The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
On June 8, 2016 British newspaper The Telegraph, reported that a flock of over 1,300 sheep "had to be rounded up by police in the Spanish city of Huesca after their shepherd fell asleep." The article continued: “According to city authorities, the police were alerted to the presence of the extremely large flock attempting to negotiate the streets in the center of Huesca at around 4.30am … when a local resident dialed Spain's emergency number.
The police eventually found the shepherd, who was still peacefully slumbering. Together the embarrassed shepherd and police officers were eventually able to extract the sheep from the city and return them to their pastures.
In today’s gospel lesson the character of the true shepherd is brought into sharp focus. The shepherd “calls his sheep by name and leads them out”; the shepherd’s voce is known by the sheep; the shepherd keeps them safe and leads them to find pasture. It is a clear reference to Psalm 23—a Psalm we often refer to by its first line, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I remind you too of a line from another Psalm, Psalm 121—“he who keeps you will not slumber.” Jesus is never asleep at the switch, to use another metaphor. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is guided by his passionate purpose for us. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
1. In John’s gospel there are a series of wonderful stores of people encountering Jesus. The gospel writer wants hearers to know what it was like to meet Jesus. First it is Nicodemus an educated, well connected society leader who comes to Jesus. Next a woman of Samaria with a history of broken relationships meets Jesus at a well. Encounter stories also include a man born blind whom Jesus heals and meeting disciples Martha and Mary when their brother Lazarus died. There is a pattern in these stories of encounter with Jesus; a vivid recounting of the events followed by teaching of Jesus that the story illustrates.
The portion of John’s gospel we read today—the beginning of chapter ten—is from the teaching portion of one of these encounter stories. The story begins in the ninth chapter where Jesus heals the sight of a man who was born blind. It culminates when Jesus asks the man, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him.” (John 9:35-38)
The point I invite you to consider is that the Apostle John tells this story of Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind as an instance that shows the character of the good shepherd. The healing of the man born blind is an instance of what Jesus means by “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” To be sure, it means ever so much more, but it certainly includes the wonderful gift of healing for this man.
The question Jesus puts to this man—“Do you believe in the Son of Man?”—John’s gospel puts to all of us. Do you believe that Jesus came to give us life and that more abundantly? Or are we inclined to think that Jesus came to lay restrictions on life and that very narrowly? Will we believe him?
2. I invite you to take some time today to reread the story again in John chapter nine. As you would return to reread you will find that not everyone in the story was happy for this man. They weren’t happy precisely because of what it meant with regard to Jesus. What is on display is the outright refusal of many to believe. Religious leaders in this story were engaging in all sorts of intellectual and theological contortions in order to deny what was obvious—the man born blind could now see. These contortions emerge because of where it pointed them—to Jesus. They want nothing to do with him.
Doménikos Theotokópoulos, most widely known as El Greco, was a painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish renaissance. One of his more famous works, completed in 1614, is the Opening of the Fifth Seal that depicts a scene from the sixth chapter of the Revelation of St. John (Revelation 6:9-11) It was painted for the side-altar if the church of St. John near Toledo, Spain. Today it hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Evoking the opening of the Fifth Seal, the martyrs who bore faithful witness are given white robes while John (it seems) looks heavenward toward the epiphany of the Lamb. The colours of the painting are themselves a startling revelation of another reality
However, the painting as we view it today is a fragment. The canvas that hangs in the Met doesn't tell the whole story. In the course of a "restoration" around 1880, the unfinished canvas was trimmed by at least 175cm. In the name of "improvement," the scene is truncated by almost half. And so, as one author put it, this seems a fitting parable of modernity. The exultant arms of John the Revelator reach upward to—nothing: to the top of the frame, to the edge of the canvas. The martyrs seem to receive gifts from nowhere, and John seems to praise the nonexistent. All of them seem to look for something no longer there.
