Tuesday, August 2, 2011

How God Inflicts Abundant Life on Us

Ordination of Jeanette Bidne
Trinity Lutheran Church, Kiester, MN
July 31, 2011
John 10:10b
[Jesus said]  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
You love this verse, Jeanette…and as you’ve made your way through seminary and the ELCA candidacy process, you’ve kept coming back to this promise of our Lord—again and again and again.

And you are by no means alone.   Any number of us here this afternoon, if asked to name our 20 favorite Bible verses would probably include this one:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

This is one of the Bible’s “keepers,” isn’t it?   This is a wall-plaque, embroidered-pillow, tattoo-it-on-your-forehead verse:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Amen and amen!

But can we really talk this way nowadays?  Can we get by with it—especially now when ANY talk of “abundance” seems out of place?

Thomas Friedman, one of my favorite newspaper columnists, says that “we are leaving an era where to be a mayor, governor, senator or president was, on balance, to give things away to people. And we are entering an era where to be a leader will mean, on balance, to take things away from people. It is the only way we’ll get our fiscal house in order before the market, brutally, does it for us.”  (New York Times, December 25, 2010)

Abundance, argues Friedman—in any meaningful sense—abundance is a thing of the past.    We have entered the lean years for our country and our planet.   Life is a zero-sum game.   The pie is only so big…and we all need to learn how to live on a smaller slice of it.

“Abundantly” is a word destined for the moth balls.    Abundance is a thing of the past in all aspects of life.   We are short in the marketplace, but also we’re short on intangibles like civility, reasonableness, goodwill, compromise and mutual sacrifice for the common good.

And, as if all that were not enough, we also seem to be fresh out of things like safety and security and hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Deprivation, not abundance, feels like the “coin of the realm.”  

And yet Jesus, here in John chapter 10, goes against the grain, speaking a distinctly counter-cultural word:  “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Jeanette, are you sure you really want to invest so much in this one verse and all that it represents?  It’s a little naïve, don’t you think?   How about, instead, a dose of cold, hard realism?

Unless, of course, that’s exactly what this verse is setting forth here, right under our noses.   Because the context of this beloved verse is the sheep-fold.   The “frame” for this passage in John is filled with cold, hard realism that boils down to this:  there is always something or someone who wants to fleece the flock, attack the sheep, and have fresh mutton for supper.

Jesus comes on the scene here, fully aware that wherever there are sheep there are thieves and imposters and rustlers who only want to “steal and kill and destroy” (v. 10a).   Deprivation, oppression and loss mark the natural state of things in this fallen world.   And Jesus is no Pollyanna about that.

It’s just that Jesus is not willing to allow those harsh, cold realities to have a future with us--his beloved flock.  

Jesus isn’t some serene guru teaching timeless truths here.  Jesus is, rather, the tip of the spear of an invasion force that’s taking over this poor, old, dying world.   And his aim is quite simple:  to inflict life, God’s life, upon us!    “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Today, Jeanette, you formally help lead this invasion force that even now is turning the world upside down and challenging every bit of conventional wisdom we live by.   Jesus, having already recruited you, now formally enlists you to “call out” everything and everyone who would “steal and kill and destroy” members of his precious flock.

You are being set aside to announce until you’re blue in the face this fresh new reality:  “I—Jesus!--have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

 And what might that look like?

 In her book Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean suggests that the abundant life Jesus brings is marked by at least four things:  a creed that grounds us, a community that enfolds us, a mission that captures us, and a hope that draws us into God’s tomorrow.

 So in a world filled with all sorts of competing God-stories and alternative explanations of reality, the church invites you, Jeanette, to sally forth with the greatest story, the truest account of what matters most.  It is the story of God’s intoxicating love for all that God has made, a mercy so overpowering that God couldn’t resist becoming one of us, entering into every nook and cranny of our lives, even to the point of dying with us which was also a dying for us, in Jesus Christ.   That’s how God has unleashed, how God has inflicted “abundant life” on the world—life that in the power of Christ’s resurrection continues to expand and multiply and grow—through us—until it fills the universe, until God is “all in all.”

 That, Jeanette, or something like it is the creed that claims us, the story that grounds us.   We Christian preachers are the original Johnny-one-notes, because when all is said and done, we just have Jesus to offer to a depleted, dried up, “fresh-out-of-everything “world.

 This creed that claims us produces a community that enfolds us.   Think of the “abundant life” that Jesus came to bring less as a deep, pristine lake and more as a wide, swift-flowing river….catching up in its compelling current everyone it washes over.   For that is how Christ’s abundant life keeps expanding—it invades us and commandeers us to invade others with it as well.   Jesus’ abundant life is the only thing that multiples as it is divided.

 I have not yet come to know directly the community of Christ at Esther Lutheran Church.   But this much I do know:  persons who come in contact with this congregation have a hard time keeping their feet on the ground afterward.   I’ve heard that in your voice, Jeanette, as you breathlessly tell others about your first few times at Esther….and I run into it every time my colleague Pastor Laurie Natwick comes back from a meeting with the council or call committee or members of Esther.  It sometimes takes me a day or two to bring Laurie back down to earth.  It’s as if the folks at Esther have gotten a little giddy on God’s intoxicating love in Jesus Christ, so much so that they’ve forgotten all the reasons why things will never work.   The Esther congregation has gotten to thinking that God is alive and well and catching them up in his mission.   (I wonder, Jeanette, whether in addition to issuing you a ministerial stole this afternoon, we perhaps should also hand over a crash helmet and a life preserver or two…)

 Which brings me to the third mark of what Christ’s abundant life is like:  it’s a life centered around and fully invested in God’s mission of rescuing and reclaiming the whole creation.  This mission of God captures our imagination and gives us purpose.

 Awash in Jesus’ abundant life, we simply know in our heart of hearts that this is too good to keep for ourselves.    As Kenda Creasy Dean puts it:  “When we realize what God has done, when we discover that Christ has bound himself to us so radically that nothing can separate us from him when we gratefully reciprocate by fastening our lives to his life, death and resurrection in baptism, the Holy Spirit empowers us to consciously participate in the life of God.  Where Jesus goes, we go; when Christ suffers, we suffer; what God gives, we give.  Our lives are so bound up with Christ that the Holy Spirit gives us more of God’s love than we can fathom or hold…This is how God enters the world:  through people like us.”  (Almost Christian, p. 88)

 What kind of foolishness is this?  It’s the foolishness of people who fearlessly believe that God stands at the end of history—that boundless hope draws us forward into God’s tomorrow.  Jeanette, this is the fourth mark of the abundant life that Jesus rains down upon us.    Let your preaching and living of the gospel be suffused with a contagious hope in Jesus Christ, that your hearers won’t be able to avoid “leaning into” God’s coming kingdom.

 There is nothing naïve about any of this, Jeanette.  Jesus isn’t backing down from any of his promises to us.  Most assuredly—in the face of all naysayers—Jesus insists that we have life, and have it abundantly.   That’s really all you have to say and live and help God’s people wrap themselves around, for as long as God gives you breath.

 Jesus said:  “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”    We take him at his word.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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