Monday, May 16, 2011

Life with abundance or life in abundance?

Sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday, Easter 4A, preached Sunday, May 15, 2011

    We love the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd carrying the lambs in His arms but we often struggle with where Jesus is taking us, with what kind of life and abundant life He has promised.  What does Jesus mean?  Is it life with abundance or life in abundance?  What does the Good Shepherd offer to us?  Some have tried to tell us that it is life with abundance - with an abundance of health, of material things, of friends, of happiness, of accomplishments.  Certainly this is an appealing idea of abundant life but is this what Jesus promises to us?  Others say this is not about this life at all but about the eternal life that begins when this life is over.  Is this what Jesus promises?  Or could it be that Jesus speaking of life IN abundance – both now and forever?
    Even those who talk about naming and claiming your blessings from God are fearful of promising good health, lots of wealth, and much happiness to everyone.  I think down deep we know that Jesus is not promising us everything we might want, everything that the world uses to define what is a good or well equipped or well lived life.  But we still struggle to know what to expect from our Lord, what kind of life this abundant life is, and how this squares with the reality of sorrows, struggles, troubles and trials which we heard about in the Epistle lesson for today.
    If Jesus is promises life with abundance, with all the things we desire to make our lives rich in things and happy as the world might define happiness, then what do we do with those words from Peter?  What about Jesus' own talk about cross bearing?  What about His warnings of suffering and persecution to come?  If it is life with abundance, why do the Scriptures speak so much about the poor?  Why does Jesus tell us to share what we have and give away anything extra to the poor?  No, if Jesus is talking about life with an abundance of things, of wealth, of good health, of accomplishment and of happiness, then the rest of His words seem completely out of place.
    If Jesus means that our mortal Christian lives will be free from distraction or any limitation, what about St. Paul’s thorn in the flesh?  He tried to reason with God about how much more he could do for the kingdom if he were rid of it but God seemed unconvinced by this argument.  This affliction caused him no small amount of agony limited his idea of how he could serve the Lord but God did not take it away.  Instead, He gave Him grace sufficient to endure it and a strength made perfect even in the midst of Paul's weakness.  If Jesus is promising us life with abundance, then these words seem starkly out of place.
    But if Jesus is promising life IN abundance, then His promise is not compromised by the limitations and afflictions that we bear in our mortal lives.  Just the opposite, this life in abundance is the hope that carries us through all our earthly disappointments, limitations, trials, and troubles and cannot keep us from the heavenly joy that we know now in part and will know soon in full in heaven.
    Life WITH abundance is all about the present moment but life IN abundance is not limited to the present moment and lasts beyond the grave.  Jesus cautions us against judging our lives on the basis of whatever affliction or sorrow or struggle that would drag us down in this present moment or whatever triumph would cause us to ascend.  Neither success nor failure defines or detracts from the life IN abundance that He is come to give us.  Jesus gives us this life IN abundance to live NOW while at the same time preparing us for even more in the life which is to come, when we shall pass with Christ to our own joyful resurrection.
    Life IN abundance is life where sins are forgiven and where this gift of forgiveness comes to us as free grace through the cross.  Life in abundance is life where our sins no longer bind us like chains but are borne by the innocent Savior who bestows upon us guilty His righteousness by baptism and faith.  Life in abundance is grace, free grace, given to us in Christ and revealed to us in the death and resurrection of our Lord.  This abundant life is life reclaimed from death and its power in baptism where we died and rose with Christ.
    Life in abundance is life declared just and righteousness to those who stand in Christ by baptism.  The Good Shepherd offers Himself for His sheep and bestows upon them what is His alone to give.  This life in abundance is life fed and nourished in the food of the Eucharist, the table set in the presence of our enemies, where heaven's food becomes the food that sustains us mortals until we too are raised with Christ to the new and ever-lasting life He has promised.  Life in abundance is life not earned or deserved but given to the unworthy and undeserving, owned by faith for all eternity.  Here in the Eucharist we receive this abundance to carry us through the present and as pledge, promise, and foretaste of that which is to come.
    Secure in the grasp of this grace, we are not consumed by what comes our way in this mortal life.  We are not consumed by lack or overcome by trial or overwhelmed by struggle – nor are we deceived by our earthly triumphs.  We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  The Good Shepherd has us secure in the grasp of grace so that He makes us strong in our weakness and carries us through with the all sufficient grace of His suffering, death, and resurrection.
    The funny thing is that we still think of abundant life as life with full pockets and we are often disappointed when we do not get all we want or expect.  Even though we may not go home with full pockets, we leave God’s House with full lives, where sin’s stain is washed clean, where death’s sting is removed, and where the grave no longer is the spoiler that steals away all that is good in life.  We come for life with abundance and yet we receive life in abundance – flowing from the cross and filling the void of that empty tomb.  This is what our Good Shepherd gives us.
    We long for life WITH abundance – lots of stuff, lots of happiness, lots of health, lots of friends, lots of accomplishments to point to... who wouldn't?  But we carry His gift in earthen vessels.  Life with all its struggles and limits.  Still we are not overcome and we are not defeated.  When we search for signs that we are blessed, we point not to things or health or money or achievements but to Christ the Good Shepherd.  Even in sufferings, He is there.  Even in our lack, He makes us rich. In our loneliness, He watches over us.  In our peril, He protects us.  In our poverty, He supplies us.  In our sin, He forgives us.  In our failure, He restores us.  In our death, He gives us life now and forever.  Our Good Shepherd carries us lambs in His arms to the life that is full and free, born of His suffering and death, marked on us in baptism where He has called us by name, and refreshed in us at His table set in the presence of our enemies.  Lord, give us this life now... and always.  Amen.

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