In the Revelation of St. John the Lamb of God, Jesus, is the one depicted as opening the seal. He is the one John is holding his arms toward. In John’s witness in his gospel, Jesus is the one crucial common denominator in all these encounter stories. But what we, in our post-modern world, tend to do is cut Jesus out of the picture. Like many in the first century, many today reach for alternate understanding of this story. We see it as the antiquated story told to make Jesus look good; or as a parable or metaphor told to illustrate gaining spiritual insight. The Revelation is a kind of fantasy land and not to be taken seriously.
Will we believe Jesus? I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
3. As we have noted, we can miss the larger context of a particular text when we read the Bible in the short segments that are set out in what we call the Lectionary. We have seen how this saying of Jesus about abundant life is placed as part of a larger story about the healing of a man born blind. We took note of the pattern of story, followed by our Lord’s teaching that helps us understand the story. It also needs to be noted that we stopped in our reading before we read the entire teaching portion that follows the story. The picture got cropped on both ends, so to speak. In the next sentence following our Lord’s saying that he came that we may have life Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
Jesus is claiming to be this good shepherd. Immediately in the phrase “I am the Good Shepherd” we hear the way God identified God’s self as “I am that I am” to Moses when Moses asked for God to disclose God’s name. (Exodus 3:14) And, as noted already, we can’t help but hear David’s voice in his Psalm—the Lord is my shepherd.
In these affirmations Jesus makes about being true-life’s shepherd he says, “I am the gate.” It has puzzled many commentators because Jesus seems to be mixing his metaphors. John says that people did not understand his talk of being shepherd because he used a figure of speech and his self- declaration as the gate was said as clarification.
Why is Jesus a gate? The author of one commentary offered the following story in explanation. Apparently while doing some research in the Middle East, the Bible commentator ran across an Arab shepherd. This shepherd was not a Christian and did not know the Bible. But he was a keeper of sheep and so was showing off his flock as well as the penned-in area where his sheep slept every night. "And when they go in there," the shepherd said proudly, "they are perfectly safe." But then the scholar noticed something. "Your sheep sleep in that pen and yet I just noticed that the pen does not have a gate on it." "Yes, that's right," the shepherd replied, "I am the gate." "What do you mean?" the man asked in startled wonder. "After my sheep are in the pen, I lay my body across the opening. No sheep will step over me and no wolf can get in without getting past me first. I am the gate." Here is an image to savor. Perhaps this may explain how Jesus can so freely mix up the imagery of being at once the shepherd and the gate.
Today in our service we are sharing in the sacrament of baptism; the sacrament of initiation into faith in Jesus Christ. Parents have brought their children to be named for Christ. What are your hopes for your children? What do we hope for our children and grandchildren? If parents here this morning we asked to paint a picture of what their child’s life would look like twenty-five years or thirty years from now what it look like? What do we dream for them? What does the life we want for them look like?
I ask this question in order to ask another one—the question I have been probing in the sermon; the question our text puts to us. Do we believe Jesus that he came that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” Imagine now holding your child or grandchild in your arms. Cradle them there for a moment, look into their eyes. They are beautiful wee creatures, are they not? Now listen to Jesus as he stands over your shoulder and whispers in your ear, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Do you believe Jesus? Baptism is the sacrament in which we say “yes.”
Faith, Biblical faith, is a verb. Faith is seen in our doing. What will our “yes” look like when we take our children home? I have recently revisited a book I have in my library titled On Being Human: Essays on Theological Anthropology. The author Ray Anderson probes the Biblical picture of what it means to be human; what distinguishes humans from the rest of God’s creatures. The distinguishing feature is that God speaks to the human—our humanness is a response to the creative divine Word. John tells us in his Gospel that Jesus is this word—in him was life and the life was the light of all people.
Put another way—we were created for relationship with God. To know life in its true reality is to know Jesus Christ. If you want your children to have the life that really is life then the very best thing you can do is introduce them to Jesus. Pray with them. Read the stories of Jesus with them. And ever more significantly grow in your own relationship with him. Model faith for them. Jesus wants life for them, and that abundantly—way beyond your wildest imaginations.
I began the sermon today with a story about some sheep who wandered away from their sleeping shepherd. It is fitting to conclude with how the Apostle Peter describes the experience of faith in Christ. “He (Jesus) himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”