I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
What does it mean to have abundant life, and how do we get there?
Well that’s the million dollar question isn’t it? How can I be happy? What does it mean for human beings to flourish? How can we have greater well-being, more life satisfaction, what does it mean to live better, to live more fully? Abundance encompasses all of these notions about what it means to live a good life. It’s bigger than just happiness. One way or another, it’s what all of us want. And it’s also what our faith is all about. Two weeks ago, we read that John concludes his gospel by telling us that whole point of writing it was so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that through believing you may have life. Abundant life. Life to its fullest. This stuff that we’re doing together is meant to be life-giving.
So what is abundant life, and how do we get there?
There are a lot of voices in our world that want to answer that question for us. We’re inundated by advertisers and politicians, parents and employers, teachers and preachers. But like the thieves and bandits that Jesus warns against when he talks about sheep in today’s gospel, many of these voices would lead us in the wrong direction. How can we know which way to go? How do we know who to listen to? How do we know who we can trust?
During this stay at home time, I’ve started taking an on-line course called the “Science of Well-Being”. It’s a course that was started at Yale University a few years ago, and not only is it the most popular course in the 300 year history of Yale, it has also exploded on-line, with over 600,000 people like me having signed up in just the last month. Why is it so popular? Well, partly because some of us have a bit more time on our hands these days. But even more than that, it’s because we all want to be happy.
The course starts out by debunking most of our society’s common notions about what will make us happy. Remember those voices I was talking about? The ones that tell us that our lives will be better if we get good jobs, or have lots of money, or buy awesome stuff, or fall in love, or have good grades and lots of accomplishments? Turns out that they’re all wrong. According to scientific research, none of that stuff will increase our happiness in a significant or enduring way.
So if all those voices are wrong, what do we do then? Should we just give up on the pursuit of happiness? Or is there another voice that we need to hear?
Jesus says “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”.
He makes that claim at the end of a curious figure of speech about sheep in which he says, “I am the gate, or literally, the door”. And you know, that image has never worked for me, and frankly I’ve never known what to make of it – until I read it again this year, and this time a light went on. Because this time around it struck me that the gate, or the door, is the opening that enables you to come in and to go out.
There is a rhythm to an abundant life. The sheep come in to the sheepfold, they come in to their home, to a place that is safe, a place of belonging, where they can be healed and rest. Then they go out, out into the wider world, to do what sheep were made to do, to find green pastures to eat and still waters to drink. They come in through the gate and they go out through the gate, they come in to be safe and go out to find pasture, every day, over and over again. The abundant life is rooted in this rhythm of coming in and going out.
And why did that occur to me this year when I’d missed it in previous years? I think it’s because right now, the rhythm of my life has been disrupted. I’m not doing nearly as much coming in and going out as I normally would and as a result my life feels less abundant because of that disruption in rhythm. I’ve been spending a lot more time in the sheepfold these past few weeks. I’m safe, but I’m just itching to go out, and I’m feeling it. Anyone else feel like that?
It’s frustrating, and even worse than that, it’s hard on our health. We need this coming in and going out rhythm in our lives. So it’s tough. But this pandemic, this disruption does provide us with an opportunity to become more aware of the rhythms of our life, precisely because right now they’re missing. What are the rhythms that give shape to your life, or rather what were the rhythms of your pre-pandemic life that are absent right now? What were your coming ins and going outs? And, here’s the kicker, were those rhythms life-giving or not?
You see, there is a rhythm to an abundant life, but it’s not any old rhythm. It’s a rhythm that is grounded in our relationship with God. That’s where our gospel reading started this morning. It begins with relationship. Jesus is the good shepherd, the true shepherd, the one who calls his sheep by name, has their best interests at heart and leads them out to good pastures. The sheep hear his voice, they know his voice and they follow him because they trust him. The shepherd calls them into the sheepfold to keep them safe and leads them out to find pasture. These are images of a relationship, a relationship of care and trust and belonging, of knowing and being known.
Our lives are not static. The abundance we seek in life is rooted in a rhythm of coming in and going out, and that rhythm is grounded in our relationship with God. Amidst all the competing voices of our world, it is God’s voice that calls us in to the place of safety, of peace, of healing and belonging that we need. But we don’t just stay there. That same voice then calls us to go out, out into the wider world, to be the people and do the things we were created to be and do: to be kind and compassionate, to do justice, to love one another, to be creative, to give hope, to live lives of purpose and meaning that draw us out beyond our places of safety. There’s a rhythm, we come in to pray and rest, we go out to be agents of God’s grace in the world.
This is a great time to become aware of the rhythms of our lives, precisely because for most of us they’ve been disrupted by this pandemic. But now is also the time to re-ground ourselves in our relationship with God. To learn to hear God’s voice in the midst of all the other voices that want us to follow their rhythm instead of God’s. How do we do that? Take the time that has been gifted to many of us in this moment to re-engage in spiritual practices: read scripture, pray, meditate, journal, take time to reflect on your experiences, think about what you’re grateful for and what is truly life-giving, connect with others, go deep. Because if we can use this time to renew our relationship with God, to learn to hear God’s voice and resonate with God’s rhythms, we can emerge from this time with new rhythms in our lives, rhythms that are in greater harmony with the divine, rhythms that will be truly life-giving, for us and for those around us. That is after all, why Jesus came:
So that you may have life, and have it abundantly.
Homily: Yr A Easter 4, May 3 2020, St. Albans. Readings: Acts 2.42-47; Ps 23; 1 Peter 2.19-25; John 10.1-10. Image by Tom Kelly, Creative Commons