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Abundant Life in the Time of COVID-19

What does it mean for Jesus to promise abundant life in a world beset by COVID-19? What does it have to tell us about abundance?

The lockdown continues, and we are well into the sixth week since stage 3 restrictions started. Here we still are: sitting at home, trying to help to stop the spread and not just flatten the curve, maybe even to eliminate it entirely. No-one knows how long it will take. No-one knows what the solution is. No-one knows how to control the disease, not really. And, given that our culture is really all about controlling things – landscapes and health and our bodies and everything else – we are stumped. This is the thing we are supposed to be best at, which enabled us to transform the world: but here we are, in quarantine, exactly like our medieval ancestors.

In today’s passage, Jesus uses a lot of rich language about shepherds and gates and sheep. But the thing which really grabbed me was the promise which closes the passage. Jesus promises us abundant life.

What is all that about? Where is this abundant life? What does abundant life look #isolife?

First, a little bit about the passage. Just before the section we read today started, Jesus had healed a man born blind. But because he had done it on the Sabbath, he had caused a huge scandal. Who was he to do something like that? If he was of God, then he would have kept the Sabbath sacred. If he wasn’t from God, then how could he do such an amazing thing?

Today’s passage is part of the answer to the question: who is Jesus?

To answer it, Jesus compares himself to a shepherd. To Australian ears, it sounds a little odd. I didn’t grow up on a sheep station or anything, but we all know that out in the outback, on sheep and cattle stations the size of European countries, sheep flocks are huge, and managed by jackaroos and jillaroos on quad bikes, or perhaps in helicopters. Or is the thing about helicopters just cattle? I’m descended from a long line of townies, so I don’t really know.

So it’s a bit of a distant metaphor for us.

So it’s worth reminding ourselves that in the ancient Middle East, flocks of sheep were small, and the shepherds would spend all day and all night with them. The sheep knew the voice of their shepherd, just like a pet dog does. And, like a well behaved dog, would come when they were called. The shepherd would know their sheep well. He would have to understand their behaviour, and know how and when to lead them to pasture, and be able to rescue them from danger when necessary.

It was such a well understood feature of life that, when people thought about kings and what made a good king, or a bad one, thinking about them as a kind of shepherd was an obvious model. The understanding, the responsibility to protect, the trusting relationship on each side – it was what was set a good king apart from a bad one.

So, one of the things that is going on here is that Jesus is saying: I am the coming king – a new, and better, David – the original “shepherd king.”

But there’s an important difference between Jesus and David. David’s kingdom was fractious – seized by violence, racked by civil war and unhappy dynastic marriages. Jesus’s kingdom will be completely different.

To put it another way, David’s kingdom was a life of abundance for David. For pretty well everyone else, life went on much as usual. If you were a poor shepherd boy under Saul, you were still a poor shepherd boy under David, and your son would be a poor shepherd boy under Solomon.

Jesus’ kingdom is different. It is a kingdom of abundant life. But what sort of king is Jesus? What is this “abundant life” that he offers? And how do these two ideas of kingship and abundance relate to one another?

This seems particularly acute to me in these times of lockdown. So much of what I enjoy about my life has been stripped away. No coffees out, no trips to the pub, no holidays. Small things take on great weight, so that going to the supermarket to buy supplies now feels like a major event. And don’t get me started on the unctuous pleasure of my weekly Sausage and Egg McMuffin and hash brown!

I feel convicted of how consumerist my picture of abundant life is. When I’m stripped of the pleasures of a well-heeled, middle class life, I feel bereft. But this is how life is for a lot of people, even most people. Abundance which relies on being one of the richest members of one of the most prosperous countries that the world has ever seen is definitely not what Jesus was talking about. 

As I think about it, it occurs to me that it isn’t really about the presence or absence of cafes and McMuffins. It’s really about control – or lack of it. I’m used just doing whatever I choose. If I want to go to a café, I go. If I don’t have enough money to buy a new pair of running shoes, I choose to save up for a little while and buy them. It’s profoundly important, this power of choice, this agency in the world. And that, at bottom, is what has been stripped away. It’s not so much what I do, as that I choose to do it, and thus have an impact on the world. I change things, and my inability to do that is a source of real grief to me.

