“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Today’s gospel is the first half of a passage in John’s gospel in which Jesus speaks of Himself in terms of two related images: that of the gate of the sheepfold, and that of the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep. At the midpoint of this Good Shepherd discourse, and at the end of our gospel for this morning, we hear Jesus’ remarkable claim: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.
Jesus does not at this point stop to unpack what He means by life in abundance. I expect that for many people looking at the Christian faith from the outside, for many of the secular critics of our faith, these words might seem quite surprising. Christianity is often associated with what many today regard as a strict moral framework, Christianity has its ascetic disciplines, its prayer and fasting and self-denial. Some have gone so far as to describe Christianity as a death-cult, with its elevation of martyrdom, its worship of a crucified God, with its most well-known symbol being an image of torture and death. And yet Jesus says unambiguously: I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly”.
I expect that we all have an instinctive idea of what we think life in abundance ought to look like, and I imagine that for many of us life in abundance feels a long way from the life we are currently living.
Life in abundance would certainly for many of us include social life, the opportunity to be together with the people we love, the opportunity perhaps also to meet new people, to mingle, to socialise. Under our current conditions this is impossible for some of us, and difficult for all of us.
Life in abundance for a middle class British person usually includes a level of material consumption which is pretty luxurious in any historical context. There was a brief moment at the beginning of this current crisis when we started to worry about the continuity of our food supplies, and I don’t think it was a time that showed us at our best. We are used to being able to access a wide range of essential and non-essential goods with ease, we are used to an enormous amount of choice, we are used to being able to get the things that we want, and to get them quickly and easily. At the moment this is not completely straightforward. Many kinds of shops are closed. But even now, the supermarkets remain well-stocked with a huge range of food and drink, and online shopping continues to offer a wide range of material goods for our use and enjoyment.
And life in abundance also I think for many of us includes a good deal of time for leisure, it includes possibilities for travel, recreation, culture, sports, access to nature, all of the good things in life that we enjoy. Many of these things have become more difficult to enjoy in the current circumstances, and some of them are denied to us altogether.
I have a feeling that one way or another we are all going to have to have a little rethink about our ideas about life in abundance. To an extent this has already been forced upon us by lockdown. For those who live alone, and those who are particularly vulnerable, the experience of lockdown has been one of a radical constraint and limiting of life. But even after the restrictions are lifted, we are going to live with the consequences of this pandemic for some time to come. Life will never again be like it was in 2019. Apart from anything else there is going to be a big bill to pay. We can all expect to be a little poorer. For some that will be easier to deal with than others. And the miracle of our interconnected world, with its easy travel and communication, and its globalised supply-chains, has suddenly had a dark side revealed, and we are unlikely to look at it in quite the same way again. What the secular vision of life in abundance will look like post-Covid 19 is quite hard to say.
But what does Jesus mean by life in abundance? In today’s passage He says “I am the gate for the sheep”; later in the passage He says “I am the Good Shepherd”. Elsewhere in John’s gospel He says “I am the way, the truth and the life”, and elsewhere again He says “I am the resurrection and the life”. The life in abundance that Jesus comes to give to us is encompassed in Jesus Himself. He is the way, the truth and the life, He is the resurrection and the life, what has come into being in Him is life, and the life was the light of all people.
One of the tensions in Christian theology concerns the extent to which we should expect to see the promises of Jesus fulfilled in the here and now, and the extent to which we should only expect them to be fulfilled when our earthly life is done, or even at the end of time. And we can see this tension in the way that we think about Jesus’ promise of life in abundance. We might on the one hand see it simply as a promise of eternal life. We will have life in abundance because we will have life for ever. Or we might see it as a promise that we should expect to see fulfilled here and now, in our lives as individuals, or in our collective life as the church.
God is both the source of life and the end of life. God is our beginning and our end, our Alpha and Omega, God is the start of our journey and our destination. Our deepest desires can only be fulfilled in God, because God has made us for the enjoyment of God. In our weakened and fallen state our communion with God has been impaired and broken, in our weakened and fallen state we are not able to enjoy God as God wishes us to, and so God in Jesus breaks into our fallen and imperfect world and shares fully in our fallen and imperfect humanity, breaking down the barrier between God and humanity, and restoring in us the divine image. And Jesus chose the Apostles, Jesus established the church, as a community, as a body, His body, to continue His work, to be the Kingdom of God breaking into the kingdom of this world, to offer a glimpse and a foretaste of that perfect enjoyment of God, that life in abundance, to which we look forward.
That sounds like a pretty tall order for the church at any time, and most especially at this time, when we cannot even meet, when our worship is restricted and our participation in the sacraments is impaired. But it remains our calling, and I hope and pray that even now in our fractured and fragmented state, and even more so as we begin to recover our life together, we can show life in abundance to the world, we can show that as Jesus says in Luke’s gospel, life is more than food and the body more than clothing, we can show that contemplative enjoyment of God which we find in worship and word and sacrament.
Because whatever is taken away from us in these difficult times, that promise of life in abundance cannot be taken away, and nor can our ability to contemplate and enjoy that promise. And so, to borrow from the Letter to the Ephesians, let us pray that according to the riches of God’s glory, we may be strengthened in our inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith, as we are being rooted and grounded in love. Let us pray that we may have the power to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with all the fulness of God. Now to Him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.