Sunday, May 11, 2014

Living a Flourishing Life (John 10:1-18)

The late Henry Nouwen described life in the world as both filled and unfulfilled. Our lives, said Nouwen, are filled with things to do, people to meet, projects to finish, appointments to keep; they are like overpacked suitcases bursting at the seams. We are bombarded with life’s demands and opportunities. The result of all this overstimulation is that we get caught in a web of false expectations and contrived needs that often leaves us fearful and anxious and unfulfilled.    
    
I am reminded of the preacher who liked to read and preach from a big loose leaf Bible. One Sunday he preached from the Genesis text about Adam and Eve. As he stood up to preach, one of his pages fell out. He was reading along, “And Adam said to Eve,” and he turned the page. He paused and read again, “And Adam said to Eve.” He looked under his Bible as he said again, “And Adam said to Eve . . . very interesting, looks like a leaf is missing.”

The great paradox of our day is that while our lives are filled and preoccupied with so many things, we still feel unfulfilled, we sense that something is missing.

In verse 10 of our text, John’s Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

I would like to suggest some guidelines for understanding this prospect. One, it would be a great mistake for us to read this as a promise of self-fulfillment and personal success as those tend to do who preach a gospel of material and personal prosperity. Two, it is important to keep in mind that John’s Jesus is speaking of community life, the life we share together as disciples of Jesus, not just our individual personal lives.

And three, a flourishing life is not a life without suffering or problems. In fact, in this Gospel Jesus warns his followers that they will indeed face trouble and hardships. In some ways, our discipleship to Jesus complicates our lives. In John 16, Jesus says to his followers, “If the world hated me, it will hate you too, because you do not belong to the world . . . In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have overcome the world.” The world here is the domination system; the world of greed, selfish ambition, and pride. The fullness of life Jesus makes available to us is not without difficulties. 

It’s important to understand too, I think, that these long discourses in John’s Gospel attributed to Jesus were actually elaborations of a few short sayings of Jesus by John’s church, the Johannine community. In other words, the language here is the language of John’s church, not the actual language of the historical Jesus, which is why Jesus talks differently in the Synoptic Gospels than he does in John. That doesn’t mean, however, that these teachings are any less important to us, because they are part of the sacred tradition of Jesus passed on to us.

The basic imagery here is simple, though the structure of the text is rather complex. Jesus is described as both the gate and the shepherd. According to the brilliant Johannine scholar R. E. Brown, the writer has combined two parables. The first parable of the gate is in verses 1-3a and it is expounded in verses 7-10. The second parable of the shepherd is found in verses 3b-5 and it is expounded in verses 11-16. So, we have two parables combined, which is why Jesus is called by the gate and the good shepherd.

Jesus is the good shepherd who stands out in contrast to those described as thieves and hired hands. The thieves are those who want to steal the sheep, who care nothing for the well-being of the sheep, who are interested only in acquiring the sheep for personal gain. The hired hands are not as bad as the thieves, but they, too, do not actually care for the sheep. At the first sign of danger they flee to save their own lives leaving the sheep to fend for themselves.

By contrast the good shepherd knows the sheep by name and they know him. He calls them out and they follow him, and he leads them in and out of the sheepfold. He leads them out to find pasture and then leads them back in to a safe place. They follow him because they know that he is the good shepherd and is looking out for their good. In fact, the good shepherd is so good that he is even willing to lay down his life for the sheep, he is willing to sacrifice his life in order to protect the sheep from danger.

Several of the Hebrew prophets speak of false shepherds in Israel. Ezekiel, for example, sounds this indictment: “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals” (34:2b-5). What the false shepherds fail to do, the good shepherd does.

We are called to good shepherds and good sheep. Sometimes we lead; sometimes we follow. But what is constant or should be constant in our life together as church, as a Christ centered community, is the depth of our love and commitment to one another. 
This is the kind of love we should also express in our families and in the world at large. On this mother’s day it is good to be reminded that we all need spiritual mothers and fathers to help us on the path of life and we need to be spiritual mothers and fathers to others. Families and churches should be microcosms of the macrocosm of God’s love. We need to express in our families and churches the kind of love God has for the world.

Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” This is true of those outside our local Christian fellowship and of those outside the Christian fold in general. Remember, in his prologue the Gospel writer says that the light that became incarnate in the living Word enlightens every person. So we are called to not only love those in our church, our family or group, but to love those outside our church community and those outside the Christian community at large, because God loves the world. God’s love is that large and expansive.
  