So much of our energy as a denomination – so much of my energy as a minister – is bound up with doing things, with affecting the world. We run thoughtful programs for the needy, maintain our buildings, and go to council and committee meetings – all the many things which are required for the smooth running of our church. We are busy collaborating with God in the world, and that’s a good thing. But when we can’t do things, when abundance doesn’t involve the ability to shape the world, when we find ourselves powerless, then what is left to us?

That’s what links the ideas of kingship and abundance. Kingship, as ordinarily envisioned, is about power – the ability to get things done, to rearrange the world to suit our preferences. Abundance, as usually understood, has that same sense of agency, of being able to arrange the world to suit our convenience.

But whatever abundant life is, it has to be something available to the poor and powerless – in fact, given that Jesus said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, being rich must be a barrier to the abundance he is talking about.

Whatever abundance is, it has to be more than the expertly made froth on my consumerist cappuccino.

Whatever abundance is, it is something to do with Jesus.

We’ve had a lot of shepherd language tonight, including that most famous psalm which names the Lord as my shepherd. We’ve talked about how Jesus’ claim to be the “good shepherd” was a claim to be the rightful king, the new and better King David. And during Easter we particularly affirm Jesus as the risen and exalted one, vindicated by God. We name Jesus as king, saying “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

But what do the intertwined ideas of kingship and abundant life mean for Jesus? What does it mean to say “Jesus Christ is Lord”?

From the evidence of Jesus’ own life, it does not mean sitting somewhere in safety, high above the fray. It means undergoing suffering and powerlessness – the opposite of abundance as we usually understand it. It means crying in the garden of Gethsemane before he was betrayed. It means crying out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” before he died on the cross.

Jesus is, Scripture says, “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”[1]

This is in strong contrast with the shepherd in the psalm who is outside our troubles. The shepherd isn’t down in the pit with us. He reaches down to rescue us out of the pit. The king, generally, sits on his throne and maybe sends help in response to our pleas. But the king himself doesn’t join us down here.

But have you ever imagined Jesus praying that psalm himself? Crying out to the Lord who was his shepherd? Abundant life is what Jesus had, what he offers. But it is a life which embraces suffering and doubt as much as it embraces triumph and joy. And it is a life which reaches triumph only through suffering. It is only through Jesus’ death that his resurrection takes place. It is only through undergoing suffering that a new life of abundance becomes available for us.

The risen Lord comes still bearing the scars of his crucifixion.

Abundance, it turns out, is not so much about having external things – objects or accomplishments or experiences. It is not about power to affect the world, to be able to choose to do this thing or that.

Rather, it is what underlies how we live. It’s got something to do with our orientation towards life. Contemporary researcher and writer Brené Brown captures something of it when she talks about “whole hearted living.” It is a way of living which is brave enough,  and grounded enough in our confidence in the reliability of God, to embrace suffering as well as joy.

Abundance is a sort of transformation. It isn’t something you can hold in your hand or point to easily. It’s like being a seed, gradually growing delicate tendrils, unfolding in the world. It doesn’t follow plans or timelines, and it doesn’t result from well-intentioned committee meetings.  And it is likely that it requires suffering to grow. Only suffering, or perhaps great love, provides the sufficient motivation to grow out of our ordinary orientation towards life. It is only in having things stripped away from us, from our experience of powerlessness and suffering, that what Peter’s letter describes as “imperishable seed” can take root in us.

When we look at the life of Jesus, we do see a lot of action, yes. Lots of things being done, lots of energy. Healings and teaching and lots of long distance hiking and eating with all and sundry. But all that activity was based on a solid foundation, dug deep into Jesus’ own life. He had an orientation towards the Father that was apparent in both good and bad times. We can see it in the story of his temptations in the wilderness. In his poise when he is being questioned. In the faith which enabled him to give up his life for our sake, and for the sake of the whole world. In his readiness to undergo suffering, and open himself to the transformation to which that leads.

That is what it means to have “abundant life.” That’s the sort of life Jesus promises us. It is completely plugged into the Father, so that our will mirrors exactly what God desires for us and the world. And the hidden, ironic blessing of this coronavirus epidemic, like in all suffering, is that it reveals to us what really is abundant life.

A (slightly re-written) sermon preached online to Preston High Street UCA on the 29th of April 2020 for the Fourth Sunday of Easter based on John 10:10-10

[1] Isaiah 53:3, using the resonant words of KJV.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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