Faith – life-giving or life-denying?

Easter 4 – Good Shepherd Sunday 2011

 John 10:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us life in abundance. Amen.

On the basis of years of familiarity, we sometimes take the meaning of biblical passages as self evident. However, on closer inspection, some at least, prove to be complex and difficult to understand. Such is the case with today’s gospel. We all know and love the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd who not only cares for the sheep, but who lays down his life for them. When we read John 10 we call to mind the 23rd Psalm. Perhaps we even remember that the prophets called the leaders of the Jews false shepherds and promised them one true shepherd – God.

If we look more carefully at the first ten verses of John chapter 10 we find that there is in fact much that is confusing. For example, is Jesus the shepherd or the gate? Is it possible that he is both? Who are the thieves and robbers? Is there just one flock or many in the sheepfold? Are ALL the shepherd’s sheep named and so on.

In order to answer these questions, I consulted two reputable commentaries on John’s gospel. You might be relieved to know that I am going to spare you the results of my research. Instead – I want you to imagine that we are having a revival meeting, and to the question: “Are you alive?” You all shout out “Yes” and then the question escalates: “Are you really alive?”  as does your answer “Yes!” Then it escalates still more: “Are you filled with the life of the risen Lord?” and you shout out: “Yes sister, Hallelujah.”

What a contrast that would be to our more subdued recital of what we believe. Every Sunday we say the Nicene Creed – a theological/intellectual statement about what we believe, but we say nothing about the transforming, life-giving power of God. In the Creed we affirm what we believe about God, but don’t proclaim God’s powerful presence in our lives. Being decent, reserved Anglicans, we don’t often declare publicly and loudly the blessings God has showered on us.

By our silence, we allow many in the world at large to continue to believe that being a Christian is about being good, about keeping the ten commandments and not rocking the boat. Sadly, this presents Christianity as a dry faith, a faith which demands obedience to an exacting God, when in reality our faith is living and dynamic faith in a God who gives more to us than he asks in return.

The problem, I think, is that it is so much easier (and safer) to tell people what to do than to free them to live. It is easier to teach people what they must do, than to find ways to open them to the possibility of God’s life-giving power. As a result, we teach do’s and don’ts, rather than being and not being. We are good at sharing what we must do: we must love God, we must love others. Loving others means that we must forgive others. We must walk the extra mile, turn the other cheek and so on. Add to that the list of all things we must not do and our faith an observance of rules not a relationship with the living God. Taken to its extreme, this expression of faith constricts a believer into a narrow, life-less way of living. It engenders guilt and a sense of unworthiness rather than opening the door to the fullness of life that is ours in Jesus Christ.

The sort of Christian faith that depends on what we do and don’t do is dangerous, not only because it is life-denying, but because it tends to self-absorption and egoism. It becomes more about us than about God, more about what we do for God than what God does for us. (as if we could ever presume that God needs us to do anything for God). This sort of faith bears a strong similarity to that of the Pharisees of whom Jesus was so critical.

The difference between the faith of the Pharisees and the gospel Jesus preaches is illustrated in today’s gospel. The Pharisees are the thieves and robbers who come only to steal and kill and destroy. On the other hand, Jesus the shepherd leads the flock out to pasture (the source of life). Jesus claims that he has come to bring not just life but abundant life. The rule bound approach to faith is life-destroying because it closes its eyes to possibility. Faith that is completely dependent on the Good Shepherd is life-giving and open to whatever God might do.

I wonder what the church would look life, if in God’s life we all lived abundantly -if our lives were so fulfilled, so rich, so full of joy and peace that others would simply catch the abundant life which Jesus offers. I wonder what would happen, if, instead of – or as well as  – reciting “We believe in one God etc” we declared that we believe in God – Creator, Saviour and Life-giver who not only gives us life in abundance, but who also blesses us with peace and love and joy. Imagine if we trusted God so much that we were able to stop striving to achieve our own goodness and were able to rest completely in God’s goodness. Imagine the freedom we would be able to share with the world if we really truly believed that Jesus died for us and that as a result our salvation had already been won. How liberating it would be if we truly believed that our eternal reward depended not on us, but on what God in Jesus has done for us.

According to John’s gospel the resurrection life begins now. We do not have to wait for an indefinite eternity to experience the life that Jesus has to offer. Jesus brings us out of darkness into light, gives us living water, bread from heaven and life in abundance. In short all that we need, we find in faith in Jesus. Our bones may ache, our income shrink, our dreams be shattered, the world may rage around us but in Jesus we find that we have all that we need and more.

Trying to achieve an illusive goal of goodness may stunt and constrain our growth as a person and as a spiritual being because we end up focussing on ourselves and not God. If we stop trying, if we stop trying to do it on our own, if we live what we believe knowing that God truly loves us, that God is always willing to forgive us, and that in Jesus God gives us life in abundance, if we really and truly allow God into our lives we may just find that God’s peace, love and goodness flow through us, such that our lives are transformed, and the goodness that we sought, becomes the goodness that we live.

Jesus said: “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” Let us live that life in such a way that others will seek to live it too.

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