What is abundant life? How would you define it? Accomplishment in some such measurable constructs? Success in your church? Happiness? Family? Relationships? Money? Choices?
When we think about abundance, our tendency is to adjudicate it by the world’s standards, which then, I suspect, connects a concept of abundance to affluence. Lifted up, admired, and favored are those whose wealth and riches seem to prove that they’ve done something right, that they are right with God. Abundance equals affluence. Believing equals blessings. Faith leads to fortune.
There’s a reason that prosperity Gospel preaches — and sells. Abundance is both desired and seemingly deserved. And the fact that it eludes many is all too often caught up in assumptions of our relationship with God.
The meaning of abundant life is a critical question for our time when even the basics of life are denied to many and the very source that maintains life is in jeopardy. As a result, how the church defines abundance becomes an important aspect of our preaching. Abundant life according to Jesus’ standards is just about the opposite of how abundant gets defined by contemporary criteria, which is why abundant life from a Johannine perspective could actually matter.
Abundant life according to John is not that impressive when it comes right down to it and especially if we compare it to our assessments and adjudications of what we think abundant life should look like. Abundant life according to Jesus? Protection, provision, and presence.
We can’t forget that these words of Jesus, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (10:10), are his interpretation of the healing of the man blind from birth — a man begging for his next meal, a man constantly exposed to the elements, a man without community, alone to fend for himself. By restoring this man’s sight, Jesus does much more than making him able to see again. In the healing of the man born blind, protection, provision, and presence are now his — and forever.
That’s it. Not observable opulence. Not assumed affluence. Not luxury or lavishness. No, it seems that abundant life, according to Jesus, is knowing that you will be safe and sound, trusting that your basic needs will be met, and believing that you are never alone.
After the formerly blind man has been thrown out by the religious leaders, cast out once again from community and exposed to the elements, Jesus finds him and protects him (John 9:35). The man born blind is now one of Jesus’ own, which means for him the promise of pasture, the promise of provision. The blind man is now a sheep of Jesus’ fold, part of Jesus’ community, with Jesus always. And when you know and experience protection, provision, and presence, how can your life not be abundant?
But taken out of context, we will construe abundant life as something completely foreign to the Jesus of John and the God of the Fourth Gospel. It will turn into a rather banal claim, as if the story of the healing of the man born blind was only that. The meaning of abundant life takes on flesh and blood because of the man blind from birth. He himself embodies, incarnates, what abundant life looks like.
Don’t take that away from him by preaching generalities about abundant life or by making sweeping statements that have no grounding in John’s Gospel. Abundant life is quite simple. And yet, when we don’t have it, as the man born blind shows us, it makes life hard to live.
This week, I am thinking of one of my former students whose son was swept away by the raging waters of the Mississippi River, yet to be found. A senior at the University of Minnesota in neurobiology, he was to graduate this May. I am thinking about a colleague who had a significant health scare. Who are you thinking about, who do you know in your churches whose protection and provision and promise of God’s presence are absent? Because when protection and provision and presence are taken away, it is then when you start to question what abundant life really means; if it can ever be possible again.
When the primary presentation of God in our current culture is the God who performs according to our expectations, the God who assures us of blessings beyond our wildest dreams, protection, provision, and presence will sound, well, kind of anti-climactic. And when God is most dominantly described as the source of our blessings, the correlate theology proclaims that a lack of wealth and riches is a sign of God’s damnation. Absence of blessings is due to a of denial God, a contractual God who secures our salvation when we appropriately atone for our sin.
I wonder what a sermon would sound like if we preached that abundant life is God giving you what you absolutely need. Not very popular, I propose. Dear Working Preachers, preach that in fact, all we need for abundant life, for our cup to overflow, are the basics of what life needs — and the story of the man born blind reminds us that is at the heart who God is and what God does.