Having Life Abundantly

Mark Bratton
Sunday 11th May, 2014

Lent 4A: John 10:1-10; Acts 2:42-47

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Jesus famously declares himself as the Good Shepherd “I am the Good Shepherd”. Jesus as the Good Shepherd was by far the most popular artistic representation of Jesus in the very earliest centuries of Christianity. You can see this very clearly if you go down into the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome or the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. However, I am not going to focus of Jesus as Shepherd this morning. Instead, I am going to focus on the very last verse of our set Gospel Passage: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”, or, in the rendering I prefer, “I have come to bring them life and life in all its fullness”. I do so, not simply because they happen to be my favourite verses in all of scripture, but also because they sharpen a question of vital importance.

What do we mean by salvation? What is it for God to save us in Christian terms? Usually, theologians present the so-called doctrine of salvation, negatively, God has saved us from something, and one very influential account goes something like this: God created the universe – and human beings – and declared it all very good. Then, somehow, things go horribly awry. Through pride and disobedience, human beings alienate themselves from God in the biblical episode known as ‘The Fall’. Like Humpty Dumpty, they can’t put their relationship with God back together again in their own power. Moreover, God is perfectly within his rights to wipe humanity from the face of the earth, but, mercifully, he stays his hand. He doesn’t want to purge humanity. In fact, he loves humanity, which is part of God’s good creation. However, he still needs to satisfy the demands of God’s justice – he can’t simply let humanity off the hook with a by your leave. Humanity out of its finite resources can’t pay the infinite priced demanded. Therefore, God comes up with the clever idea of sending his Son into the world as a human being in order to pay the price as a human, which, as God, he would be able to satisfy, even though it was infinite. Those humans who choose to accept the price the Son of God paid on the Cross on their behalf are saved from their sins and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live lives of virtue, and equipped for life in heaven which had been God’s plan all along before sin came along and mucked things up.

The difficulty with this view is that it doesn’t quite capture the positive view of salvation set out in our Gospel passage. Nowhere else do the Gospels more succinctly stated Jesus’ reason for coming into the world than here in John 10. Jesus came that we might have fullness of life. He came into the world precisely in order that we might flourish and thrive, not merely survive or exist. John’s Gospel doesn’t say that Jesus came to offer forgiveness to a bunch of miserable sinners, although of course sin blights our lives. Jesus’ emphasis on fullness of life is of a piece with the great statement in John 3:16 that God so loved the world that he sent his only son into the world that humans might not perish but have the light of life. Also, 8:36, if the Son sets us free, we shall be free indeed; Again, 20:31, that we might have life in the Son’s name if we believe in the Messiah Jesus, the Son of God.

According to John, freedom in the Son is freedom for, not simply freedom from. Jesus liberates us from what oppresses us so that we might live the full lives, which God from the beginning intended for us. This is the Good News. The Good Shepherd passage is not stand-alone but forms part of an extended piece of scripture beginning with the healing of the blind man in chapter 9. Jesus heals the blind man. Then the disciples try to make sense of what Jesus has done. Then, Jesus himself gives the meaning of the healing. We need to look at this event from the perspective of the blind man, what salvation means from him here. Jesus’ liberates him from a life lived in perpetual darkness. Jesus frees him from the isolation that his condition imposed on him. Jesus releases him from the marginal position he occupied on the fringe of his society. However, there is more. Jesus releases him from fear of, and dependence on, others and into a life of new possibilities. Through Jesus, the blind man enters through the gates of salvation and into the riches of the pastures beyond. Salvation through Jesus means both freedom from the forces of harm and oppress us – the thieves and bandits, those who come to kill and destroy. However, it also means freedom for wellbeing and the abundant lives for which God created each one of us.

Jesus invites us this morning to reconsider how we understand salvation. According to John, salvation is freedom-for as well as freedom-from. Salvation is more than forgiveness of sins. It’s fullness of life. We also see that fullness of life is heavily context-dependent. For the blind man, it was restoration of sight. For the single parent, it might be companionship and help. For the bullied teenager, it might be a friend and advocate. For the homeless person, it might be shelter, clean clothes and an exit-strategy out of poverty. For the impoverished neighbourhood, it might be the promotion of self-determination and dignity. I can remember the enormous relief I felt as a 12-year-old when the school counsellor Mr Griffiths, helped to sort out a major problem at school, which left me both fearful and enraged. It was a type of salvation.

If salvation is more that forgiveness, but fullness of life, and if fullness of life is context dependent, then I think this passage invites us to enter into the fullness of life God desires for us within the places God has set us. Moreover, it means standing in solidarity with the oppressed against the thieves and robbers who seek to enter the sheep gate by unscrupulous means, thus blocking access to the richer pastures beyond.

AMEN

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