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May 12, 2002
by Tony Grant
Dust is our beginning. It is also, most certainly, our end. "You are dust," said God to Adam, before tossing him out of the garden of Eden, "and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19).
But now, scientists tell us, dust is also a dramatic part of daily living. With every breath we take, we suck in tens of thousands of particles. Although we can not see it, each of us walks the earth in a cloud of dust, shedding fragments of skin and bits of lint torn from our clothes through friction. Most of it is benign, but some of it is deadly.
Science journalist Hannah Holmes suggests that by age 6, our children have consumed at least a cup and a half of pollen, pesticides, lead, dander, and fibers. A cup and a half of the minuscule parts and pieces of our crumbling world.
In her book The Secret Life of Dust, Holmes tracks the enormous dust streams that pour across the ocean from Saharan Africa, fertilizing South American rain forests, and that carry the Gobi desert, particle by particle, across the Pacific. She also reports that our every human action produces tons of the stuff, from tire dust to the invisible clouds that arise from cooking, vacuuming, gardening and powdering baby. A whole dust food chain lives off it, fungi to mites to cockroaches, and their decomposing bodies and droppings add to the mess.
That is disgusting, but it has a spiritual application. Jesus knew about dust. He knew full well that we live in a dusty, musty, rusty world, and that we must learn how to stay clean. The dust is here; it is not going away. Real dust effects us physically, but the kind of dust Jesus talked about is spiritual--the dust of sin. Our spiritual breathing is affected every day by pollens and particles of a godless world. Being alive means we are exposed to the dust of sinful living that can, if left untreated, destroy our spiritual life.
An Evening in the Upper Room
As we turn to the gospel of John, we notice a strange emphasis. Back in chapter 13, we are told that Jesus has celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem with his disciples, and 13:2 tells us that supper has now ended. But the disciples do not yet leave the Upper Room. Instead, they receive instruction and teaching from Jesus until the end of chapter 17. Now the Gospel of John contains a total of 21 chapters to cover the whole of the life and ministry of Jesus, and yet four of those chapters are devoted to one evening in the Upper Room. I suppose that shows us how important John thought that evening was.
In chapter 17, Jesus ends this time of teaching with prayer. The gospels often report that Jesus prayed; however, besides Jesus' prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42), this prayer in John's gospel is the only time we have the words that he prayed. In the garden prayer, Jesus prayed for the cup of suffering to be removed from him. In this upper room prayer, Jesus accepts the cross and the glory that will be his.
All that has been implied in Jesus' words and work up to this point in the gospel is soon to be made explicit: Jesus is God's one true revelation to humanity. Furthermore, the church, those disciples for whom Jesus prays, are the one and only body that reveals Jesus to the world.
During the tumultuous years at the end of the first century, the early church to which John was writing was faced with the historical reality that Christianity and Judaism were going separate ways. Hence for John, this prayer of Jesus serves to comfort his community in the knowledge that they share in the unity, glory, and future of their savior.
Since the wedding at Cana back in John chapter 2 (1-11), the question concerning Jesus' "hour" has played a subdued note. Now, on the eve of the crucifixion, the "hour" becomes the significant theme. The "hour" is the climax of the unfolding drama of Jesus' identity and work. The "hour" is the moment when Jesus is revealed in glory for who he is. Jesus is recognized as the eternal and pre-existent Son of God. As Jesus says in v5, "O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was." It is for this hour of revelation that Jesus came to earth. At the crucifixion, Jesus reveals himself not only to be an obedient servant, or a prophetic teacher. On the cross, Jesus reveals himself as having a unity with God that makes him one with God.
Behind this passage stands the Fourth Gospel's debate with first-century Judaism, which would separate itself from Christianity on this issue, on the identity of Jesus. For John, no doubt exists concerning Jesus identity. Jesus is God.
As God personified and glorified, Jesus' authority over all people is proclaimed. Jesus, as the true revelation of God, has authority to grant eternal life. Now here is a point we need to make. Eternal life, in John's gospel, is not defined in terms of a quantity of time or an eternal resting place after death. Rather, eternal life is a quality of relationship that the believer has with God. To have eternal life is to know God. To truly know God is to know Jesus and recognize Jesus for who he is.
The purpose of Jesus' ministry was to reveal God's name to those God gave him "from the world." The separation from Judaism is obvious here. In the Old Testament God revealed his name (YaHWeH) to the chosen people through his servant Moses. This relationship identified them as a unique nation, separating them from other nations. Now Jesus claims a different new community that has been given to him. The people of this community have the truth, revealed only through Jesus Christ.
The community of true disciples will soon not have Jesus present with them to guide and teach. Hence, Jesus prays for their unity during his absence. Jesus' prayer is specific. He does not pray for everybody; rather, Jesus prays only for those who know the truth about himself.
The "truth," that the disciples hold, no doubt will cause division. Therefore, Jesus petitions God to protect the disciples. Only by remaining firmly in the truth as Jesus reveals it, can the community withstand the pressure from "the world." In the gospel of John, the "world" always represents the hostile environment in which the true believer finds him or herself. The world is a dusty, sinful place, and Gods people need Gods protection.
As the community remains firm in its faith and witness, Jesus asks God to give them the same kind of experience of unity that he shares with God.
If I ask you to look at this photograph [a photograph of a former minister of the church], and tell me how many are in this photo, you would say one obviously. If I hold up this family photograph and ask you how many are in this photo, you might try counting the individuals in the photo, but the answer is still one. This is a picture of one family. If you look at the church today, you might say that we are millions of different individuals assembled in building around the world. Not so. We are one people of God, one community, one family.
