Have you ever lived through a complete upheaval, something that turned upside down all of your prior notions of what life is about? Something to completely reorient your values, goals, and ways of living?
Now we can all say yes, to this question.
We are living through a historic moment, a complete upheaval of life as we knew it, as we all try to get through this pandemic and come out on the other side. No one is simply going about life as before, even those working and keeping some pattern of their former life, have to adapt in some ways to shopping and so on, in this new reality we are living in.
But the presence of Jesus on earth was another time, when many people experienced a different kind of upheaval and reorientation. That is what is happening in the background of this passage from John.
You might remember from several weeks ago the story of the man who had been born blind from John chapter 9, and how Jesus cured him on the Sabbath, and it turned into a huge scandal. The Pharisees, a group of religious leaders, were already suspicious of Jesus and his not- normal ways, normal for them as religious people- and when Jesus dared to upend their ideas about what it means to be born blind (namely that it was a just and deserved punishment from God) and what can and should happen on a Sabbath, (no “work” of any kind) they debated and questioned him, and threw the now seeing formerly blind man, out of the synagogue, which meant, thrown out of life in society completely. Remember how the assumption was, either he sinned, or his parents sinned, for him to be born blind. The importance was on placing blame, and a pastime for religious authorities was to debate who was at fault.
Jesus turned their argument on its head. Instead of placing blame, he decided to bring healing. He went to the man instead of talking about him. He touched him. He healed him. He brought him to a whole new realm of possibilities, no longer needing to beg, able to join the able-bodied work force and participate in society with dignity. He would be able to become a bread-winner, have a family, instead of being a dependent. He could have full participation in society and be an active part of the community. All of that, I think, is what Jesus is summing up with: abundance of life. Because after the healing they continued to debate. How could he do that?- Jesus had healed him on the Sabbath? We can’t accept a healing on the Sabbath, Jesus must be a sinner. Or could he be from God if he healed someone born blind? And they continued to argue. They even questioned if the man really was the same one who was born blind, or just looked like him. It might seem silly. But when you believe that someone is born blind because they deserve it, well then you know that you are better, if you have sight. So for Jesus to heal, and to say, no it isn’t because of anyone’s sin- their whole framework of their being the righteous ones was at stake. Simply because the man told the truth about what had happened to him, and wouldn’t change his story, they drove him out of the community. In a way it was because they could not accept a God of grace over a God of getting what you deserve. They couldn’t bear to have the evidence of that in front of them.
Jesus had restored his possibility for full participation in community life, and the religious authorities took that away from him again. They were functioning as a gate to keep that formerly blind man out. They were posing as shepherds, as leaders and caretakers, but they were not actually caring for the community. They were enforcing an understanding that made themselves come out on top, as the righteous ones.
You might remember I mentioned that chapter 10 goes on from chapter 9 as Jesus employs metaphors and discourse to try to help these Pharisees, and those others around listening, to “see” as he puts it, to understand truly what he is all about, and what God is all about. In 9:41 he says in my re-phrasing: you think you get it, but you really don’t. Because he is upending all of those ideas about just punishment and what God really wants. In 10 verse 10 Jesus gives what we might call his mission statement, I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full, or in abundance, according to your translation. This has flavors of Psalm 23, an overflowing cup, a dwelling in the Lord’s house all my days, it links up nicely with Acts 2:42-47, an image of life lived in community with possessions in common and more than enough to go around for all, daily meetings and ongoing prayer, eating, wonders. Life in abundance.
Here is another of these passages, in Acts, reminding us of what we’re missing right now. One of the things they dedicated themselves to, yes teaching yes prayer but also breaking bread together. That is what I am missing, all these kinds of breaking bread. From a simple dinner with friends to church coffee hour and the “real deal” communion where we eat with people, it makes me ache with longing. And I know, I know, I am one of the lucky ones, with 4 other living breathing people to share my table with, and yet I ache for sharing a donut or cookie at a table with a few of you. That is certainly within my definition of “life in abundance”- sharing in community, sharing life, sharing food.
