The Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 07, 2017
The Rev. Austin Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
As a preacher, one is often faced with texts that challenge you.
Something in the way the passage has been interpreted over the ages is off, and needs to be publically corrected, or perhaps there is a perennially hard saying that deserves a contemporary explanation in light of current events.
This is to be expected and normal.
But it is not every Sunday that you get to hear, in context, the verse that encapsulates your entire theology, and that animates your drive for ministry.
Today, I get the great privilege of preaching on a statement that underpins all that I believe about why the church, the Jesus movement, and this experiment called Christian community is worthwhile.
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
It is as close to a litmus test that I have.
The questions arise: Does this moment, this endeavor, or this interaction add to life, or subtract from it…does this way lead to life and life in abundance, or instead to some diminishing form of death?
So much of my understanding of the Gospel is oriented around this phrase; as if it were the fulcrum of faith, or the core of Christianity, and I measure decisions along the continuum of the amount of abundant life they will either bring or inhibit.
It is important today to say why I am so passionate about this passage, and place it in its context within the fuller Johannine witness.
Jesus tells his disciples that he is the Good Shepherd, and makes this claim about being a bringer of abundant life, after healing the man that was blind from birth.
It is a very long story that we read back in Lent, with many twists and turns in its plot.
One of the key elements to the story is the way Jesus participates in the life of this blind man.
He first comes to him and restores his sight, which immediately changes the relationship the man has with his community.
The man is no longer consigned to begging, but is now able to imagine an entirely different life for himself.
But that new healing and transformation soon put his community status at risk.
He is questioned by the religious authorities, who cannot believe he is even the same man that used to beg before them, and even his nuclear family is drawn into the interrogation.
At the end, the healing Jesus accomplishes in the blind man leads to rejection by the religious community, and even his own family, so that the formerly blind man is at risk of being more alone than he was when he sat upon the cold streets, begging within his blindness.
It is in that moment, Jesus returns to him and offers him a way forward, and a new community and family, where his newly provided status is not an impediment to his participation.
The abundant life that Jesus offers is about healing, reimagined relationships that are based more upon our recognized identity as children of the same creating God, rather than our family of origin, and about the assurance that no matter what may befall us, we are NEVER EVER alone.
It is the same message that is repeated with greater power and passion in the resurrection, and that undergirded the Acts of the earliest apostles that we read about today.
The good news of God in Jesus Christ heals, reorients our life priorities and relationships, and assures that no matter what happens, we are not alone.
That is why they dedicated themselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers, that is why they suffered persecution and rejection, that is why the suffering of the current age could not dominate them.
Because they had tasted and experienced abundant life, and once tasted, nothing else can ever satisfy.
So often in our time, the Gospel, the good news, has been associated with a prosperity message.
As if believing in Jesus is like buying a winning lottery ticket, and leads to a lifetime of affluence, Western world defined success, and isolated self-sufficiency.
You can turn on your television, or do a cursory search on Youtube his afternoon, and find tons of so-called Christian pastors peddling this message, all while enriching themselves along these lines in the meantime.
But the abundant life that we are promised in Jesus Christ is not this one.
It is far less flashy, far less marketable, and far less palatable, at first.
But it is the only life that can pass beyond the grave, and the only one that can truly be said to be abundant.
Take for instance the example of Job, who had an abundant life according to the world’s measurements, and was seen as a prosperous model of someone God had blessed.
Because of a bet with the tempter, God alters Job’s worldly fortunes, and the rest of the biblical book is a meditation and conversation about blessing and curse, and about whether suffering is a sign of God’s judgment or not, and riches a sign of God’s favor or not.
At the end of the day, all Job’s “friends” think he has done something to curry God’s ire, but Job maintains that although he has not, and even though he is wallowing in agony and misery, he “knows that his redeemer lives” and he will not abandon all hope and faith.
In the end Job is vindicated, and I believe this tale would have been apparent to the disciples who heard Jesus speak about life and life in abundance.
Following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, they would come to understand suffering and redemption in an entirely new way, and it so transformed their lives, that they dedicated themselves to proclaiming it and sharing it as widely as they could from then on.
We too are faced with the same decision they were, and the one that faced the man born blind, in the light of his rejection by the religious authorities, his parents, and community.
Will we yoke ourselves to Jesus’ understanding and incarnation of abundant life, or settle for the world’s alternative one?
The abundant life that Jesus offers restores us to a community that understands the sacrificial nature of love, which values servanthood over worldly lordship, and which is characterized by more and more freedom from the worldly prisons that threaten to enslave us, while inspiring more and more voluntary submission to the restraints of a life of discipleship.
Admittedly, it is not for everyone.
Or better said, it is for everyone, but represents a road that many will find too hard, too limiting, and too divorced from instant gratification to follow.
But none of us can chart the path of our neighbor, although we can indeed love them regardless of the choices they make on this front.
The greater question is whether WE will choose to pursue and profligate this abundant life or not.
Eastertide is the season in which, in the light of the resurrection and its truth, we rededicate ourselves to this mission and re-member why it is the only abundant life out there worth pursuing.
We break bread together, we experiment with letting go of the worldly wealth and status that the world uses to define us, and opt for common life instead of the often prized, but ultimately isolating, life of ascending the world’s hierarchical pyramid.
We reconnect to the good shepherd, and let the hired hand’s smooth words and too-good-to-be-true path disappear in the shadow of the cross and the dawn of a resurrection era.
Is this the abundant life you came here today to find?
Can you taste it in the bread and wine we share, the words we speak, and the actions that define us?
And most of all, are you willing to allow God to use you as a channel to sow this abundant life in hearts whose soil has grown dry and cracked, in weary bodies that have been reduced to dry bones, and in minds that have been thirsting for something true, real, and lasting?
If so, then this earth will be transformed more and more into heaven, and the eternal promises for which we long will be made present to us in the here and now.
We won’t avoid suffering or hardship, but like Psalm 23 and the great anthem of the musical Carousel assure us, We will not walk through those valleys of death alone.
Because we will know the voice of the only shepherd in whom our life is based, and we will follow that voice, and come to speak its healing tones to all whom we encounter.
As one body, one spirit, one resurrection.
One shared and abundant life for all.