“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” John 10:10
These days I cannot help reading that line without being drawn into the world of education, because it is the strapline of our own Diocese’s education Department. A robust statement that highlights the specialness of Church schools, there to carve out a niche that is distinctively Christian. While not in itself a bad thing, I find it hints at a sort of exclusivity which is only confirmed through the Christian school’s inspection process where a great deal of energy goes into carving out a distinct spiritual turf. I would like to think that it is the very purpose of education to give children the possibility of abundant life. It is the distinctiveness I struggle with rather than the abundance. Some of the questions that always comes up these days in the inspections is what difference collective worship makes in the lives of the children? How can its effectiveness be measured? Those would be testing questions for a Parish inspection – just how does Sunday worship enhance the forgiving, loving and life-giving capacities of the worshipping community? How bright does the light of the Church shine in the community and how would you measure that? Do let me know how you would answer that.
Nonetheless, it is a powerful statement made by Jesus which was no doubt hard to hear by his audience of Pharisees, who themselves assumed the mantle of wisdom and right living in relation to God. That after all was precisely their job.
The passage is rich in metaphors – sheep, shepherd, sheepfold, gate, gate keeper, stranger – that even his audience did not understand and that is before we get to the thieves and the bandits who come to steal and destroy. It is difficult to work out who is who and when we do try and settle on an interpretation, we do so on the basis that we know Jesus as the Good Shepherd and as the gate through which we find the way the truth and the life. Follow Jesus and all else will fall into place.
Easier for us some 2000 years later, than for those who were hearing this for the first time. We bring all sorts of unspoken assumptions into our understanding as we blend soothing images from Psalm 23 and notions of being led safely through the gate of troubled times by Jesus to a place of safe containment. The thieves and the bandits become all those other than us, who disrupt and destroy. As we have been taught this, the images have a consoling, reassuring quality to them.
The passage though has an edge to it; it is addressed to the religious leaders in the community and names their failure to lead the people in ways that enable them to flourish; when Jesus spoke of thieves and bandits they would have seen themselves in the firing line and if we are not careful, we can use the security of our gated community to judge those who are not like us. You do not have to look to far to see how that works in the world around us – those who threaten and disrupt our way of life are those who are different from us.
So what about this final phrase I came that they may have life and have it abundantly? What does that mean and how can that speak to us today? What was Jesus trying to say and how can we understand it? What does it mean in times like these, where are usual routines and livelihoods are so disrupted and many are suffering hugely?
We all have ideas of what abundant life looks like – and it is usually described in terms of what we do not have – that job, that friendship or that state of well being that always seems to elude us. It will be different for all of us and will vary depending on where we are on life’s journey – the hopes and dreams that are part and parcel of abundant life for a young adult are different than for those of us in later life. I certainly now have different hopes and needs than I did in my twenties, thirties, forties and even fifties; my walk with God has changed too.
But there will still be that same pull, the if onlys, the itches that never seem to be scratched and we spend a lot of our time trying to fill that lack to give us the happiness that we crave. But I wonder if our quest for abundant life needs to change direction. That has been my experience, which is why I am so drawn to Thomas Keating’s definition of repentance as changing the direction in which we look for meaning and happiness in our lives. Human being is human becoming – we are always growing up and to choose life means to grow up and become an adult, spiritually and humanly; that is our continuing invitation, to be the people that God wants us to be.
The summons to life is not about conforming to a doctrine -the closest Jesus came to this was in his summary of the law as being loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself. Often, Jesus’ teaching was provocative (think the parables of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son) – less dogma, more like inhabiting a story. Life beckons – come follow me. The kingdom he inaugurated was a topsy turvy one, not based on what we usually take for life in its abundance – wealth, success, popularity or whatever drives us and without which we are forever anxious and fearful; rather built on learning to love God, ourselves and our neighbour; to discover that we are sons and daughters of God and to trust that we are indeed loved and loveable. That is life in all its abundance, of which Jesus speaks. A life for which He lived and died but which as we discover through this season of Easter is forever resurrecting in new and surprising ways.
We see traces of what such a community shaped by the Holy Spirit looks like in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles – a joyous, caring and sharing community; prayerful, praising and thankful. Attending to God, themselves and each other and in so doing, having the goodwill of the people. Let us all hope and pray that as we emerge from this time, overshadowed by Covid 19, we remember how we discovered what mattered; the neighbourliness, the care and concern for each other and so find a new normal in our living together built on compassion not consumption, respect rather than rivalry, fired up by generous hearts and fuelled by God’s mysterious grace.
Revd Jonathan Morris