15 November 2011

What is a Life and What is it For?

Psalm 23 & John 10: 1-15

22nd Sunday after Pentecost/ 13th November 2011

Both Psalm 23 and John 10 lift up familiar images of God as shepherd.  Actually, both of these texts are related.  The shepherd leads us into green pastures, to places of safety, nourishment, and growth.  These pastoral images have offered considerable comfort, especially during times of loss and grief.  Psalm 23 is often read at funerals, “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”  We imagine the psalm speaking about a heavenly pasture, of the life to come.

Jesus takes up the shepherd image, of course. He’s the good shepherd because he lays down his life for his sheep.  This is a remarkable statement, given that shepherds were despised in his day.  When Jesus takes up the image, however, he does something new and different with it.  First, the focus of John 10 is not on some far-off distant shore, as in Psalm 23.  John 10 is rarely read at funerals, probably because Jesus is not talking about a life to come, but life here and now.  “I came that they may have life,” Jesus said.  Life.  “…and to have it abundantly.”

            In John’s gospel, Jesus has a lot to say about life – Jesus is the light of life (John 10: 12), the way, the truth, and the life (John 14: 6).  The majestic prologue to John’s gospel draws our attention to this theme:  “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1: 3-4).  We also find plenty of reference to “eternal life” in John.  We might think that Jesus is talking about the afterlife, but he isn’t.  Jesus is concerned about this life, this world.  Eternal life might be better translated as life touched by eternity, or life informed by God’s presence.  Either way – eternal life or life touched by eternity – is not reserved for some far-off future time, but something we can possess in the present.  And we can hear it in Jesus’ high priestly prayer, in John 17,  “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have give him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.”  Now, listen carefully to what Jesus says. Eternal life is not reserved for the after-life, it’s not the reward for believing in Jesus, or what we get for accepting Christ as our savior.  Here’s Jesus’ definition of eternal life: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3).

            Can you hear this?  Eternal life is experienced here and now.  How?  When we know God.  Know God.  It doesn’t say, when we have belief in or faith in God.  It doesn’t say, when we know about God.  It says, when we know God – have a personal knowledge of who God is, who God is for us and for our neighbor and for the world.   It also claims that eternal life is given when we know who Jesus is as the Christ, and that to know this Jesus – not just believe in him, not just know something about him, but to know him – is to know God.  To know one is to know the other.

            To know Jesus as shepherd is to know God as shepherd.  And what does a shepherd do?  A shepherd keeps the flock intact, protects the flock, and provides food.  Of course we can see all of these qualities in both God and Jesus.  But we need to know more than this.

            It was common for shepherds in the Middle East to give each of their sheep a name.  We can hear this in the text: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (Jn. 10:3) of the pend.  This verse attests to God’s high esteem accorded to human beings.  Later, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14).  This too is a remarkable claim and it’s easy to miss its significance.  You see, Jesus does not love in general.  Jesus loves in particular.   Jesus’ love is not love in general, but always in particular.  “I know my own and my own know me.”  Knowledge of Jesus is not in the abstract, it’s not intellectual, nor even theoretical.  It’s intensely personal.  It’s a personal knowledge.  It’s a particular knowledge of Jesus because we have been and are being known by Jesus.  “I know my own and my own know me.”

            Jesus doesn’t stop here.  He expands the metaphor.  Not only is Jesus a good shepherd, Jesus is also the gate for the sheep.  To which the disciples offer a profound theological response: “Huh? – What are you talking about; this is confusing.”  How can Jesus be both the shepherd and the gate through which the shepherd walks, leading the way for the sheep?  The brain starts to hurt pondering on this image.  Now there will be a tendency in us to say either he’s a shepherd or a gate, but not both.  We have to resist this temptation. 

            Working on this text this week, I remembered one of my religion professors at Rutgers College making a comment about this confusing text.   It was a class on the gospel of John, the professor’s name was Bart Ehrman.  Today, Ehrman  is a New Testament professor at UNC-Chapel Hill  and a best-selling, having published twenty books.  When I had him as a professor he was a Christian, but he’s not one today.  I can remember Ehrman’s quizzical, puzzling response to these verses about the shepherd and the gate.  It didn’t make any sense to him and therefore wasn’t very useful or edifying, so we moved on.  I’m not sure what he would say today.  Since then in my journey, one of my core convictions is that deep truth and profound wisdom are almost never found through either-or thinking, but always discovered through both-and.  Jesus is both shepherd of the sheep and the gate by which the sheep enter and leave the pen.  We have to hold the tension.  Holding the tension of the metaphor helps to remind us that Jesus is a person, not an idea or even a collection of beliefs about him.  Like all human beings he is irreducible, that is he can’t be reduced to this or that, but requires respect as a complex being, like all of us.

            And it’s the person that matters.  As I stressed several weeks ago, it’s not the ideas or beliefs about Jesus that are the way, the truth, and the life.  He is the way.  He is the truth.  He is the life.  He gives us himself, his person, and it’s through the relationship with him and his way of bringing us into the life of God and God’s truth, that call us to eternal life, or God’s life.

