I have authors whose books I enjoy – mostly mysteries that are written in historical settings – that follow the main character through many different plots; not only in the actual mystery to be untangled, but in their own personal story and development as well. The way that are written, you can certainly enjoy the books each on their own – but I get more out of them when I’ve read them in sequence. I understand more about the characters, their personalities, and what makes them tick; it adds to my enjoyment of the story. And similarly, each chapter of a book may often be able to stand on its own, as a descriptive piece or even a very short story, but it makes far more sense if you read it in the context of the novel as a whole.
The Bible often works that way – even though reading it straight through from cover to cover may not be the best approach for a first-time Bible reader. But having the sense of the overall arc of the narrative is really important. The New Testament makes far more sense and has a much deeper meaning if you know the Old Testament, than if you just read it on its own. And each book of the Bible has its own focus, and point, and trajectory which we miss if we only read short passages without relating them back to the whole book. It’s like a set of colored beads that make a beautiful pattern when they are strung together, but if the string breaks and the beads scatter, you can’t see the pattern.
This is particularly true for the Gospel of John. The whole pattern of this Gospel is that it presents “signs” that Jesus does in his public ministry that help reveal his identity as God’s Messiah, and then has Jesus offer a commentary on the sign – a pattern of action and reflection, both for the disciples and for the readers and hearers of John’s Gospel. If we read only about the sign, we miss the commentary. If we hear only the commentary, we miss the fact that it is connected to a particular sign that Jesus did and makes it much harder to see the pattern and understand more fully Jesus’ words and actions.
And that’s exactly where we are this morning. Traditionally this Fourth Sunday of Easter is referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday, because the Gospel is always a section of John 10, in which Jesus refers to himself as a shepherd. We also say or sing the 23rd Psalm, which ancient Israel always understood to be not just about God but about the coming Messiah, the Lord. So we have this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, a lovely, pastoral image in itself – but disconnected from its larger context of the sign that comes before it in chapter 9. That’s one of the limitations of the lectionary. We get several beads handed to us each week, but unless we are reading and listening on a weekly or even daily basis, we can easily miss the beautiful pattern of the Gospel story.
So…what happened in John, chapter 9? We heard it back two months ago on the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Jesus healed a man who had been born blind, and he did it on the Sabbath – a day when no work was to be done. The people who were sticklers for the Sabbath rules were sure that this healing could not have come from God because they thought God would never break his own rules. And so these people from the Pharisaic party of Judaism grilled the man whose sight had been given to him several times, and interrogated his parents, too – looking to expose this healing and Jesus’ ministry as some sort of sham. Jesus then calls the Pharisees out on their spiritual blindness, because their preconceived notions block them from seeing what God is doing right in front of them. If you remember the passage, the Pharisees were not very happy with what Jesus had to say, as he described their refusal to see as sin.
That healing, and the confrontation about it, is one of the signs of this Gospel – Jesus’ identity as Messiah in full view. And the commentary on the sign is what we get in John 10, where Jesus identifies himself as the gate of the sheepfold, as well as the shepherd. He also talks about thieves and bandits, those who would do harm to the sheep – God’s people. And then Jesus identifies his purpose: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. His healing of the man born blind is a sign of God’s abundant life. Not only is the man now able to see, but he can take his place as a full and productive member of his community and family; the stigma of a person with a disability (strong in those days) has been lifted; the man is restored to right relationship with those around him; and he is drawn to follow Jesus as a disciple – an abundance of life on so many levels.
So what about us? How do we identify with Jesus as our Good Shepherd? Where do we see signs of healing, reconciliation, restoration that God does in our lives and community? And how do we reflect on them, ask the Holy Spirit to show us the deeper meaning and connection? Sometimes that meaning is revealed to us in prayer, or in Scripture reading, or in conversation with another person, or even when we are day-dreaming while walking the dog or washing dishes or cutting the grass.
Jesus’ purpose – of which the healing of the man born blind is a sign – is that we might have abundant life. And abundant life is about quality, not quantity; about value, not volume. Abundant life is the freedom we have from fear, isolation, meaningless. It cuts directly against the sometimes-popular saying: He who dies with the most toys wins. That is not abundant life; it is about relentless acquisition, about power, control, and score-keeping – a zero-sum game. God’s abundant life is never zero-sum, which refers to the idea that whatever I win or gain, you lose. That kind of thinking keeps us locked in a narrow, exhausting struggle that can choke out generosity, kindness, a sense of that which is good for all of us, a willingness to set aside one’s own desires in order to assist with the needs of another.
The passage from Acts 2 describes the abundant life as the first Christians experienced it: sharing study and fellowship; worship, Communion, and prayer; caring for one another’s physical and financial needs; being filled with gladness and gratitude for God’s presence and activity among them. There is joy here, and love, and care, and delight in God. This is the abundant life that Jesus gives us when we allow him to open our eyes, when we stop and reflect – as individuals and with one another as members of Jesus’ flock following our Good Shepherd.
An invitation for you to reflect on, ponder, and pray about: What is an experience of God’s abundant life that you have had? Where have you seen abundant life – in yourself, your family, or the wider community? What blessing, or goodness, or peace, or well-being has come to you from your faith? That’s abundant life, and it’s a chapter in God’s large, ongoing story that we are all connected to – you, and me, and everyone at All Saints’ and the disciples, and the man whose vision was healed….all the way back to the beginning of the story in Genesis.
God is the giver, and the author of our life story, and for that we say: Thanks be to God. Amen. Alleluia.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 7, 2017