Abundance is more than a platitude

I preached this without notes at the Parish Picnic, so the audio on the Christ Church website doesn’t quite match the text below.


There are two kinds of preachers in this world: those who get to choose their own texts and those whose texts are chosen for them.  I am the latter.  Our Prayer Book in a section opaquely titled, “Concerning the Proper of the Church Year” requires that we use the lessons prescribed in the Lectionary.  Most of the time, I love being a Lectionary preacher.  It means that neither I, nor you, are subjected to my whim and fancy when it comes to preaching.  Even if I wanted to preach a sixty-two-week sermon series on John 3:16, I can’t, thanks be to God.  Of course, this also means that some weeks, I’m stuck with what is set before me.  For me, this comes to a head every Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is affectionately called (by some) “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

Good Shepherd Sunday marks something of a transition in Easter season.  We move from resurrection encounters like Emmaus Road and the Upper Room back into stories from the life and ministry of Jesus.   On Good Shepherd Sunday, in each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we hear portions of John 10 totally removed from their larger context.  It is here that I have the most trouble being a Lectionary preacher.  I have long lamented that bad theology lurks nearby when we read the Bible out of context.  And yet, this is exactly what happens on Good Shepherd Sunday when we take a small portion on one long story and split it into three lessons read on the Fourth Sunday of Easter over three years.  In the end, all we get are fuzzy platitudes like “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly;” “I am the Good Shepherd;” and “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”

According to Massey Shepherd’s Commentary on the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, Good Shepherd Sunday is a nod to the early Church in which, during the first waves of persecution, the most common image of Jesus in artwork was as the Good Shepherd, carrying his fold through hardship.[1]  This is all well and good, I suppose, but without the understanding of that hardship, we end up with a Google image search full of sappy paintings of a handsome, blonde haired, blue eyed Jesus carrying a single baby lamb with a long line of well-behaved sheep queued up behind him.

the-good-shepherd-wallpaper1

Instead, I’d like to suggest that we reclaim Good Shepherd Sunday for what it really is: a portion of a longer teaching by Jesus in which he uses the extended metaphor of sheep, shepherds, and sheepfolds to explain why he healed the man born blind on the Sabbath day.  During this teaching discourse, Jesus calls himself both the gate for the sheepfold and the Good Shepherd, indicating that he is the way into the Kingdom of God as well as the one who will lead God’s people there.  He talks of other sheep that do not yet belong to the fold who will come to hear his voice and follow.  He alludes to his crucifixion and resurrection, and how they are both completely within his power and control.  He promises that those who listen to his voice will follow him to eternal life.  All this is said in response to the Pharisees who find themselves so threatened by Jesus’ ministry that they will remove from the Synagogue anyone who claims him as the Anointed One.

This larger understanding of what is going on in John’s Gospel then helps us to understand what is happening in the specific portion that is appointed for Easter 4 in Year A.  This is especially true of the oft quoted but rarely thoughtfully considered promise from Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Abundant life can be defined in really unhelpful ways.  Abundance can mean material wealth, but it seems clear from Jesus’ life that this isn’t what he meant.  Abundance can mean happy and healthy relationships, but again, Jesus didn’t seem to have many of those himself.  His healing miracles were often done to those who were socially outcast because of their infirmity, but as we hear in the story of the man born blind, simply being healed doesn’t guarantee restoration of relationship as even his own parents are afraid of what his healing might mean for them.  Abundance can mean power and prestige, but Jesus’ very undignified death on a cross seems to preclude that.  So, what does abundant life mean for this man who was born blind and has received his sight, but as a result has been totally ostracized from his community?  And what does abundant life mean for us, who can follow Jesus with relative comfort and ease in 21st century America?

I think we have to turn to the Acts of the Apostles to answer these questions.  After the mass conversion of 3,000 on Pentecost Day, those who were stayed in Jerusalem got about the business of being the Church.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  For the early church, as for us, abundant life in Christ is the life of faith lived out in intentional community.  There is no I in church, and the only way we can truly live out our Christian vocation is through the regular pattern of gathering with other disciples.  The man born blind may have lost his community in the Synagogue, but Jesus returned to welcome him into the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd.  It is in gathering as the sheep of Christ the Good Shepherd that we can teach one another, enjoy one another’s company, share meals (symbolic here in this service, and really good barbeque to follow shortly), and pray for the needs of the world.

As the Church began to expand beyond Jerusalem, the importance of Christians regularly meeting together grew exponentially.  The young Church needed to develop leaders, needed to work out what discipleship looked like, needed to understand what difference Jesus really made in their lives, and the only way to accomplish those things was to be together, to pray together, to learn together, to break bread together, and to celebrate God’ grace together.  I might struggle with Good Shepherd Sunday, but even in my frustration, I am thankful for another reminder that abundant life in God’s love is truly experienced through discipleship in community.  When we commit to studying, to fellowship, to shared meals, and to pray together, we experience the fullness of abundant life in Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.  Amen.

[1] Massey Shepherd, The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, p. 172.

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