            The gate statement was was difficult for the disciples to wrap their heads around, so Jesus says to them, again, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate…” He is the gate.  Not the church, not theological orthodoxy.  He is the gate.  Although we find a reference to gatekeeper earlier in the chapter, here Jesus says he is the gate.  The sheep come and go through him.  He is a kind of threshold or doorway.  He is the thoroughfare through which we move, through which we come and go.  And it is through him as gate that we are led by him out from the confines of the sheep-pend out onto vast, broad, safe, green pastures. And it’s out there in the fields of the Lord we feed on the food that yields life! 

            “I am the gate.  Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9).  By “saved” Jesus means saved from those who seek to rob and steal us from life.  The Greek here suggests a thief who robs, steals, and kills for food and does not allow the sheep to fully develop or grow. Jesus wants us to develop and to grow and to grow up.  We are safe to come and go – where? – to find pasture.  He grants us freedom to come and to go find the place that yields life.  For “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

            This is not just ordinary life.  But zoē life.  There are two Greek words for life, bios and zoēBios is basic, functional existence.  That which allows us to survive.  Zoē is life-giving, generative life.  It creates.  Bios is about surviving; zoē has to do with thriving.  I came that you may thrive, Jesus says.  Jesus doesn’t just want us to “get by,” but to thrive, perisson – abundantly.  This word suggests life that is superfluous, more than is necessary for life, it suggests surplus, it means to have it all.  Not “up there” after we die alone, but here and now.  This is the same resurrection life of God that raised Jesus from death.  It’s the life that will never die.  And it’s offer to you and me when we are found in him.  Or, to put it another way, we experience this life when we are in Christ, when we follow him, listen to his voice, dwell in his presence; know, as our baptisms attest, that our lives are hidden in his.

            The life of God Jesus holds out to all of us is about thriving, about coming to life.  So many people have come to believe that life is about surviving, the survival of the fittest, of achieving, having more “toys,” winning, getting ahead. At some level the Occupy movement on Wall Street in Manhattan and in other cities is tapping into the deep dissatisfaction in American life, that existence has to mean more than accruing wealth and greed and capitalism absent a moral ethic.  There are many for whom life is about survival; some are just trying to hold on, one day at a time.  I’ve come to believe, dare I say, know, that this is not God’s intent for God’s children.  Life was and is meant for so much more.  How this thriving will be enfleshed in your life will be particular to who you are, to your circumstances, your life-experience.  But I’m convinced that God wants us, every one of us, to come alive.  

            The spiritual life, the way of faith and discipleship, the way of the cross is figuring out how and what and why and where God’s life will be lived in us.  The answer, I’m convinced, will be found, not through simply belief in Jesus or ideas about God.  God doesn’t want our beliefs or our ideas.  God doesn’t need our beliefs and our ideas.  In fact, as heretical as this might sound, God does really need our faith.  God wants us – not to possess us, but in order to love us, deeply, intimately, so that we know just how loved we really are, right now, completely, every part of the us, the good and bad, the light and the shadow.  Right now.  As Paul said to the Corinthians, “Now is the day of God’s favor. Today is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2)! 

            With Jesus’ words here in John 10 and his priestly prayer in John 17, we have been allowed to witness the deep communion between Jesus and God.  We’ve been given a glimpse of this relationship in order that we too come to know – not believe, but know – that this is what is available to all us: a deep union, a profound communion of our spirits with the Spirit of God.  Through this relationship, through deep prayer, through worship, through service, staying close to God, learning from Jesus how to relate to God, we follow after him and follow this pattern.  Jesus’ way with God, we then discover, is the gate, as the way he is the gate, the gate through which we move out into the pastures of freedom and abundance, of life. 

            The contemporary poet, Mary Oliver, asks, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”[1] That’s the question. Or, to theologically reframe her question,  “What are you going to do with your now resurrected life?”[2]  What is a life and what is it for?[3] 

            How we answer these questions, “live the questions now,” as Rilke (1875-1926) said, will shape our lives and the lives of our children.[4]  Living into these questions, I’m convinced, will lead us to green pastures and still waters, water that revives and blesses us, onto vast, broad pastures of freedom.

            I can’t tell you what that the pasture will look like from your perspective.  I can’t tell you how to get there.  I can’t tell you what you should or should not do.  No one can.  You have to discover that for yourself, listening to God’s voice, following Jesus’ way.  Yes, together in community, but you have search for it. If you ask for it, Jesus said, you will receive it.  What is a life and what is it for?  If you seek it, you will surely find it (Matthew 7:7).

[1] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems (New York:  Beacon Press, 1992), 94.
[2] This is what Richard Rohr deems to be “the heroic question” in Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2011), 21.
[3] This is a variation of James E. Loder’s  (1931-2001) question, “What is a lifetime and what is it for?”  See The Logic of the Spirit:  Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998).
[4] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (1903):  “Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”  

Image:  Georges Rouault (1871-1958), Crucifixion

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