Message for May 3, 2020
Texts: John 10:1-10 and Acts 2:42-47
One of my favorite verses of scripture is John 10:10: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” The translation Albert read for you used the phrase “life to the fullest,” but I’ve long been partial to the word “abundant.”
“Abundant Life” was the name of a megachurch not far from a congregation I once served; indeed, it’s a popular name among some Christian “brands.”
But whether you call it “life to the fullest” or “life abundant,” there is something a bit tricky about this concept. There is room for misinterpretation, so paying attention to the context in which we find this verse can shed further light for us.
Well, maybe the context will be a help, and maybe not so much. That is partly because this “abundant life” verse is in the midst of two of the so-called “I am” statements in the Gospel of John. There are seven such statements:
- I am the bread of life (John 6:35, 41, 48, 51)
- I am the light of the world (John 8:12)
- I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25)
- I am the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6)
- I am the vine (John 15:1, 5)
And these two:
- I am the gate (or door) — for the sheep; and
- I am the good shepherd
These are deceptively easy-sounding metaphors: simple language, but not always so simple to understand. Many of us can be like some of Jesus’ first listeners, who, John reports, didn’t understand the metaphors – which is particularly interesting to me in this case, since many of Jesus’ listeners were more deeply steeped in agrarian culture than most of us! It also seems there’s a risk of mixing metaphors here – Jesus as shepherd and Jesus as sheepgate.
Some read this passage as exclusionary – something along the lines of “only through Jesus can one be saved; any religion that came before was bogus and Christianity is the only ‘true’ one.” I would caution against such an interpretation.
Another potential snare I see is confusing the term “abundant” with our culture’s notions of overconsumption and luxury.
To kickstart my imagination, I did a search on the word “abundant” in Unsplash, the free photo resource I use for finding images for my sermons, and this exercise produced just six pictures. They are an interesting bunch. I wonder what you see in these photos that says “abundance” to you?
I guess this one is an abundance of stickers!
And there’s a different “abundance of stickers” on this cactus
This is the second by the first photographer — is this an abundance of voices? Or does it say something about the power of music, or balance, or harmony?
Here is an abundance of fruit.
What about this one by the same photographer?
Or this one — an abundant smile.
I also let my fingers do the walking through a dictionary, and learned the word abundance comes from a Latin root which means “overflowing.” That immediately brings to my mind the image from Psalm 23:5: “My cup overflows.” In contrast to pictures of overindulgence — and promises of worldly riches to fill an endless sense of “lack” that is so often stoked in our culture of haves and have-nots — the word abundance means that everyone has enough, that sharing happens freely, as an outflowing, overflowing, of the heart.
Jesus contrasts what he offers to those who “climb over the wall,” the ones who want only to steal and destroy. Marcia McFee suggests we consider those things that “rob” us of “life to the fullest.” Some might respond, “that is this coronavirus,” while others might point to leaders who seem to have evil intent (conveniently whichever leader is on the opposite side of one’s political preference).
I read a fascinating article this week, by the way, about the prevalence of psychopathology among history’s leaders (the assertion being that it is not so much that ‘power corrupts’ as that the corrupt are attracted to positions of power, so that they can amass power and manipulate those they are supposed to serve). Such leaders often use the word “freedom” like they do “abundance” to manipulate the populace. These forces, these personalities, actually rob us of our humanity. The article gave me much to ponder.
Supporting one another, sharing openly and freely, nurturing connection, caring for the vulnerable, making it safe to be vulnerable (that is, to be human) – these things make for abundance. These qualities marked the early Christian communities and made them distinctive and resilient in the face of the gross excess, gross inequality, gross corruption of the Roman Empire (and by the way, where Jewish faith was practiced in this way, those communities also survived!)
It often amazes me how the conversations we have in Bible study on Wednesday mornings, even when we are not studying the scripture I plan to preach on the following Sunday, somehow often shed light on sermon text. This past week we were looking at Psalm 146, and we talked about how psalms of praise can be prophetic – how praise, as Professor Denise Dombkowski Hopkins puts it, “holds up God’s intention for the world and critiques the present, pushing us to acts of transformation.” We talked about how praising God doesn’t mean ignoring the difficulties of life, or ignoring injustice. Rather, praise means putting our trust in the God who wants the world to be put right, and pledging to listen to that God, and to follow where God leads. This is the path to abundance. It’s not about selfishly asking just for blessings for ourselves, but aligning ourselves with the God who wants blessings for all creation. It’s not about Jesus, our Shepherd, “rescuing” us from the world, but pledging to listen to his voice, and joining his plan for bringing transformation to all of the world.
Jesus says the Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name, and they will not only come in, but they’ll also safely go out.“They will come in and go out and find pasture;” it is an image of freedom of movement in safety in spite of the dangers of “the world.”
May we keep listening to Jesus. May we focus on the blessing and safety of this present moment. May we experience the abundance of God’s presence in the here and now, and confidently follow where God leads us — into generosity and compassion, into grace and mercy, into a sense of “enough” that quells all fear, that takes on injustice, that insists that all will be put to rights. This abundance is the operating principle of the universe. There is enough for everyone. So let us open our hearts and our hands, and let love and caring overflow, and see the world transformed. Praise be to God. Amen.