth into existence: “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light…” The prophets prefaced their oracles by saying, “This is the word of the Lord.” And when the Spirit breathed new life into Jesus’ discouraged followers, the great sign of the Spirit’s visitation was the gift of words: “…they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2.4)
Words are powerful; they can create, and they can destroy. When a couple stand in the presence of God and their family and friends and pledge to love and be faithful to each other, their “I do’s” summon a new world into being. But just as surely, when love dies and a couple who have shared a life together grow distant and hostile, a whole world is destroyed when one spouse says, “I want a divorce.”
Sometimes words take on a life of their own. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, “all men” meant “all free, white, male property owners above a certain age,” but his words accomplished more than he intended or could have imagined. They not only severed the ties between America and England and brought a new nation into existence, they eventually brought freedom and equality to enslaved Africans and women, as well. When Franklin Roosevelt declared that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” a nation haunted by unemployment and hunger began to regain its confidence. And when Ronald Reagan stood atop the Berlin Wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” he was sowing the seeds that would yield a harvest of freedom for the Soviet people and their allies in only a few years.
But of all the words ever spoken, only Jesus’ words are said to be “the words of eternal life.” In teaching his disciples to pray, “Our Father…” Jesus changed the relationship between humanity and God from estrangement to reconciliation. Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount radically challenged our belief that life is about gaining, getting, and keeping; rather, he suggested that it is not the winners but the losers on whom God’s favor rests. In the face of death itself, Jesus demonstrated that real power is not in the hands of those who sit in judgment on the innocent and condemn them to death but in the hands of the one who can summon the power to forgive: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Finally, he told us that meaningful life is found not in security but in risking everything for the sake of the gospel: “…those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…”
Jesus’ words are not pious platitudes; rather, they are flares that arc across the night sky, showing us the way across a perilous landscape. His words are food and water in the wilderness. Each of Jesus’ words is a time bomb that may at any minute go off in the midst of the enemy’s fortress.
“To whom shall we go?” Peter asked. There are many places we can go for easier words. The marketplace tells us that “Greed is good” and will not reproach us for filling up our bank accounts while our neighbors are in need. The cult of power and success all around us rewards our innate competitiveness and mocks the gospel’s reminder that the poor are blessed. Rather than dying to self and being raised by God to new life in Christ, the prevailing culture promises us perpetual youth if we will drink this, eat that, or drive the latest model from Detroit.
What is it that gives Jesus’ words such power? He was not the most eloquent rabbi of first century Palestine and far from the most learned. Scholars have demonstrated that he was not even very original; many of Jesus’ sayings are similar to or even the same as some of his contemporaries. I think the explanation for Peter’s claim that Jesus spoke “words of eternal life” can be found at the very first beginning of John’s gospel. “ The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” There was a perfect correspondence between Jesus’ words and his life. When he said, “Blessed are the poor,” he lived out its meaning by sharing his life with the poor. When he prayed “Our Father,” his disciples could believe that God was their Father, too, because of Jesus’ own intense intimacy with God. When he said, “Father, forgive them” to the soldiers who nailed him to the cross, his words rang true because he had lived out that forgiveness in his life. And when he died, his disciples finally understood what he had meant by calling on them to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.
His words have eternal significance because they were not just spoken in Palestine long ago, he speaks them to us today. When he blessed the “poor in spirit,” he was blessing us, for we are all poor in spirit. When he prayed “Our Father,” he was inviting us into greater intimacy with God. When he invited his disciples to give up their lives for the sake of the gospel, he was inviting us to let go of our false security and launch out in the great adventure to which God invites us. And when he forgave the soldiers who nailed him to the cross, he was forgiving us, for all of us have stood by and allowed the innocent to be punished.
Jesus’ words are words of eternal life because he is God’s word and his life was the very image of God’s love for us – the poor, the fearful, the estranged, and the bystanders at the cross.
When life falls apart (and eventually, life falls apart for everyone), there is only one to whom we can go, only one whose words are “spirit and life,” only one who has the words of eternal life. As Albert Schweitzer reminded us, “He comes to us as one unknown as of old by the lake-side he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, ‘Follow thou me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands, and to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in his fellowship and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience who he is.” (Concluding paragraph, The Quest for the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer.)