“Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life…”
I almost cannot read those words without singing them. For you see, as long as I can remember I’ve been part of a community of God’s people among whom these words are sung just before the Gospel is read every time we come together.
“Lord, to whom can we go?” And yet, the flip side of their familiarity is that in some ways, I suppose, they have become rote. In fact, I expect there are many days when even as I join in singing them the words and their meaning slip by me. Perhaps this is true for you as well. Still, there are times when those words sing in our hearts so deeply that with our whole being we find we yearn for those words of eternal life only Jesus brings.
This was mine to know on Wednesday of this week for we had traveled to Duluth to attend the funeral of an old friend. When I first received the news of Antti’s illness my grief began and it intensified over the weeks as I heard how quickly it took its toll. Quickly, though, I discovered my sadness was interrupted by gratitude for I found myself remembering what a gift this one had been for me. For you see, for reasons beyond my comprehension, Antti believed in the gifts God had planted in me before I did. He helped me find my way to seminary, stood behind me as my ordination sponsor to drape the red stole around my shoulders, taught me what it was to be a servant leader, always took my calls and gave what he could in my early years as a pastor. Only a year ago he and his wife took me to lunch, leaving with me a bag of books he hoped would help sustain me on the journey. I have been blessed beyond measure by the gift this pastor/mentor/friend has been to me. It is no wonder I grieve his final illness and his dying for this world somehow seems smaller without him in it. The words of eternal life that Jesus has for us are never more precious than in times like these.
And so it is that I am so very grateful to be able to say that those words were shared in a myriad of ways at his funeral this week. In the hymns and lessons Antti carefully chose for us to share in that hour. In the preacher’s gift of proclamation, reminding us of the nearness of God. In the cross that preceded the procession from chancel to cemetery.
And once more again at the cemetery itself when after the final commendation, the workers were called over to lower the casket into the ground. Now I have been a pastor a long time, but I can only count on the fingers of one hand how often I have seen this done. We paused together: family, friends, neighbors, former parishioners, area pastors all together on a hillside in Duluth and stood still just a while longer as they did what they normally do only after the mourners have left. We could hear the squeaking of the crank as it slowly lowered the casket holding the body of our dear friend into the ground.
And then his pastor began to sing. Only a few words had found voice and melody before the rest of us joined her in singing “Children of the Heavenly Father” — all three verses from memory. There was comfort in that sound surrounding us and embracing us then as we claimed for ourselves the words of eternal life. There was also yearning I thought. For even as we strive to stand firm in the promises of God, we do so knowing we have not yet experienced those promises kept in all their fullness. We yearn for words of eternal life in part because the evidence of death is so very present. We stand in faith and hope, but not yet in hope fulfilled. Indeed, in some ways, like the disciples so long ago, while we believe and have experienced that Jesus holds the promise, still we don’t yet fully know what the promise will one day mean.
As I live with all of you not yet fully comprehending what these promises will mean for us, I do find I draw strength from others as I seek to put my hope in Jesus alone. And I am especially grateful to have been gifted with precisely this during this piece of my journey for in a small way I was privileged to walk along with Antti in the last weeks of his life — even from this distance — as did many of us who could not ‘be there’ but were invited to join in the journey through the gift of technology. For his dear wife, Jane, continued to share with us marvelous moments which witnessed to his faith. I find I rest in those today and I expect I will return to them again and again as I keep seeking to understand what Jesus’ words of eternal life mean for us:
The story of how this last winter — before he was diagnosed — Antti ordered a casket kit. He wanted to piece together his own final physical resting place with his own two hands. We were told how the box sat in the garage for several months — but the day after his diagnosis he and his son and a friend pulled it out and put it together. He was showing us what it was to put his faith in Jesus’ words of eternal life in accepting the inevitability of his own death, believing it would not have the last word. I saw it in its finished form on Wednesday. His body lay within it — cradled by the quilt his daughter had made for just this.
The moment a few weeks ago when his seven-year-old grandson asked, “Papa, after you die, how long will it take you to get to heaven?” Papa’s answer was, “One step.” Antti answered, of course, not in the language of time but of space and in those two words I hear something of the very nearness of God and all of God’s wonderful gifts. For him then and for all of us.
The words he insisted he wanted sent with the word of his death in a song by poet Anna-Mari Kaskinen which was sung in Finnish at his funeral, translated here:
When I feel so weak I can’t go on,
when my heart is failing, when my strength is gone,
won’t you come then, Jesus, take me in your lap?
hold me like a small child, ready for a nap.
And finally of course, a few days later in the voice of a group of believers brought together in our common grief and in our shared hope, standing on a hillside at the grave of a loved one singing of God our Father who one day will gather us all into his lap.
To be sure, today I find I am especially grateful to be part of a whole community of God’s beloved children who together yearn for the gifts of Jesus. For we notice that Peter does not say, “Lord, to whom can I go?” He says rather, “Lord to whom can WE go?” Some of us walk ahead leaving gifts of witness and hope for the rest of us to pick up and carry and pass along as well. As Antti has. Others stand alongside us and sing together our yearning and hope in the face of death itself as so many did with me a few days ago. Others still come after, looking to us to lead the way as together we turn once more to Jesus repeating the words, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Indeed, I almost cannot read these words without singing them — as I have my whole life long in the community of yearning, hopeful believers. To be sure, we do not do this alone. Thanks be to God.
- When did you last speak these words, “Lord to whom can we go?” with a heart full of yearning and hope? How was your yearning answered?
- What examples do you have of people who have accompanied you on the journey, helping point the way to Jesus, the Holy One of God? What has their witness meant to you?
- When have you been especially grateful that this question comes from all of us, not just you yourself alone? How has the community of God’s people strengthened you in those times?