Whoever keeps my word will never see death. — John 8: 51
Jesus offends the religious leaders who hear this. To tell the truth, he offends me. I have known a lot of faithful people who died. As far as I know, we all will, eventually. What does he really mean?
Someone important to me died recently, the poet Mary Oliver. For decades I have treasured her luminous words and soulful attentiveness to the natural world. She observed death as well as life in nature, and her poetry is full of love and grief, joy and amazement. Her poem, “In Blackwater Woods,” ends with these lines:
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
In our passage, Jesus is speaking not of life in endless quantity, but a special quality of life, at the same time authentic and deeply personal — and universal. His hearers really lose it when he says “before Abraham was, I am.” They know he is alluding to the boundless reality of God revealed to Moses: “I am who I am.”
This raises the question of who we will be — or, to quote Mary Oliver again, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Jesus calls us to belong to the radiant, free, infinitely creative source of all being: in life, in death and in the mystery beyond, to practice fierce love and whole-hearted surrender.