Abundant Life

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Do me a favor. Actually, do yourself a favor, and start at verse 10 if you’re preaching on the Gospel this week, or at least the second half of that verse. I know it draws the previous unit to a close, but it anchors the whole passage: “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Abundant life. That phrase, as much as any in the Bible, captures what most people I know — including myself — long for. Not just more life, but abundant life. Not just more stuff, but life — real life. Jesus in this passage makes a promise, a huge promise, a life-changing promise.

He’s not the only one. Most of the ads we’re subjected to day in and day out also promise abundant life, but it is abundance understood precisely as more — more money, more possessions, more cars, more sex, more Facebook friends, more…. You can fill in the blanks as well as I can of all the things hawked promising to give us life.

Of course there’s a cost to buying into this scheme. Actually, it costs two things. First, you need to believe you are insufficient, that you are not good enough and do not have enough. That you are not worthy, in fact, of love and respect and happiness unless you purchase whatever is being advertised. That is, ads work precisely by creating in us a sense of lack, a sense of profound insufficiency. And the only way to satisfy that lack is to buy the product in question, and that’s the lure of ads.

The second cost is that it’s a lie. Whatever you buy — sneakers, iPad, car, deodorant, whatever — may be just great in and off themselves. But guess what? It’s not going to fill that sense of need or rid you of that sense of lack. In fact, disappointed once again, you may end up just going shopping again — or overeating, or shooting up, or settling for someone who doesn’t value you, or whatever — hoping against hope that this time it’ll work and you’ll be acceptable.

Now, against this backdrop, hear again the promise of Jesus: “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” But Jesus doesn’t just make a promise, he puts his money where his mouth is. Or, more accurately, he puts his life where his promise is: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” And “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”

But why? Why does Jesus the good shepherd lay down his life? To tell us that we are, in fact, enough. Jesus, especially in John’s gospel, doesn’t die in order to make some kind of payment to God or to satisfy God’s wrath or to pay the penalty for sin. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, is the Revealer, the One who comes to make the invisible God visible and the unapproachable God accessible. Jesus comes to reveal that God loves the whole world, no exceptions. Jesus comes, that is, to tell us that we are already beloved, that we are enough, that we need no shoes or book or car or reputation or lover or high status job or big bank account or list of achievements or anything else to be deserving of God’s love. That — God’s unconditional and unending love — we’ve already got.

But gosh that can be hard to believe. So many messages, so much money, are devoted to trying to tell us that we are not enough, that we are not worthy of love, that we need to earn acceptance. And it’s our job and privilege to name those messages a lie and to point to the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep — for us! — simply out of love.

But it is hard to believe at times. Let’s make no mistake about that. Which is why we should listen to even more of Jesus’ message: “I lay down my life for the sheep,” he says. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Jesus, in other words, didn’t come just for the original group of disciples. He came also for us, and we are now invited to hear and believe this message of grace and acceptance and to share it with each other and all those we meet.

Precisely because it’s hard to believe, however, you might consider trying something. It may feel risky for some, and so I think it’s worth explaining why we’re putting ourselves out there. Jesus’ message of love needs to be said again and again, not just by the pastor, but by all of his disciples. If we don’t remind ourselves of this message, who will? And so I’d like to suggest that at the end of the sermon we invite each person to turn to another and say these simple words, “You are a beloved child of God, and you are enough.” That’s it. We can start at one end of each pew or row of chairs and turn to hear those incredible words from one person and then turn to say them to another. And that’s important, too. That each of us hears them — what a blessing! And each of us gets to say them to another — again, what a blessing!

This is part of what it means to be the Body of Christ — to remind each other of God’s promises and speak Jesus’ message of love, acceptance, and grace to each other. And, who knows, maybe having had the chance to practice saying these words to each other we’ll find the courage to say them to others in our lives as well.

You’re the one to get this all started, Working Preacher, as through your office and your words you remind us of the love and sacrifice of the Good Shepherd, the one who comes to grant us our hearts desire by telling us in word and deed that we are enough, enough to love, enough to die for, enough to live for. Thanks be to God for that message and for you, God’s messengers.

Yours in Christ,

PS: On my blog this past week I posted a TEDTalk by Dr. Brene Brown that echoes a lot of what I’m saying here and has shaped my own sense not just of this passage of how the gospel may take shape in our lives. You can find her message here.

PPS: Thanks also for considering supporting Working Preacher with a donation. Your gifts help keep us keep Working Preacher working for you!

PPPS: Finally, if you’re intrigued (or troubled) by my saying that in Jesus comes to reveal God’s love rather than pay for sin, I’ve written a bit more about that at my blog and you can find the post here.