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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Life Abundant In American Ears - 05/07/2017

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

One could pretty convincingly argue that every single “I Am...” statement Jesus makes in John's gospel rests upon this promise we have from God. 

(6: 35, 48) “I am the bread of life...”

(8: 12, 9:5) “I am the light of the world...”

(8: 58) “Before Abraham was, I am...”

(10:9) “I am the gate...”

(10:11) “I am the good shepherd...”

(11:25) “I am the resurrection and the life...”

(14:6) “I am the way, the truth, and the life...”

(15:1) “I am the true vine...”

It all points to this Word of God Jesus speaks to us today: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

First thing, let's dwell on this word “abundant” for a moment. What exactly does God mean by that? Is it abundant like the snowfall totals of the U.P.? Is it abundant like the American portion size or the number of friends one can build up on Snapchat or Instagram? Is it abundant like the number of dresses I apparently need? What does abundant mean when God says it?

The word the gospel writer uses here is περισσός (perissos; peri-SAUS), which means more than just plenty. It's beyond measure, given vehemently, superfluous … or  using other words, we might say it is life-giving beyond imagination, it is provided to us fiercely and persistently, and God drenches us in this promise of life-abundant like healing oils poured over the whole planet.

So … take whatever “life-abundant” can mean in your imagination ... in it's wildest and free-est form … and then push it farther, push the boundaries of that even wider and deeper and more fiercely and more persistently, and then maybe, just maybe we start to get a picture of what God means when God promises “life-abundant.”

To fully understand what Jesus is trying to get across here, we also have to free this passage from the confines of Good Shepherd Sunday. While it serves all our sheep and gate and shepherd imagery very nicely, it is truly 10 versus plucked from a larger story.

It is a story that starts with the man born blind we heard about during Lent … the story in which the disciples ask Jesus who sinned, that this man was born blind, him or his parents? And while teaching them that sin had nothing to do with the man's blindness, Jesus spat in some mud, made a paste, spread it on the man's eyes and told him to go wash in the pool called Siloam.

His name changed in the process –  instead of the man born blind, he is now called the man who had formerly been blind. The Pharisees were up in arms about this whole thing … the power of the sign frightened them, so they attacked Jesus for healing the man on the Sabbath. They began to interrogate the man and his parents, trying to get them to say Jesus was the Messiah so they could put them out of the synagogue and their community. They finally did put the man out and when they did, Jesus caught wind of their bullying and sin against their neighbor. He went and found the man he said,  “'Do you believe in the Son of Man?' (The man) answered, 'And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.' Jesus said to him, 'You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.' (The man) said, 'Lord, I believe.' And he worshiped him.” (9:36-38)

Now during this encounter, Jesus was not only speaking to the man who had formerly been blind. He was also speaking to the Pharisees who were nearby and eavesdropping on Jesus' conversation with the man. And the reading we have today is a continuation of this conversation Jesus is having … directly with the man who had formerly been blind and indirectly with the eavesdropping Pharisees.

So with our ears tuned in that way, what does it mean to experience this God-promised, God-delivered, life-abundant? The man who was formerly blind is the physical example Jesus presents to us. Here we have a man who could not work because of his blindness and so he was forced to beg for the measly coins that could get him the bare minimum of what he needs to keep drawing breath, but that is it. It is a picture quite opposite of what we would call life-abundant, I think it's fair to say. But measly coins were the response the man received from all who encountered him on he street while he was a blind beggar.

Jesus' response is different, isn't it? It takes what we can imagine for this man and pushes it wider and deeper, more fiercely and more persistently until it becomes God's idea of life-abundant. The man's sight is fully restored, his entire existence is reshaped, re-imagined and God's promise has been mightily breathed into him. And then when it doesn't seem possible that it could go even beyond that, it does … when among the first things the man sees is the face of Jesus, the Son of Man. “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” And the man believed.

Wow … that is abundance. And that is the kind of life God has chosen to pour out over God's creation in Jesus. We take that truth into our very bodies when we come together at the Lord's table to share the body and blood that ensures we are indeed children of God and disciples of the Great and Good Shepherd for all eternity. Even death cannot change that.

