Sunday, 7 May 2017

Abundant Life!

John 10:1-10

What does it mean to have abundant life? 
What does it mean to have fullness in life? 
What does it mean to live?

These are fundamental questions that confront every one of us. 

What does it mean to have a full life?  What is that we should be pursuing?  What should we seek after?

These are the kinds of questions raised for us from today’s gospel reading.

When Jesus declares that he came that we might have abundant or full lives what does he mean?

In 1776, at the time of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson wrote these famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

These words have shaped liberal democracy in the Western World and have played more than a small part in the rise of individualism.  For better or for worse, we now live in a society where each individual assumes that they have the right to pursue whatever makes them happy.

Ironically it would appear that this concept of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” is not playing out as well as we may have thought.  In our Australian culture depression and anxiety is rife and our disconnection from one another as we seek our individual rights and freedoms seems to leave us feeling isolated and lonely in an overpopulated, overly-connected world. 

As Clive Hamilton points out in his book Affluenza the abundance of our possessions and ease of our lifestyles has not necessarily made us happier.  Or to echo John Carroll’s words in Humanism the Wreck of Western Culture, “We are destitute in our plenty”.

What does mean to live an abundant life?  It would seem to me that neither the abundance of possessions nor individual independence from others would reflect what fullness of life is.  What is life’s purpose?

This search for life’s meaning and living truly and deeply was captured for me in my late teens when I discovered this quote from Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.

These words were written 2 generations after the Declaration of Independence.  For me they reflect a search for meaning in life which moves beyond the material and into the spiritual and intellectual.  At the same time, even though Thoreau often welcomed guests and visitors to his cabin in the woods, they now reflect an individualism and even isolation from others that could be seen as a little self-indulgent.

To return to our passage from John Jesus describes himself as both the Shepherd and the Gate of the sheep, of the flock.  A short lesson in first century agricultural practices is helpful at this point.  Often a shepherd would find a natural enclosure or make an enclosure for his sheep with a gap on one side.  A natural ravine maybe.  The shepherd would then literally become the gate as he sat or slept in the gap.  He physically became the gate to protect the whole flock.

As the shepherd and the gate Jesus guides and leads and provides and protects the flock and each sheep within it.  It is the flock of the lost sheep, we are all the one who has gone astray, but we have all been found and drawn back together.

When Jesus speaks of abundant life it is not life your or my life alone but the life of the whole flock.  I think that what Thoreau was searching for in seeking to live and to put to rout that which was not life missed the depth of this vital aspect – we are part of the flock.

I have come to see that the search for fullness in life is not a solitary one but is a gift that we receive in community in being placed back into the flock.  Abundance in life is not abundance in life for me alone but for us together.  As Jesus prays later in John 17 for his disciples that they may be one as we are one.  Fullness in life is life together with God and each other.

This understanding of life is reflected in the confronting words of the Acts passage which describes the commitment to a common life and purpose within the first Christian communities.

They had all things in common, they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. They spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

These are challenging words and the kind of discipline and self-sacrifice described here seem almost unreal to us in our culture. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Just as Thoreau went to the woods to live deliberately we discover in the first centuries of the church men and women of faith went to the desert to live. Often they began their spiritual journeys as hermits like Thoreau but they were led also into ascetic monastic communities together – to live closer to God and one another.

In the Life of Pachomius we read a description of the monastic life:

“According to what we have learned from those who went before us… We always spend half the night and often from evening to morning, in vigils and recitation of the words of God, also doing manual work with thread, hairs, and palm-fibres, lest we be overcome by sleep.  We do this work for our bodily subsistence also; and whatever is above and beyond our needs we give to the poor, following the words of the Apostle, only let us remember the poor.  Eating oil, drinking wine, eating cooked meats are something unknown among us.  We always fast until the evening”… and so it goes on.

Is this what Jesus intended? Is this life in its fullness? A life of simplicity; self-denial; asceticism? 

I have seen some contemporary attempts at living in community and living with simplicity and there is much for us to learn here in such devotion and dedication in faith.  Yet I feel that such extreme asceticism was not Jesus intent either.  What the actions of men like Thoreau and monks like Pachomiuos should challenge us with is the notion that this search for fullness in life, to discover that divine gift already promised in Christ, takes energy and commitment us we uncover God’s gracious gift of life already within us and within our community.

Maybe Jesus words of John 13 gives us a helpful glimpse of the notion of fullness in life - “Just as I have loved you so love one another”.  Life lived intentionally seeking God and seeking to love others is the fullness in life, the abundant life we are meant to encounter as we hear our shepherd’s voice.

What does it mean to have abundant life? 
What does it mean to have fullness in life? 
What does it mean to really live?

These are fundamental questions that confront every one of us. 

Jesus says that he came that we might have abundant life, to have full lives.  To live encountering the coming kingdom now in and through our loving relationships with God and with each other who are lost sheep who have been carried home by the Shepherd.  Let us celebrate in the presence of the one who leads us, who provides and protects, and who sleeps as our gate.

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