A Sermon while reading The Pagan Christ (Tom Harpur)
John 10:1-10 ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.' 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
John 5:24 Anyone who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. 24Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.
NRSV Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved
Jesus Christ said ''I have come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly"
The Life he is talking about is Life with a capital "L". The Gospel of John also calls this Eternal Life.
If we ask what this term eternal life means, we run out of words. We don't really understand it; it's something toward which we are called more than something we understand.... Something we are asked to live, rather than something neatly definable for which we can write down a recipe..
But... clearly.... it is meant to be THE BEST there is! Life, and life more abundantly.
We are also told by the scriptures that Eternal Life is now! John 5 tells us this: Jesus says "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life."
We are not waiting for eternal life- it is now. It is not after death; it is now. If we are hanging out for when we get to heaven- (whatever that is)- there is some profound way in which we are wasting time and opportunity! It's now! To quote the movie title, there is some way in which now can be "as good as it gets!"
In our reading, the figure of Jesus says, "All who came before me are thieves and bandits," and, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy." We are reminded of the constant warnings throughout the whole scripture of false prophets and false shepherds. So let us ask, who are the false shepherds?
There is a tendency in us 21st century people to think in religious terms when we ask this question. But when the gospel was written, there was no division between things that were religious, and things that were not. At the time of writing everything was religious.... so although we may tend to see the story being about religious shepherds... it's about any shepherds... any leaders. And not leaders only in the sense of people. The "lead-er" is a person, or a thing, or an idea, which promises Life.
The great false shepherd who absolutely overshadows our society is the promise of the Australian dream. If you have the right clothes as a teenager, the right grades, the right job, the right partner and the right house in the right suburb, along with the right car and clothes-- life will be happy. This is Eternal Life. This is what the TV promises us night after night, year after year.
I will not back down from that statement. When John Howard- or Kim Beazley- stands up and speaks, it is about economics, and consumption, and maintaining all that. That is the basis of policy in our society. People, in reality, come a poor second.
The truth is that money does not make us happy. Although family can be a great blessing, it can also be the source of our greatest grief. Possessions, and even knowledge, can be a great thing, but they do not give us Life.
This Christian document called the Gospel of John is saying that Jesus is the Gateway to Life. I am the way, the truth and the life, he says. Whoever believes in him shall have eternal life says John 3:16.
Belief is not about intellectual assent. It's not saying "I believe in Jesus" like we would say "I believe there are 6 states and two territories" at some great cosmic quiz night so that we get enough points to win the prize of eternal life.
We only get whatever, and wherever a Gateway offers, by going through the gate! This "whoever believes in him" is participatory belief. Whoever believes by going through the gate... whoever believes by living the same life... whoever dies and is born again like he was...
If we remember the story of Nicodemus, we remember the poor man saying, "How can someone go back into their mother's womb and be born again?" The whole point of that story, and of this whole gospel, is to tell us that life is on two levels... There is the predictable, day to day, mundane and ordinary.... and there is something more, something else... something called Life with a capital L, that we can have more abundantly. Some-thing that goes beyond the overly rational, unimaginative, and un-in-spired kind of lives we so often lead. Some-thing more than second best.
Early Christianity had much in common with the Gnostic religions of its time. In these, a spark of divine life in each one of us was understood to be trapped in the material world, but finally made its escape back up to the heavens. Many of the old Gnostic myths sound suspiciously like the story of Jesus... or perhaps Jesus story sounds suspiciously like them... because they too had a great truth. They had the truth about something God-Like within each one of us that is profound and other worldly, and yearns to be connected to God.
The early church was extraordinarily hostile to these Gnostic religions, and essentially wiped them out. To be honest, the church was barbaric and philistine... (which is not to say the people on the other sides of these battles were not.)
In the whole argument, one thing which it seems to me the church had right, was its insistence on the value of the material, physical world. It may well have been hung up on sex (and we still are!), but the early church said that the material world mattered... and I think they were right... The earth is good. God saw what God had made, and it was good.
So when we come to Abundant Life, what is the voice of this Jesus calling us to today? What is he talking about?
He is not talking about the material things that perish. We will not be saved- that is we will not find the greater heights, or depths, of what life is about by having the latest car, or the most money.
Jesus is talking about a different quality of life. A Life that is completed and full. A life that has a certain satisfaction, and is at one with the world.
It is a life that can walk out into the night and gaze up at the stars and be at one with the world. A life that can walk down to the river through the Goldfields, thinking about the people who struggled there during the depression, and who earlier dug for gold, and who hunted for millennia before that, and a life that can sit by the river, and be at peace next to the water, and talk to the ants, and marvel at the trees. The same life can go back to the city, and enjoy the buzz of the Mall, feel compassion for the bag lady with her trolley, and be outraged at the crass materialism of the shops, and yet smile and enjoy the fun, and the hope, of the kids gathering after school. It can feel afraid of the groups of uncertain young men who ooze aggression, and yet it enjoy being alive. It is a Life that is full. A Life that is at-one... at peace... and in the end, not alienated, whatever it suffers.
And it feels... it knows... the unspeakable greatness all around us.
Finally, I want to say something about the Gate. Jesus clearly says in one place that those who are not against us are for us. There are other paths to God than the one we have chosen. A person can follow another path that that sounds strangely christian-like in its attitudes and compassion. In talking we find we experience the same depth... the same Eternal Life; I find it when I listen to one of my Muslim friends. She and I know the same thing.
But be warned... there are false shepherds and blind guides. Not every path leads to the top of the mountain. When he says I am the Way, it is a serious claim. It involves love, selflessness, compassion, empathy, mercy, justice, kindness, and the best vision of God's desire for all life, that we can imagine. Underestimate the claim, and even calling ourselves by the name of Christ we may find we have been like those the Christ condemned: you travel land and sea to make one convert, and then make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
Look for eternal life... and seek to enter in through the gate. Amen
Posted April 2005
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