The Scripture says that the sheep hear the voice of the good shepherd and by following that voice are led in and out of the sheepfold and find pasture. The voice of the good shepherd is the voice of the Spirit at work in the community. Jesus tells the disciples later in this Gospel that he will be leaving them, but he will send the Advocate, the Counselor, the Spirit of Truth, and the Spirit would be with them and in them. The Spirit who reveals Christ and guides us into truth and empowers us to love is in us and among us. So how do we hear the Spirit’s voice? How do we discern the Spirit’s leading?

Quaker author and educator, Parker Palmer explains how he took a yearlong sabbatical from his work in Washington to go to Pendle Hill, outside of Philadelphia, as dean of a Quaker living-and-learning community of some seventy people.

Their mission was to offer instruction regarding the inner, spiritual journey and teaching about non-violent social change, and explore the relationship between the two – between the inner life and social justice. Their life together in community involved silent worship each morning, shared meals, study, physical work, decision-making, and social outreach.

During Palmer’s tenure as dean at Pendle Hill he was offered the opportunity to become president of a small educational institution. He visited the campus, spoke with administrators, trustees, faculty, and students, and had been basically told that the job was his if he wanted it.

Initially, he felt quite certain this was the job for him, but in the Quaker tradition, he called upon a few trusted friends to form a “clearness committee” to help him with his decision. In this process the group, though refraining from giving advice, asks open, honest questions to help the seeker discover his or her own inner truth. The clearness committed helps clear away the obstacles so the person who called the committee can hear God’s voice and discern God’s will.   

Palmer said that at first the questions were easy: What is your vision for this institution? What is its mission in the larger society? How would you change the curriculum? How would you handle decision making? How would you deal with conflict? All of these he handled with ease.

Halfway into the process, though, someone asked him a question that initially sounded simple, but then turned out to be very difficult: “What would you like most about being president?”

In Palmer’s words, the simplicity of the question loosed him from his head and lowered him into his heart. He thought about it for a full minute before he could respond. Then, very softly and tentatively, he started to speak and went into this litany of what he would not like about it: “Well, I would not like having to give up my writing and teaching. . . . I would not like the politics of the presidency, never knowing who your real friends are. . . . I would not like having to glad-hand people I do not respect simply because they have money. . . . I would not like . . .”

Gently but firmly, the person who had posed the question interrupted him to remind him that the question was about what he would like about the job.  

His response was that he was working toward an answer. Then, he resumed his litany: “I would not like having to give up my summer vacations. . . . I would not like having to wear a suit and tie all the time. . . . I would not like . . .”

Once again the questioner called him back to the original question. But this time Palmer felt compelled to give the only honest answer he possessed. In a low voice he said, “Well, I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it.”     

These were seasoned Quakers and while they knew his answer was laughable, they didn’t laugh. They went into a long and serious silence. Finally, the one who posed the question broke the silence and evoked laughter from the group by saying, “Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?”

By then it was obvious to Parker that his desire to be president had much more to do with his ego than with the ecology of his life. When the clearness committee ended, he called the school and withdrew his  name from consideration.

We discern the voice of God by listening to what God says through the community. And as a Christian community, at the heart and core of who we are and what we are about is our understanding and appropriation of the sacred tradition of Jesus, so everything is sifted through that filter. Hearing God’s voice is never just an individual undertaking done in isolation. It is the work of the community that is committed to the way of Jesus.

Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Being saved, in this context, is not about going to heaven or the afterlife, it is about entering into the healing and wholeness of God and sharing in God’s flourishing life. This is God’s very life and often called eternal life in this Gospel. It obviously extends beyond this life, but the emphasis is on now. This life is to be experienced now.  

The gate is the way of Jesus, the life of God he incarnated and embodied in the world. It is the way of love and faithfulness. There are other ways to enter into the love and faithfulness of God; Jesus is the Christian’s way – our way. As we strive to be faithful to the way of Jesus and as we listen to, share with, care for, and lovingly give ourselves to one another in our church and to those outside our church, we can expect to experience the fullness of God’s life.

The flourishing life offered us here is, actually, nothing less or more than God’s own life, God’s very life claimed, entered into, experienced, and shared.  

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