Pastor Tom Sorenson
April 21, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen."
The other day I saw this ad on the television. A man is driving his car and talking on his cell phone. He is talking to a woman, whom the ad also showed. She seems upset and paces the floor as he delivers a classic break up speech. I've outgrown you. I don't need you any more. I've found another who gives me what I need better than you do. I've found a happiness and a fulfillment with this other that I never found with you. Good-bye. We are supposed to believe, at first, that the man is ending a romantic relationship with the woman because he has found someone else. It turns out, however, that the woman is the man's therapist, and the other that he has found is the snazzy new car he is driving. The message the ad intends to deliver is clear: Buy our shiny new, very expensive car, and all your problems will be over. All your personal issues, whether they be about self-image, self-worth, anxiety, difficulty with relationships, the meaning of life, whatever, will be solved. Your life will be complete at last.
We life in a culture that has a dream. "The American dream." As we grow up we are infused with the notion that our purpose in life is to pursue "the good life." Our culture has a very definite idea of what "the good life" is. It is the life of material prosperity. It is the life of the affluent consumer. Is your life without meaning? Buy our SUV. Are you unfulfilled in your job? Wear our clothes. Are you lonely? Drink our beer and your life will be one big party full of beautiful, fun-loving friends. Are you concerned about aging? For heaven's sake don't come to terms with it as the natural way of life for God's human creatures. Use our makeup and the problem will magically disappear. We wear this mentality on our bumpers. You've seen them: "He who dies with the most toys wins."
The other day I saw: "She who dies with the most clothes wins." Yes, we have an American dream: The dream of the materially full life in a lovely house in the suburbs or a swanky urban penthouse surrounded by beautiful people who look pretty much just like us, or at least how we would like to look. One of my major concerns about contemporary American culture is that we have raised at least a couple of generations now who have been continually bombarded with the message: The purpose of your life is to consume, to shop, to buy. Why after September 11, when our national leaders were afraid that the shock of those horrible attacks would send the economy into a recession, we were told by people at the highest levels of government that the way for us personally to combat terrorism was to go shopping, so that the economy wouldn't falter and the terrorists would not "win" by changing the way we live our lives. If we have a personal problem we are told to engage in "retail therapy." If we have a national problem, we are told to do the same thing. Yes, there is an American dream all right. It is the dream of salvation through consumption. Our culture offers us the life abundant--rich in material possessions that, it promises, will keep the our fears at bay, give our lives meaning, and keep us safe.
And it's all a snare and a delusion. The world's vision of the abundant life leads in fact not to life but to death--spiritual death at least if not to actual physical death. As Walter Wink puts it, our culture gives us only "images of worth and value that stunt and wither full human life. " 1
Christianity too has a vision of the life abundant. God offers us the life abundant too. The passage we just heard from the Gospel of John ends with one of my favorite lines in all of Scripture: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." Perhaps it goes without saying, but God's idea of the abundant life is very different from our culture's idea of the abundant life. With a few exceptions in some of the late letters attributed to but not written by Paul, in which we see the early church already conforming to the ways of the world, we can see that vision in most any passage we may pick out from Christian Scripture, so pervasive is it. Indeed, we could even say that the entire purpose of most of the Christian Scriptures is to convey that alternative vision. We see it, for example, in the passages we heard this morning.
I think we get a subtle picture of how Christianity presents such a radically different view of the abundant life from the passage from John that ends with that great line about abundant life. Now, the truth of that statement is probably not immediately obvious to you. It took me quite a while to figure it out myself. You see, this is one of those Scripture passages that comes up in the lectionary that strikes fear into the heart of preachers, or at least into the heart of this preacher.
What is this nonsense about sheepfolds and gates? Who is the one who enters by the gate? Who are the ones who don't and thus are thieves and bandits?
Is Jesus the one who comes in? It sort of sounds like it when he says that all who came before him were thieves and bandits; but then why does he say he is the gate by which the true shepherd enters? How can he be both the one who enters and the gate through which that one comes? Does that mean he enters through himself? Frankly, this passage didn't make much sense to me when I first read it. So I turned to a good one volume Bible commentary that I use. There I learned that nobody else knows what it means either. The commentary says that the proper interpretation of the various figures and metaphors in this passage has always baffled interpreters.
Some help! Still, there it is, and we need to try to make some sense out of it, so bear with me while I take a stab at it. I know what I'm about to say doesn't resolve all of the difficulties with this passage or explain all of its images, but I hope it is at least one helpful way to think about it.
Let's start not at the beginning but at the end, the end of this reading that is. The last line--"I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly"--is one of the greatest lines in all of Christian Scripture. It sums up what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. Jesus brings life. Jesus enables life. Jesus the Christ makes life possible. That is what God intends for us--to have life. Now, there probably shouldn't be, but there is a question about what life this passage is referring to.