A Transient World
Each of us is part of that family that Christ has called from the world. Yet now we are still in the world. Now we are dust, up to our necks in dust, breathing dust and eating dust, day after day after day. It's who we are. It's what we consume. It's where we live. And that presents problems. Sometimes we would like to run away from it all--flee to a place where we would not have to face the madness of modern life, or breathe the dangerous dust of a stricken and shaken society. A constant flow of sin frustrates us as we try to keep ourselves morally clean. Tempting trash tantalizes us, and thwarts our attempts to use our time and money wisely. The seemingly solid structures of the world project the illusion that the physical world is all there is: The real is what we can touch and hold and own and consume. What you see is what you get.
But Jesus saw another reality. He looked beyond dust, to a spotless heavenly destiny--Pure paradise. This is not to say that Jesus overlooked the gritty world we live in and focused only on pristine pie in the sky. He knew that the earth was formidable, solid, and real--a place of dust, physicality, carnality--and he was painfully aware that it could be dangerous to our health. Certainly, the cross of Calvary was a physical danger to HIS health.
But Jesus also knew that we live in a transient world that will someday implode or explode. This world, or our life in it, will end . The flower withers, Jesus said, moth and rust consume, the thief steals. Every human life comes to an end. Have you seen the bumper sticker: "Eat right, exercise, die anyway."
Jesus knows all about mortality, and in John 17:2, he prays that God will give us "eternal life." He asks for God to deliver us from the grit and grime of day-to-day existence and usher us into a perfectly pure paradise, in which we are no longer beset by the dusty temptations, frustrations, and illusions of this world.
It is a powerful prayer, a prayer about heaven. Have you noticed that we do not talk much about heaven anymore? Heaven has dropped out of most Christian conversation.
Columnist Philip Yancey reminds us that historically, every age before the modern one assumed an afterlife, disagreeing only on the particulars of how best to prepare. Egyptians filled their burial chambers with treasures and equipment for the dead to use. Christian saints are remembered on the day of their death, the day their life in paradise begins. Victor Hugo described himself as "the tadpole of an archangel." But nowadays, laments Yancey, we get much advice on becoming the best possible tadpoles, but little on how to prepare for metamorphosis. It sometimes seems to me that the church is too much influenced by the latest thing, whatever that may be, in psychology and sociology. We are all to willing to spout the latest psychobabble, so much so that if we read some of the latest Christian books, we might conclude that Christianity is just a brand of spiritual self-help, designed to turn us into healthy, wealthy tadpoles. But that is not our destiny. We are supposed to become full-grown frogs. Well, no, not frogs. I carried that illustration too far. We are to become angels and archangels.
Our destiny is not dust. Our final destination is pure paradise. Knowing that Christ has gone to prepare a place for us in the Father's house (John 14:2), we need not anguish over the ultimate significance of our existence. Our lives have value not by our earthly earnings or accomplishments, but by the love of the God who has created us and wants us to spend eternity with him.
Heaven is not so much a realm as it is a relationship; not so much a kingdom as it is a kinship. Eternal life, says Jesus to God in today's passage, is a life in which disciples will "know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (v. 3). It is an existence in which each of us deeply and intimately knows the God who has created us in his own image, and the Christ who has come to save us from our sins. The key to this relationship is a willingness to believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit--to trust that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).
The path to paradise is a personal connection, one we call faith.
Even when Jesus is using the most descriptive concrete images of the architecture of heaven - "In my Father's house there are many dwelling places" - he still bases his description on the language of a faithful relationship. He makes clear that the way to enter this wonderful heavenly home is to "believe in God" and "believe also in me" (John 14:1-2).
While we may not know what heaven looks like, we now know what it feels like: an intimate, loving and eternal relationship with the one true God. Jesus reminds us that we "do not belong to the world" (v. 16), just has he himself does not belong to the world. Instead, each of us belongs to God, and our true citizenship is in nothing less than pure paradise. As Jesus prays to God in John 17, he makes it clear that he is "not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours" (v. 9).
They are yours, that is what Jesus says to God--my disciples are yours. What a powerful and profound comfort this is. When we are gripped by the temptation to put our faith in a pile of ragged, wrinkled, and dirty dollars, we remember, we are God's. When we are choking on the frustration of life in a dusty, dead-end job, we remember, we are God's. When we are fooled by the illusions of a culture that attaches ultimate significance to youth, power and beauty, we remember, we are God's.
True happiness is found only in a relationship with God. Complete contentment is ours only in the place called paradise. Instead of playing the tadpole games of this world, we should be getting ready for metamorphosis.
We remember that though we are in this world, we are not of this world. That is our hope and our comfort.
David Olson and his wife Lisa were missionaries to North Africa. Last May 31 Lisa died from heart inflammation. Olson has struggled with his grief and the grief of his four children, but he says that he has learned some new things about God.
He says, "Here we were among a people who do not have hope whatsoever. It was so evident after Lisa had died. These ladies would just come walking into my house, just bawling and bawling and bawling, and I'm standing there thinking how I just lost my wife and I know that she's in heaven - I know without a doubt that she's in heaven - but these ladies coming to my house had no hope whatsoever. It really made me realize, that if I truly believe that she is in heaven, how terrible it is that those ladies walking into my house don't know Jesus. It was one of those experiences, those "aha" experiences of saying, "Lord, here we've been dealing with these people who don't know you, and they show their grief, and they're showing what's inside of them, and they don't have the hope that we have."
You see that David Olson knows what Jesus is saying in John 17. He has the hope of heaven. He knows that we are paradise people. Do you know that? Amen.
Marvel, Bill. "Book it," American Way, August 15, 2001, 64.
Yancey, Philip. "What's a heaven for?" Christianity Today, October 26, 1998, 104.
"A time for grief: Missionary learns about 'hope' in Christ," International Missions Emphasis, imb.org. Retrieved November 30, 2001,
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 5/26/02