Abundant Life

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

Dear Working Preacher,

If there’s one sermon people are dying to listen to, it’s this one. And I mean that quite literally.

In this passage from John, Jesus says that he has come so that his sheep — his followers, all of us — may have life and have it abundantly. Life, obviously, is good, desirable, important. How much more so, then, abundant life. The chance to not simply persist, but thrive, to not simply exist, but flourish. To have a sense of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment; to know and be known, accept and be accepted. I believe that if there is one thing that pretty much everyone in our congregations (and outside of them!) desires — even if they can’t name that desire — it’s this. More than that, I believe we regularly make all kinds of sacrifices in the hope to earn or achieve or purchase this life, and each time we fail it kills us just a little.

In case you’re not sure about all this, check out this 8-minute video on YouTube. It’s a segment of a larger episode from the PBS documentary series, Frontline. This particular episode is entitled “The Persuaders,” and is about the changing nature of advertising and our culture, and it gives evidence of how keenly we seek a sense of fulfillment and purpose — that is, abundant life — often from the things we buy. (It’s well worth watching in its entirety when you have time. Here is the link. ) This clip quickly tracks the shift in advertising from making promises about brand quality to promises about quality of life; indeed, a certain kind of life. Of these eight minutes, pay particular attention to two segments:
1) 5:45-6:05, where the narrator comments that “emotional branding” seeks to fill the empty places that civic institutions like schools and churches used to fill; and
2) 6:40-7:05, when Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, observes that while the things themselves may be perfectly useful — a great laptop or pair of running shoes — they can’t provide the abundant life of meaning and purpose that we seek.

So there we are, seeking meaning and fulfillment — that is, abundant life — from things in part because we no longer find it at church. What can we do to change that?

First, I think we need to reclaim as part of the preaching office the responsibility to name how often we have been cheated — or, as knowing participants in the charade, perhaps we should say, cheated ourselves — by settling for something less than abundant life. This shouldn’t take the form of accusing, or even scolding. Rather, it’s simply inviting people to take an honest look at the choices they have made, the strategies they have employed, the things they have relied upon, to bring them authentic, abundant life and ask whether or not they are satisfied. Because the fact of the matter is that after all of our seeking and searching and shopping, we still end up far short of experiencing the abundant life Jesus promises. Perhaps we don’t know how to achieve such life (and of course naming it an “achievement” is part of the problem!). Or perhaps we’re afraid of what it takes to receive it. Why, we might well ask?

I suspect that authentic abundant life — which Jesus here describes as flowing from relationship with Jesus and through him with God — demands that we be more vulnerable than we’re most often prepared to be. So much of our life is about protecting ourselves: giving the impression that we really do have it all together and in this way guarding ourselves against vulnerability. The difficulty, though, is that we cannot experience abundant life without exposing, even lifting up, those very vulnerabilities we want to hide. For the truth of the matter is, as Brene Brown has said in her book The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden, 2010), we cannot go selectively numb. And in trying to protect ourselves from hurt and disappointment, we have so numbed ourselves that we have cut ourselves off from the opportunity to really feel alive.

Think about it: so much of our life is caught in this double-bind of wanting intimacy and honesty in our relationships — with each other as much as with God — and yet simultaneously holding back, not risking exposing ourselves fully to others for fear that they may reject us. It’s a legitimate fear, of course; people have rejected us in the past. And so we ensconce ourselves in emotional armor, living half-truths and sometimes outright lies about who we are, hoping to protect ourselves from hurt, perhaps all the while knowing that as long as we are not honest about who we are we cannot trust the love and acceptance others would offer us. After all, would they accept us, we silently ask ourselves, if they really knew us?

It is this very real human condition and dilemma that God embraces in the incarnation, taking on our lot and our life in the flesh and blood of Jesus. The man born of woman, born under the law; the one who experienced love and laughter, sorrow and disappointment; the teacher of love and peace who was executed on the cross — this one knows the deepest recesses of our fears and insecurities and has embraced them all. And when he is resurrected, he comes bearing the peace he has offered all along accompanied with the promise that his love is greater than fear and that his new life is greater than death.

Which means that the second thing we need to do is declare this promise. And it is a promise! Abundant life is not something to earn or achieve, buy or barter for. Rather, it is a gift, the sheer gift of a God who loves us enough to lay down his life for us. There are so many thieves and bandits in this world who would rob us of life, who would cheat us of abundance. And so Jesus comes as the gatekeeper and good shepherd, the one who knows his sheep — intimately and truly — and who calls us by name so that we, hearing the difficult truth about ourselves, may believe and receive the second and wonderful truth about God’s great and victorious love for us.

Proclaiming these two truths, Working Preacher — the truth about how often we search for love and life in all the wrong places and the second truth that God in Christ understands, embraces, and redeems us in love — are the core of our office and calling. I so regularly give thanks for your part in sharing this good news, this week and always.

Yours in the abundant life of Christ, our shepherd and Lord.