I know that some of you know the New Jerusalem Bible. It is one of my favorites. It is a modern Catholic translation, based upon rock solid scholarship in the original sources. It is often more readable, more poetic than the New Revised Standard Version that I usually use. The New Jerusalem Bible is my second Bible, my backup, my alternative source. One of the things that first attracted me to it is that it has great footnotes. They provide a wealth of information, and make the New Jerusalem Bible a very good study Bible. I've noticed, however, that those footnotes can be a bit dogmatic at times. The note to Jesus' line about abundant life reads: "Eternal life. Jesus gives it." The editors thought it appropriate here to tell us that Jesus is talking about eternal life, not about our life here and now. Why they did that escapes me. Frankly, I am convinced that they are just wrong. I think the entire thrust of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is primarily about our lives in this life, and I think we can see that Jesus is talking about this life here if we look closely enough at this passage.
It's about sheep. Who are the sheep? Clearly, we are. Jesus frequently used the image of the people as sheep, at least in the Gospel of John. That gospel ends with the risen Christ telling Peter three times, with slight variations in the wording each time, to "feed my sheep." Obviously he means us, those who seek to follow him and his way. He means us here and now, not us in a future life in heaven (although please don't think I'm saying the Gospel isn't about that too, because it is). The passage this morning is about people coming to us in false ways as "thieves and bandits." That's a very worldly image. Thieves and bandits are very much threats in the here and now.
Beyond that, there are the words themselves. Jesus didn't say "I have come that they may have life and have it eternally." He said "I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly." According to my handy Webster's, "abundant" means "marked by great plenty." The New Jerusalem Bible, whose footnote I am here dismissing, translates this verse: "I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full." Life in great plenty, life in its fullness, certainly includes eternal life, but it also includes life here and now--rich, full, meaningful, and fulfilling.
The life Jesus offers is one in which we can trust that God wants what is good for us. Jesus talks about the sheep trusting the shepherd who enters by the right way. That's what the bit about knowing his voice is about. The one who comes in by the right way wants what is good for us. She or he is not a thief or bandit, not one whose concern is their own gain and not our well-being. You can't say that about the consumer culture. The ultimate concern of those who come to us in the consumer culture is their own gain, not ours. Their purpose is not to make our lives better, it is to make us buy. That doesn't necessarily make all people who work in that culture evil. I don't mean that. I do mean that our society and our economy are structured in such a way that we are taught to pursue our own advantage first in the things that we do. I think it is that attitude that Jesus is referring to when he talks about thieves and bandits. Jesus offers us a different way, a way of puts the welfare of all of God's people, of which we are of course a part, first.
I think we see that vision even more clearly in the passage from Acts. It's about the life together of the earliest disciples. They lived together. They "had all things in common," that is, so far from seeking salvation in private possessions they did not even have private possessions. So far from trying to make life better by buying stuff, the sold what they had and used the proceeds to provides for the needs of all. They shared their food and did so with glad and generous hearts. They spent their time not shopping but worshipping in the temple (meaning the temple in Jerusalem. They were, after all, still observant Jews). In short, instead of looking out primarily for themselves, they were looking out primarily for each other. Instead of concentrating on material things they focused on spiritual things, on worship and prayer. A more radically different vision of the abundant life from that our contemporary culture constantly pushes at us would be hard to imagine. Yet there is no doubt that it is Jesus' vision. Many of the people in this community described in Acts knew Jesus personally. This is how they learned to live from him.
Now, I don't mean to suggest that to be good Christians we have to live exactly the way Acts depicts that first disciples as living. It might be nice if we could, but we live in a very different time and place, a very different culture. I don't expect all, or any, of us suddenly to become primitive Communists. And we all know the horrors that can result when a state tries to impose this kind of egalitarianism on people. You get not the Kingdom of God but the Gulag of Stalin. Still, the principles demonstrated in this passage from Acts are worth paying attention to. They are the principles of God's version of the abundant life. They are the principles of healthy self-identity found not in radical individualism but in a commitment to true community; of meaning, comfort, and hope found not in an endless drive to acquire more and more material possessions but in prayer, worship, and trust in God. How we live out those principles is something each of us must discover together with the community of faith of which we are a part. I'm not telling you to sell everything you have and give the money to the church--although, you know, if any of you wants to do that, see me after the service. I am urging you to examine your lives in the light of God's vision of the abundant life rather than our culture's vision. You might surprise yourselves with what you'll find.
Let us pray: Loving God, you offer us the life abundant. You call us to it. You want us to have it. Yet we continually misunderstand what that life truly is. Help us to repent of our selfishness and our reliance on material things. Lead us to a life lived in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a life of sharing in true community, grounded in worship and pray, and lived to glorify you and further the coming of your Realm of justice, dignity, and peace for all of your people. We pray in the name of Jesus, who taught us by word and by example what the life abundant truly is. Amen.