Third Sunday of Easter
My favorite verse from this Gospel reading is the last line, when Jesus says, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” That sounds good, doesn’t it? Abundant means more than enough. Extra. Surplus. An overflowing amount. Wouldn’t it be great to have a life so full, so rich, so deep that it spilled over the edges? A life in which your career was satisfying, your relationships energizing, your home joyful, your health above average, and your society gracious? What would you pay for that kind of abundant life?
We crave a sense of being fully satisfied—which surely has something to do with our nation’s obesity problem. We keep on stuffing more and more in. Of course, people with marketing careers depend on that void inside of us remaining unfulfilled. Now that we are longer gullible enough to think that one paper towel is significantly better than another, advertisers don’t even try to sell us a better product. Instead they try to sell us a sense of identity through their products.
They want us to believe that if we wore Nikes, we wouldn’t just play better ball, but also we’d be stronger, more courageous people. They want us to imagine such a group is a small but special breed. If we bought their shoes we’d belong among the few, the proud, the triumphant. Never mind if it’s impossible to prove. The idea is what sells Nikes. We buy things not because they work better, necessarily, but because we want to identify with the story the brand is selling. It’s not about the product. It’s about the dream of belonging.
Of course, it doesn’t work. And companies know it doesn’t work. They count on it not working. As soon as we figure out that this is not the lipstick that redefines our sense of beauty, and that TV set doesn’t make our family time more enriching, and that car doesn’t part traffic for us like the Red Sea in the shadow of Moses’ staff, we have to go shop some more. Deep inside, we all know that it won’t work. Intellectually we get that STUFF cannot fill the void inside of us, even as it crowds us out of our houses.
But we want abundant life! And today in John’s Gospel we hear that God wants us to have abundant life too! So how do we get it? TV evangelists suggest that if we say the right prayer, keep the right rules and trust enough in God, we will get wealthy. If we are sick or poor, it must be because we don’t believe enough or in the right way; we must have done something to deserve such misfortune. But it isn’t true! We cannot pray or believe or act our way into abundant life. Paying for God’s good graces does not work. Indulgences are still as much a scam as they were in Luther’s day. The only way to get abundant life is to receive it as a free gift from God. It’s not a “gift with purchase,” like the kind Estee Lauder offers if you spend over $45. It’s a gift we cannot earn, and one that God gives 100% freely and eagerly.
In Psalm 23, God promises to be with us, to guide us as a shepherd guides a flock to pasture. Now I don’t know much about sheep or shepherds, and I’m not sure a day lying beside still waters is necessarily my idea of an abundant life. What I do understand is the idea of someone having my back. And I like that it is someone with my best interests at heart, someone who would do whatever it takes to make sure that my life is one of substance and significance—and abundance.
And that’s what Jesus, the Good Shepherd, provides for the sheep. The picture many of us conjure up when we hear Jesus called “The Good Shepherd” is one that hung on many Sunday school walls: a “Jesus-as-a-member-of-the-Bee-Gees” figure in a very clean white robe, passively standing in a green meadow, surrounded by very clean, very white sheep. If that is all our Good Shepherd amounts to, it’s no wonder people look elsewhere for strength and security.
But the truth is that having Jesus as our Good Shepherd is a much more powerful concept than we’ve come to believe. For one thing, though we say it—”thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me”—we tend to forget about the rod and the staff. What is that part all about? The staff is that curved stick a shepherd carries, not as an ornamental hiking stick, but to pull sheep out of thorn bushes or out from between rocks where their wooly bodies might get stuck. It can grab them back from precarious ledges when they’ve gone too far off the path. A shepherd’s staff is a comfort because it pulls us out of messes we create for ourselves when we wander too far afield.
And what about that rod? What’s comforting about that? The rod is, essentially, a club, but not one used to beat disobedient sheep. It’s used to whack at wolves and other predators who come near the shepherd’s precious lambs. It is used to poke and prod and protect the sheep from the beasts that intend to carry them off for dinner.
That pretty picture of the anemic Jesus from our childhood days does not show any wolves lurking in the shadows. But the very reason that the sheep are able to lie down by the quiet waters or sit down and eat at the banquet table in peace, is because the shepherd is there, looking around and behind and in front of us, rod poised to strike at any wolf who comes our way.
So maybe abundant life is more about belonging to the shepherd, and to the shepherd’s much-beloved flock than it is about what stuff belongs to us, about our doing what’s right, or even wanting the right stuff. Maybe the feast that we get to eat in the presence of our enemies is the feast of knowing that no matter what else happens to us, our belonging is secure. It is not dependent on our choices, but on the fact that—at our baptisms—God has already chosen us, named and claimed us as God’s own. Our Good Shepherd will defend us to the death—and beyond.
And since we are able to rest in that truth for ourselves, why not share it with one another, and with those who aren’t yet here? Everyone needs to be reminded that we belong to the Shepherd to keep the wolves at bay—the false securities of more (or “better”) stuff, and the sense within us that says, “you don’t have enough; you don’t do enough; you are not enough.” Those wolves out there and inside us too—you know they are—longing to get their teeth and claws into our souls, into the souls of those we love, and into the souls of the whole flock. These wolves bank on our needing to have the next great thing that promises fulfillment to us. We need our Good Shepherd to pull us out that predicament and point us toward finding abundance in other ways.
Perhaps we can find abundant life in some of the same places that the early church did in our reading from Acts. Maybe we’ll locate “glad and generous hearts” when we break bread together, share our stories and songs, serve the poor and ensure that no one is in need. Perhaps we’ll find that our Good Shepherd meets our needs and our dreams NOT when we are pursuing abundance for ourselves, but when we are trusting in God’s desire and ability to provide it for us, for the rest of the flock, and for the whole world.
Of course this beautiful description of the church is recorded in Acts, chapter 2. Perhaps it is no surprise that by chapter 6, the church is already in trouble, the flock scattering in multiple directions. We need our Shepherd to pull us back from the precipices we are in danger of running off, and collect us again as a flock. Knowing who we are and how we are, even now God prepares this table for us, a table made ready in the presence of the wolves that threaten us from without and from within. Here we share once more in the reminder that together we are God’s own flock, and individually named and claimed as God’s own lambs now and forever. Thanks be to God! Amen.
~Pastor Susan Schneider