That scene in Acts, the ancient poet’s song, and Jesus’ words in John, all come back to the trusting relationship, knowing and being known. Recognizing the voice of love that calls us forth into the wide world for our own good, being able to trust we are well cared for. That is what Jesus is trying to evoke as he puts forth these metaphors about sheep and gates.
But he also is drawing a contrast. Not everyone is on the side of life in abundance. Not everyone is a part of the trusting secure relationship of loving care. There are thieves and bandits, those who seek to kill and destroy. Jesus knows they are looking for a reason to bring charges against him, so he can’t come out and say it- but he’s talking about those who would prefer that a blind man stayed blind. So they could feel righteous in their judgment of him, safe in their world of strict lines. Those who would throw him out of their community simply because he had been healed and wouldn’t speak against his healer. Because they prefer that control of the world, to be sure of their own rightness, than a world where God is more interested in healing than judging. They are on the destroying side, the side not aligned with the abundant life that God wants to bring about through Jesus.
This is the upheaval the people around there that day were experiencing. This is the reorientation they needed. The reorientation of grace. Of not staying stuck in judgment. Of healing. Of a relationship and not just rules. It is a lot more fluid, a lot harder to grab onto and put into words. So it can seem scary. But while Jesus is really not mincing words as he lays out the reality of those who are against him, I feel him inviting them to try it out. To have him as their gate, what keeps them safe. To join this flock. To learn his voice, his ways, and follow him.
Jesus is redrawing who is in, and who is out. A now seeing formerly blind man that everyone wrote off as a result of sin- is now included as a part of Jesus’ new community. Jesus is remaking what the norms of a life of faith in God is all about. That it is about ways of bringing more life, it is about showing compassion, it is about healing. It is about abundance and sharing and a trusting relationship.
Jesus draws a contrast between himself and the leaders who threw the formerly blind man out. Jesus is the one who truly cares for the sheep. Jesus is the one who would give up everything, even lay down his life, to reveal God’s love to the world. He is the one who did the opposite of the religious leaders: instead of proving how God loves the ones who deserve it, Jesus shows how God loves the ones who don’t deserve it. It’s not any following of the rules that earns favor with God- it’s by God’s grace. And people come first.
This is the community that Jesus initiated: one where people come first, and life is abundant, not things. Where people are more important than the rules, like about the Sabbath, where God loves people more than God cares about what we deserve.
After Jesus was resurrected, his followers could see that God truly had changed everything. So these values of caring about people first, healing and compassion and sharing and trusting relationships, truly changed the way they lived, as we see in Acts 2.
Our upheaval is a different sort these days. But we still need Jesus’ reorientation to a God of love and healing and compassion. In this time of Coronavirus There are leaders who seem to want to lead into paths of fullness of life and those who are willing to sacrifice some for their own sense of power and control. I am not saying I have all the answers. But as people of faith let us remember that these are God’s ways, the ways of fullness of life, of protecting from what harms, of healing and sharing.
People are finding ways to do that even in these strange times. We applaud the healers among us, the doctors, nurses, medical techs, first responders, those working on vaccines and treatments. We thank God for them, and when we recognize that healing is key to the abundance of life Jesus wants us to have, we even see that they are revealing God to us through their healing work. Those of us not in that field are doing other things, like making and donating masks, giving money to food pantries, putting out messages of hope and love to the world. These too are ways of healing. Staying home even though we are getting stir-crazy, because it is a way to love our neighbors, to do our part for abundance of life. It is a different sort of abundant life than I had ever imagined before, probably is true for you too- but wherever we do find it, may we see that this is what Jesus wants for us, these ways of living in love and caring for one another. May Jesus reorient us in this upheaval to live out these ways of abundant life, no matter what we are going through, Amen