The Abundant Life, May 3, 2020
The gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (John 10:1-10) includes one of my favorite scripture passages. Quoting Jesus, it reads, I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. It is Jesus’ mission statement.
Let’s look at the gospel from which it sprang.
Jesus had just cured the man born blind, but the Pharisees had refused to accept that the man had been blind. They treated him and his parents with distain. Their refusal to acknowledge what Jesus had done elicited this parable about a gatekeeper, a thief and a shepherd.
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.
Sheep were a source of food, clothing and a measure of wealth. They were also used as barter. Consequently, stealing sheep was such a common problem that sheep owners frequently hired gatekeepers to watch the flock by night, keeping the flock in and thieves out.
The sheepfold was often built of stone adjacent to the home of the sheep’s owner, using the wall of the house as one of the walls of the sheep pen. The walls were frequently topped with thorns to further discourage thieves. The only sensible way in or out of the sheepfold was the gate.
The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
The familiarity of the shepherd’s voice distinguished him from the stranger and calmed the sheep.
Jesus’ choice of a shepherd as the key figure in this parable seems intentional. In Hebrew scripture the shepherd is a symbol of leadership. Psalm 23 says, The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I shall want. David was a shepherd as a youth and is celebrated as the ideal shepherd king (1 Sam. 16:6-13). Ezekiel 34 invokes the idea of God as the shepherd of Israel.
Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Transitioning from the cure of the blind man and the trouble with the Pharisees to a story about a shepherd, his sheep and the sheepfold was too big a leap for some of his disciples to follow.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.
When Jesus said, I am he echoed the name that God gave to Moses, when Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me,’ and they ask, ‘What is his name?’ What shall I tell them?” God said, “I am who I am. Say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”(Exodus 3:13-14) Moreover, as God had been the salvation of the Israelites in Egypt, Jesus would be the gate of heaven, the salvation of all.
The gate is simultaneously the way to leave the pen for the pasture and the way back to the protection of the pen. This corresponds closely to Jesus’ later statement that I am the way (and the truth and the life). No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6) (In the verse after this morning’s gospel, Jesus changes his metaphor and says, I am the good shepherd (10:11) to clarify his meaning.)
Jesus used these I am statements often to express how he would satisfy human longing for particular qualities. He said I am bread (John 6:35), life (11:25), light (9:5), truth (14:6) and the way (14:6).
The lectionary ends this gospel with the following: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
There is nothing lifegiving in the actions of the thief in sharp contrast to Jesus’ promise of an abundant life. John’s gospel uses the word life forty-one times. From the outset of John’s gospel life means eternal life. In him (Jesus) was life, and that life was the light of all mankind…from all eternity. (1:4) When Nicodemus came to visit Jesus by night, Jesus told him that he had come so that everyone who believes may have eternal life.” (3:1) At the Last Supper, Jesus … looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (17:1-3)
Jesus didn’t specify how this life would differ. We are sure it meant and means much more than an endless continuation of earthly existence, with its heartaches, physical pains, struggles and uncertainties. We know from Jesus’ own life and his miracles, including giving sight to the man born blind, that it includes health, food, forgiveness of sins, joy in companionship and peace…but not necessarily conspicuous consumption, idleness, pleasure without love, or political power. It is much more dynamic than these misguided elements.
As followers of Jesus, we trust in his statement that Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. (6:54) We have the joyful mission to communicate this truth to others. It is good news, indeed.
· What would the abundant life be for you? Health? The knowledge and experience of being loved? Self-confidence? A sense of accomplishment, of being fully alive? The joy of companionship …perhaps with loved ones who have died? Understanding things that are mysteries to us now? Making great music together? Growing flowers? Hugging a child or grandchild? A deep personal relationship with God? Laughter? All of it? Something else?
· When have you glimpsed the abundant life in your personal experience? What was the situation? How would you describe the sense of the experience? Did it elicit gratitude? Joy? Are you able to return to it often in memory? Do you try to recreate it?
· In trying to grasp what Jesus meant by the abundant life Pierre Teilhard de Chardin … in a play on Rene Descartes’ statement, “I think therefore I am” …. said, “I love therefore I am”. He might also have suggested that this statement could also have been true if Jesus spoke them.