Of course all that is revealed in this story about what God means by “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” eventually leads us to an obvious question: What about those who don't appear to enjoy God's promise of life-abundant? And that's where I think this story can get a little tough for us … us Americans in particular, who , in general enjoy fairly abundant lives. That's not to say none of our neighbors live in poverty. There are most certainly many people in the United States trapped in cycles of poverty for all kinds of reasons and we are called to care for those neighbors in all the ways we can. In general however, the majority of people in the world who pray every day, like the blind beggar, for a few measly coins so they can put a little rice or bread in their bellies, are not American.

And so this text can begin to convict us a little – or a lot – maybe even make us feel like one of the eavesdropping Pharisees. Maybe this text prompts us to think something like, “Yes, I recognize God's life-abundant presence in my life. But how do I view that abundance? Do I define it as the work of my own hands and use it according to my own will? Or do I truly view it as a gift from God and let God work it through me?”

This can be difficult self-reflection. Interestingly, we are aided this weekend by other examples of what it means to live in God's vision of life-abundant.

In Acts we have an inspiring picture of some of the first communities that developed around Jesus' life and ministry following the resurrection. And here are some of the indicators of God's abundance in those communities. They come together to teach and learn and in fellowship. They share God's abundance in the breaking of the bread. They pray together – probably in the form of the ancient prayers of intercession we still use today. They work to make sure everyone's basic needs are met and those who have plenty are urged to share with those who do not – no matter if those people come from a different class, an unfamiliar family, a checkered past, a different political camp. The Lord's table abolishes all those human-born distinctions. They spend time together, they worship together, they grow glad and generous hearts and they enjoy the good will and respect of others.

We get another piece of what this looks like in our lovely and familiar Psalm 23 today. Here we find comfort in a God who promises to protect and accompany God's people, who prepares a feast and cups overflowing for them, even, or maybe especially, in the face of those who might rather get in between them and God's gift of life-abundant. Or as Jesus puts it, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (10:9)

I was curious – as an American who definitely enjoys God's promise of life-abundant and someone who is quite wealthy compared to so many in the world, how these indicators of abundance from our scriptures today compare with the indicators of abundance our American culture cherishes.

I found a report published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation in 2013. It's called “A Measure of Abundance, How the Notion of Abundance Defines Our Nation's Legacy and Business Outlook.” Here's an excerpt from the report:

A casual survey of my colleagues and other industry experts about what abundance entails shows multiple aspects of American abundance in practice. These aspects are a mix of soft factors (e.g., people, prosperity, and attitude) and hard factors (e.g., technology and resources), as well as those related to finance (e.g., money and affluence) and governance (laws)....

What holds constant is simply the belief in more. As a belief, abundance drives our faith and intentions around growth—at home, in business, and in politics. We believe that more is a good thing, and that achieving more in life and work is important for our personal satisfaction and to our national identity. (Tamara Carleton, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, A Measure of Abundance, How the Notion of Abundance Defines Our Nation's Legacy and Business Outlook, 2013, page 2)

And here is what I think can make this story of blind beggars and sheep and gates and God's promise of life-abundant a difficult one for many of  us. When you compare indicators and attitudes about abundance in our cultural identity and our faith community identity there's a lot of tension there.

Because I think as people who hold God and neighbor at the center, we would have to rewrite this. Rather an our abundance driving our faith and intentions, Jesus calls to to let our faith drive our abundance and intentions.

And so what at the surface is most definitely a story of hope for those who cry out for God's promise of life-abundant in their own poverty and need …

… it also serves as a stewardship text for us wealthy people who have all we need to be well cared for and more to share with those who don't.

… and it serves as a call to social justice and advocacy for those of us who feel our complicity in the chasm between what our biblical texts teach us and how our nation struggles with issues like access to health care, education, foreign policy, civil rights and climate change.

… and it also serves to remind us that wherever we draw lines, intentionally or unintentionally, between us and them, the haves and the have nots, the saints and sinners – God is going to act to obliterate those lines in God's fierce and persistent work to pour life-abundant over all of us – blind beggars and Pharisees alike. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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