I listened to a talk earlier in the week by someone who works for Google. He recounts that the software engineers there, in the plain-speaking way of engineers everywhere, have what they call the “WTF question”. If someone presents an interesting but obscure idea, then they’re presented with the WTF question. Jesus could be disarmingly direct and to-the-point, but he also had a liking for parables and complex images, and his disciples seem to have done a fair bit of asking of the WTF question, including in this passage. And as I read on a blog recently, explaining a parable is like explaining a joke: even if you do it really well, you’ve still missed the point.
So it is here. The image of Jesus as a good shepherd is found in all four gospels, and the fourth Sunday after Easter is often called Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s a well-loved image, much preached on and much portrayed in art. The people of Jesus’ time knew about sheep and shepherds, so Jesus kept coming back to stories about shepherds.
Like most of the rest of the gospel of John, this passage is rich in imagery. There are sheep, a shepherd and his voice, gates and sheepfolds, thieves and bandits, strangers. It’s a strange cast of characters. And when we’re told that the disciples didn’t understand it, Jesus introduces another layer of images. What are we to make of it all?
I don’t intend a full verse-by-verse exegesis of this passage. I have two observations to make about the context of the piece, and then I want to skip ahead to the end, the final verse which is the one that really fascinates me. On the context, then. Sheep in 1st century Judaea were mostly kept for wool, not meat – so that the shepherd kept a herd together and developed a close bond with the sheep over a number of years. So Jesus is describing a long-term relationship, not a short bit of guarding then off to the slaughterhouse. The second bit of context concerns gates and sheep-folds. In the town, sheep were guarded with a proper locked gate. But when out in the country, sheep were kept in a simple pen with walls and one entrance. It didn’t have a gate – instead the shepherd sat or lay across the entrance to keep the sheep in and the predators out. So in saying he is the gate, Jesus is being less obscure than you might think – it was what shepherds did. He knows his flock, he protects his flock.
But on to that final verse, or indeed its second half. “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” – or have it to the full, in some translations. I genuinely believe that this may be the most important sentence in the entire gospel. Elsewhere we are told of Jesus’ actions, of his preaching and life and death. But here he sums up for himself the core of his purpose. He hasn’t come to bring us rules, he hasn’t come to convince us of our sin, to rub our unworthiness in our faces. He has come to bring us LIFE. It’s the great theme that runs throughout John’s gospel. It opens with the statement that “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people”. Jesus tells us that he is the bread of life, that those who follow him will have the light of life, that those who believe in him will have eternal life.
But this is not just any old life. This is not the boring and mundane life, the grey life of the 9-5 drudge with little sense of life. This is life in abundance, life lived to the full. The word in Greek, perissos, has a sense of surplus, of something that is more than enough. My cup overflows. This is not about greed or excess. It’s not about taking from others. It’s about living a life that is full of joy, that is suffused with an awareness of God’s love. The American preacher and author John Ortberg talks about becoming the people God created us to be. He asks the question: “what do you do that makes you feel fully alive?” This isn’t about momentary pleasure, the sort of kick you get from eating chocolate or drinking your favourite tipple or watching a mindless but fun television programme. It’s about deep satisfaction.
What do you do that makes you feel fully alive? It differs for each of us. For me, I feel at my most fulfilled when I’m really properly spending time with my wife and children; when I’m singing a complex piece of music in a choir that I’ve got to know really well and which engages my soul as much as my voice; when I’m writing (whether it’s a sermon, a blog post or an academic paper) surrounded by books and websites and full of ideas in all directions which somehow come together; or when I’m worshipping and totally carried along by the experience. For other people it’s a different combination.
These things are a tiny taste of heaven. But I believe that Jesus came to show us that this kind of life, and richer and deeper, is possible right here and right now. Now the church hasn’t always been very good at recognising this. To paraphrase St Paul, I stand before you as a Presbyterian and the son of Presbyterians. My people are famously dour and joyless. There is a wonderful photo in the biography of John Reith who founded the BBC, and in late life was the Queen’s commissioner to the Church of Scotland general assembly. Reith was a serious man, and he’s shown processing in solemnity into the assembly, under a statue of John Knox looking even more serious. Not much sense of life in abundance. And in their own ways, other churches have been just as bad about denying life. For centuries decent Christian folk supported slavery and persecuted members of other faiths, or the wrong branch of their own faith. There are many churches today who still think it’s acceptable to deny acceptance of those in a loving relationship simply because their partner is the same gender. I believe that Jesus would stand against all these denials of life and lovingly affirm that he has come into the world that all may have life, and live it to the full.
To follow in this abundant life is not to be selfish or materialist. On the contrary. It includes enabling others to have life in abundance. It is focused on others, outward-looking and generous. Jesus’ words here closely follows a healing he conducted of a man who was blind from birth, to whom he gave sight. We are likewise called to heal and help those in all sorts of need. We are participants in bringing about the kingdom of God here on earth, the upside-down kingdom where the last shall be first, where the mighty shall be humbled, and where the meek shall inherit the earth. You may remember the Christian Aid slogan from a couple of years ago which read “we believe in life before death”. That’s the kind of life we’re called to lead and to help others to lead.
And to me, this is our role as preachers – to bring life and hope to those we lead in worship, to show them the way to find abundant life through a relationship with Jesus. To show them that however difficult is their life today, there is a way into a life of joy and satisfaction. Rob Bell writes: “God is love, and love is a relationship. This relationship is one of joy, and it can’t be contained. Jesus invites us into that relationship, the one at the centre of the universe. He insists that he’s one with God, that we can be one with him, and that life is a generous, abundant reality.”
In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. He came to bring that life to the world. He came to bring that life to us, to offer us the chance to live in abundance – right here, right now, and then for ever more.