Parish Eucharist 7th May 2017
Sermon 7 May 2017 10:30 a.m. Year A Easter 4 Acts 2: 42 – end; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2: 19 – end; John 10: 1 – 10
In one of my early sermons here I talked about singing to sheep. We had just been on holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. I can now never see sheep without remembering that I said this. Today we’re in sheep and shepherd territory again. And Jesus’ words about abundant life which end our Gospel reading today have also stuck in my mind over the last few years. I’ve been pondering what He might have meant.
In today’s Gospel Jesus describes himself first as a shepherd and then as the gate to the sheepfold. And then he contrasts himself with thieves and bandits who want to steal and harm the sheep and says: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”
Shepherds are a familiar Biblical motif. David, the first and greatest king of Israel started out as a shepherd boy. The prophet Ezekiel rails against the false shepherds – leaders who do not seek the welfare of God’s people, Israel. And he promises that God Himself will come and seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured and strengthen the weak (Ezekiel 34:16). In other words, God will be their shepherd – a promise echoed also by Isaiah (40:11). So Jesus is taking up this imagery when he speaks of Himself as a shepherd, and later in John as the ‘good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep’. (John 10: 11)
But Jesus is also the one who takes upon Himself the sin of the whole world in obedience to the will of God the Father. As our reading from the letter of Peter says: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.” (1 Peter 2:24). Jesus’ wounds were for our healing, because, as the letter says, He is the shepherd and guardian of our souls. This Jesus, who sacrificed His own life, promises that His followers will have life, and that that life will be abundant.
“I have come that they might have life”
Later in John’s Gospel, during the long discourse with His friends at their final meal together, the Last Supper, Jesus promises his friends “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14: 23). He also promises that He will send the Holy Spirit to be with them. (John 14: 25-6). So we have life, not only because Jesus conquered sin and death on the Cross, but because through the Holy Spirit God comes to dwell in us, inspiring us, directing us and slowly transforming us from within. But this isn’t a takeover, like something out of Doctor Who or science fiction where ordinary people are taken over by aliens – please supply your own favourite episode here!
So we can choose to ignore the promptings of the Spirit. God never forces himself upon us. Or we can choose to live in the knowledge of the well of life that is within us, taking time to draw on it by slowing down, remembering to pray, being conscious of the presence of God. It’s all too easy to think that we’re too busy for any of this! But to keep on rushing on means missing out on life. Living abundantly doesn’t seem to be about fitting more and more into each day, rather the reverse. I think it’s much more about living deeply. Living in the awareness that through the Holy Spirit God dwells in us all.
Thinking about the meaning of abundant life, I’m also struck by another of Jesus’ promises to His followers about the kind of life they can expect. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this, so it must have made an impression. Here’s what He says – I’m abbreviating slightly - “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake….. who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age”…..Well, that all sounds pretty comforting! - and then he adds “with persecutions” (Mark 10: 29 – 30 see also Matthew 19:29, Luke 18: 29 – 30). Abundance, certainly, more than making up for what they might have had to leave behind. But hardship comes along with it.
The rest of today’s readings give us more clues about what living abundantly might mean.
Acts gives us a snapshot of the heady days of the first Christian community where people sold their possessions to provide for one another and spent much time in prayer and worship together. A spirit of generosity towards one another and towards God which spilled out from the joy of their new-found faith. By the time of the letter of Peter things have become much more difficult. The persecution Jesus promised has materialised. So people are encouraged to endure when they are unjustly or harshly treated and to see this as their calling because they are following the example of Christ.
So – what is abundant life?
It is the life of the spirit, available to us all, through Christ who dwells in us
It seems to be found in community where generosity and risk-taking are both likely to be needed
It doesn’t seem to be about holding on to the past. For some it may involve difficult decisions about giving things up or leaving them behind.
There may be hardship too. Clearly abundant does not equate to easy or safe. Pain and difficulty as well as joy seem to be all part of the abundance.
Most importantly it is life lived closely with Jesus, the shepherd and the door to the sheepfold, who knows us by name and calls us to follow Him. Who promises that we will come in and go out and find pasture. That’s all that sheep really need.