Scripture Readings: Acts 2:42-47 | Psalm 23 | 1 Peter 2:19-25 | John 10:1-10
"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."
Please forgive me for starting off by stating something really obvious: Over the past several weeks a lot of us, all around the world, have had to make some major changes in our daily routines. Because of events and happenings well outside of our personal spheres of control, we have been required to live very differently than we had not all that long ago. This disruption has brought us many challenges (some that are well known, and others which are much more hidden), as well as some blessings too, the most apparent being the preservation of many lives. In this time we have been made well aware that how we live has implications… for us and those around us… and how blessed it is to have wise leaders who can help us find our way forward together. By all accounts we know that we still have a long and challenging road ahead of us, but we also have some good reasons to be hopeful too.
Today is sometimes called Good Shepherd Sunday, as the Scripture readings for the day bring that beautiful image to mind. Psalm 23 bids us look to the Living God as our gracious Shepherd, who abides with and leads His people all along the way. And in the Gospel of John, Jesus our Lord takes up this same pastoral to image to reveal Himself: as the shepherd of the sheep who “goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4). At its heart, it is an image of trust. Of the Lord’s trustworthiness, first of all, but also of the trusting response asked of those who would follow Him. In order to benefit from the guidance of the Shepherd, the sheep need to stay close and listen to His voice. For He is ultimately striving to care and provide for His sheep… as Jesus said, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
Abundant life. That sounds pretty good. Not just eking out an existence, but abundantly living. That certainly sounds like the destination I’d want to be heading towards. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, maybe we should take a second to ask what we mean by abundant life.
This seems to be, after all, what so many of us have been chasing all our lives, and what our whole society has been driven by for quite a long time: pursuing ‘the Good Life’ is what we’re told ‘its all about’, even if we can’t always agree about what ‘the Good Life’ actually is. Some see it as success; be it in business, relationships, or other notable goals. Some see it more as security; keeping healthy and stable, trying not to make any waves, and avoiding as much pain or suffering as possible. Some see it as ‘seizing the day’; filling up on meaningful or fun experiences, pushing the limits of what we thought possible… or simply enjoying life. No doubt there are more variations we could discuss, but I think you get my point. Importantly, what our vision of ‘the Good Life’ happens to be will play a big part in guiding and directing the choices we make to attain it. What we are pursuing in life will in fact shape our life.
This is the kind of thing we often think of when we hear the words “abundant life.” I mean, there are even those who in the name of Christ boldly claim that this is really what God wants for all of us: to simply be healthy, happy, successful, rich, and so on… and that if we’re suffering or struggling, we just need to “have more faith.” Following Jesus, for them, seems to mean getting whatever we want.
But for Christians, we are called to set aside our visions of “abundant life”, whatever they may be, and instead seek to know above all else what our Saviour Jesus means when He says “abundant life”… to entrust the direction, and shape, of our lives to our Good Shepherd.
Thankfully, this isn’t exactly a mystery for us to solve, for our Lord wants us to know where He’s taking us, and how we are to get there, and our Scriptures today give us more than a glimpse about the true meaning of ‘abundant life’.
Quickly turning to 1 Peter and our New Testament passage today, we can write off from the start one of the most common misunderstandings about ‘abundant life’: that is, it is NOT the avoidance or absence of suffering. Writing to fellow Christians who were well acquainted with harassment, pain, and tragedy, St. Peter reminds them that this is precisely the path that our Saviour walked as well, and that living God’s way in the world is bound to bring its share of suffering. Instead of crushing us though, St. Peter points out that Jesus shows us how to go through the darkest times of life: entrusting our futures and our present to our Heavenly Father, and not letting ourselves be drawn off of the way of righteousness, which has been made possible for us by the sufferings of Christ. Whatever else that the ‘abundant life’ of Jesus may be, St. Peter reminds us that we can expect that it not always to be easy (which, when we think about it for a second, is true for most of the best things in life.)
So, from St. Peter we can see that for Jesus ‘abundant life’ is not simply avoiding suffering. But what is it then? Again, the Scriptures have much to show us, and our first reading from Acts chapter 2 gives us in a few brief words a wonderful example of Christ’s abundant life at work.
In these five verses, we are given an inspiring picture of the life of the first believers; those who believed the Apostle’s message about the crucified and Risen Jesus on Pentecost, who had received the Holy Spirit of God, and had become the brand new community which would one day be called the Church. Though there’s much that we can (and probably should!) say about this important passage, I’ll get right to the point: we can notice two vital connections in their pattern of life. First, their lives were firmly centred on the Living God; worshiping, praising, and praying to Him, and learning from the Apostles all about the Good News of Jesus, God’s Son. Second, (rather than turn them into pious, self-righteous snobs), the love of God compelled them to love each other too… and in very practical, down to earth ways! Though they had been strangers before they came to Christ, now they were God’s family, and so they provided for and supported each other so that no one was left in need. And this way of life was open for others to take part in as well… they were not self-focused but welcoming and generous, so that many were drawn to join them, and began to participate in this beautiful way of life as well.
The first followers of Jesus here in Acts chapter 2 were living out… embodying God’s abundant life the way God has always intended humans to exist together… which was summed up by our Good Shepherd as the two greatest Commandments: they were loving the Lord their God with all of their heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and they were loving their neighbours as themselves.
This is the abundant life that Jesus is in Himself, which He came to bring to us, and enable us to share in. Abundant life is partaking in the self-giving love of the Living God.
This love is not only where He is leading us, it’s also how He’s leading us too… by the Holy Spirit at work in the Church, God’s self-giving love is meant to be the very shape of our lives all along the way as we follow in the steps of our Shepherd, and share His way of life, and re-organizing our lives, even make major changes, to faithfully go where He’s leading us.
We have heard this many times before, but so often we struggle to do it. Again and again, we can find ourselves following other guides, listening to other voices, and pursuing other tempting visions of so-called ‘abundant life’. But again and again, we are also urged to turn and draw near to our Good Shepherd, and we find as we do so that He has not left us behind… no, He has been the One searching and striving for us all along.
So may we come to trust the voice of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and draw nearer to Him, especially when we are tempted to turn aside from His way. May we follow His lead, away from our self-centredness and fear, and into the self-giving love of our Heavenly Father. And may the Holy Spirit help us to embody God’s love right where we are, that those around us might see and share in God’s abundant life today. Amen. Alleluia.