Saturday, May 14, 2011

Abundant life

Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

On this fourth Sunday of Easter, our readings and focus shift from eye-witness statements about the resurrected Jesus to life in the early church. What does it mean that Jesus has been raised? How should believers behave in this new world order Jesus taught them?
It’s easy to assume that everyone believed the same thing, and taught the same thing as the Jesus movement spread from Jerusalem and Galilee to Antioch, and Ephesus, and India, and Rome, and Alexandria. But even in the Greek Testament texts we can see a very diverse set of beliefs and interpretations, especially as time went on.
Jesus’ words and actions had to be put into context, and adapted for the various communities to understand and implement. They all sought to have what John calls “abundant life.”
In Jerusalem, in the first months after Jesus death and resurrection, a group of believers tried communal living; they shared everything they had, although they kept their homes. Imagine everyone in our area having enough to eat, a decent place to live, clean clothing with no holes, health care, meaningful work, a working vehicle, and so forth. Having enough of what you physically need is abundant life.
In order for all to have enough, some people would have to give up some things. Those with two vehicles would share one of them; those with extra bedrooms would invite the homeless to live with them; those with full refrigerators would offer to feed the hungry; those who offer medical care would treat all patients, regardless of ability to pay. In addition, in order for all to have enough, those with barely enough would accept what was offered and shared.
Beyond our text, in Acts Chapter 5, we learned that even in the first months of such communal living, it didn’t work. Ananias and Sapphira kept back some of what they owned. Their deceit was exposed and they instantly dropped dead. They are no different from us; neither would most of us be happy about giving away a significant portion of what we have worked so hard to have. And pride would prevent those of us in need from accepting what was offered.
The letter attributed to Peter is believed to have been written in the late first century, after Simon Peter’s death in 64 CE. This “Peter” wrote to a community in Asia Minor, perhaps some of the same congregations Paul served. They are facing persecution for their faith. In the light of such circumstances, Peter encourages enduring their suffering with courage and strong faith; Jesus endured such struggles, and they can find strength in suffering as he did. Abundant living in this community meant strong faith in Jesus, even though it led to persecution and martyrdom.
In the US, we may be criticized because we profess our Christian faith boldly; we may also be criticized because we do not profess it boldly enough. We may be criticized because we profess our faith in the way some others have defined as “proper” profession. But we are not jailed, beaten, murdered, because of our faith in Jesus.
In some parts of the world, this does happen. Today, Christians living in Iraq, Pakistan, and Burma/Myanmar find it challenging to be Christian. They hear these words from Peter as encouragement to endure despite the challenge of being Christian in their part of the world. For us, such passages are a reminder that we are to hold to our faith and not be afraid to share it.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus promises us abundant life. Let’s look at the passage, not from the point of view of that moment in Jesus’ life, but from the viewpoint of about 95CE, when the Gospel was written. By that time, Christians were no longer worshiping with Jews. By that time, the expectation of an immediate cataclysmic return of Jesus has given way to a focus on living out their faith. Who Jesus was, and what it meant to follow him was becoming more defined. It is clear in John’s Gospel that Jesus and God the Father are one and the same being, and that the Holy Spirit is an expression of that same oneness.
The first twelve chapters of the gospel give several examples of believers and how they came to believe. The faithful could identify with one or more of the characters in these stories. And, through the use of “I AM” metaphors, believers can identify Jesus as one of several familiar figures in their lives. “I AM” is also the main Hebrew name for God, another way of identifying Jesus as one with God. Jesus says, in various places, I am the vine and you are the branches; I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world.
In today’s reading, Jesus is the shepherd who gathers his sheep to follow him to the abundant life they seek. Jesus is also the gate, who protects the sheep from those who would do them harm.  Jesus’ way to abundant life is living in relationship with God and trusting God for everything one needs.
We all tend to look for abundant life in the wrong places. We seek more money, name brand clothing, powerful cars, spacious homes, the newest technology, better jobs. We seek security in locks on doors, in large financial reserves, in associating with powerful or famous people. But these things have little or nothing to do with abundant life.
Abundant life is found in a trusting relationship with Jesus, and allowing ourselves to be gathered to him as sheep are gathered around their shepherd.
Abundant life is found by listening for Jesus the Shepherd’s voice and not the voices of those people and things which would lead us astray.
Abundant life in Jesus is found in caring relationships with others, in making sure all people have enough to eat, a place to live, meaningful work, and so forth – as the community described in Acts was trying to do.
Abundant life in Jesus is found in trusting and believing in him, even amid the trials and temptations of daily life, even in the midst of persecution for one’s faith, which the community to whom Peter wrote was discovering.
Abundant life in Jesus is available whether we have everything we need and want, or relatively little to call our own. In fact, abundant life in Jesus may be easier to find when we have fewer possessions.
Abundant life in Jesus is found in an awareness of his constant presence in our lives, and in his concern and care for our well-being.

Please pray with me. Jesus our Shepherd, following you is not always easy. Help us to hear your voice. Keep us from going our own way so we may more easily find abundant life in you. In your holy name, we pray. Amen