Dear Working Preacher,
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Okay, onto the passage proper:
I believe that in this passage of familiar images and mixed metaphors beats the dynamic heart of the Gospel. But I was surprised that even after all these years of reading and preaching it, that message didn’t turn out to be exactly what I thought. Allow me to explain.
No where else, I think, does Jesus express the intent of his mission and ministry more clearly than in the verse at the end of this passage: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” In contrast to all that would rob us of life -- the thieves and bandits he mentions -- Jesus comes to give, not just life, but life in abundance. Not just survival, that is, but flourishing; not just getting by, but thriving; not just existence, but joy. Jesus offers, in sum, more life than most of us imagine possible. I suspect, as I wrote three years ago, that this promise is something our people are craving to hear.
This time around, however, three things stood out to me that I hadn’t noticed before. First, there’s surprisingly little talk of sin in this passage. Jesus doesn’t say, that is, “I came because they’re a bunch of sinners in need of forgiveness.” Rather, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Don’t get me wrong, I believe that all of our lives and actions and very being is tainted by sin. But as I read passages like this -- or that other central passage, John 3:16 -- I’m struck that the operative terms aren’t always, or even regularly, sin and forgiveness but rather life and light and love and more.
Which leads me to wonder whether we’ve narrowed how we understand and talk about the salvation Jesus brings. “All who enter by me,” Jesus says, “will be saved.” But have we, perhaps influenced in small part by Paul and in greater part by medieval interpretations of Paul, adopted a primarily negative view of salvation? Salvation is often understood as the erasure of our sin and failure rather than the creation of new life and possibility. Forgiveness of sin is wonderful, of course, but it occurs to me that if that’s all we understand salvation to be we are, at best, only back to square one and miss that Jesus offers not just life, but life in its abundance. So might we preach, this week, that at the heart of the Gospel is the resurrection promise of life and possibility and potential and power. That we are not only saved from something but also for something, for life in all its abundance here and now.*
All of which brings me to the second thing I noticed this week. For while abundant life isn’t defined by Jesus, it comes right after the healing of the man born blind. In fact, and as Karoline Lewis reminds us, we cannot hope to read this passage aright if we don’t first locate it in the story it follows. For the man born blind, abundant life is sight. It is release from dependence. It is freedom and light and new opportunity.
This, in turn, invites us to imagine that abundant life -- and perhaps salvation itself -- is highly contextual. For the blind man it is sight. For the single parent it might be companionship and help. For the bullied teen it might be acceptance and an advocate. For the impoverished neighborhood it might be dignity and the chance of self-determination. For the retiree, it might be involvement in a worthwhile cause. For … Well, you get the picture. Abundant life looks different in different places and to different people, but it always manifests itself as a response to whatever seeks to rob the children of God of their inheritance of life, purpose, and joy.
Third, if these two things are true -- 1) that salvation is more than forgiveness but abundant life itself and 2) abundant life is contextual, defined by release from whatever is robbing us of God’s intentions for us -- then I think in this passage there is a profound invitation for us not simply to listen to Jesus’ promise of salvation and abundant life but actually to live into it. How? By joining ourselves to his mission to bring abundant life to all of God’s children. That means, of course, that we must first pay attention to what is robbing the children of God near us of life and then stand with them against those forces so that they might have, not just life, but life in abundance.
I will spend several days this week with the board members of Lutheran World Relief. While I have known of their work for years, I have lately had the opportunity to learn far more about it, and in light of this passage it occurs to me that they are in the business of sharing abundant life. Through their relief efforts, partnerships, advocacy, and empowerment, they draw people into the abundant life Jesus promises.** And if you look around, you’ll see in your congregation and community numerous similar groups working to do the same thing -- claiming Jesus’ resurrection promise and power by helping others to experience the abundant life Jesus’ promises.
So might this be a time, Working Preacher, to explode and expand our vision of abundant life. That abundant life isn’t simply a promise about some distant eternal future, but is a concrete invitation to discover life right now by extending it to those around us? That salvation isn’t only the forgiveness of sin but also being commissioned by Jesus to help others experience abundant life in their settings? And that church isn’t the place where we go to hear about abundant life, but the place that sends us out to experience and share it as we commit ourselves to the wellbeing of all God’s children and, indeed, the world God loves so much?
Perhaps in the bulletin this Sunday you could make a small list of the places you see where people are working to help God’s children discover and lay hold of the abundant life Jesus promises. And maybe at the end of that list there could be a few blank lines for people to fill in other groups that help people experience abundant life. And may you could starting gathering together all those names and opportunities and share them on your web page and newsletter, inviting people to live into Jesus promises even here, and even now. (Or you could send out an email request now and collect names ahead of time and read them off or share them and their contact info on Sunday and on the website.) However you do it, you're inviting people to experience abundant life now, as a present and concrete reality.
I guess what strikes me, Working Preacher, is that perhaps salvation and abundant life, like happiness, aren’t goals for which we strive but rather byproducts of following Jesus, the one who opened the eyes of the blind, fed the hungry, comforted the distraught, and everywhere and always witnessed to the universal and unending love of God.
Thank you for your part in sharing this message, Working Preacher, as it is exactly what our people need to hear.
Yours in Christ,
* Actually, and remembering again that these verses are connected to the previous scene, sin does come up a couple of times. First, the disciples wonder if the man’s blindness is caused by his sin or that of his parents, and Jesus dismisses that suggestion altogether (John 9:1-3). Later, the Pharisees use “sin” as a way of discrediting their testimony of the man who received his sight and dismissing Jesus and his miracles (John 9:24-34). Interesting.
** If you'd like to hear more about what LWR is up to and share it with your congregation, you can read a bit more and watch a video in a recent blog post or you can check out their YouTube Channel that has tons of short videos perfect for sharing in worship, Sunday School, or at youth group.