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The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Abundant Life

Readings: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Each year on the fourth Sunday of Easter we celebrate Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the one who cares for the sheep. We who have no agrarian background strangely find great comfort in that image. Perhaps it is because it appears so often in Scripture that it becomes familiar. To name just a few of the places, the shepherds come to the stable to visit the baby Jesus. Herod quotes that the one to be born is the one who is to be the shepherd of Israel. Jesus is a descendant of David, the Shepherd King. Jesus sacrifices himself as the Lamb of God.

While the Good Shepherd imagery is comforting, those in John’s Gospel are just plain confusing. Jesus does not say that he is the shepherd. He says that he is the gatekeeper. Or is he the gate? Or perhaps he is the one who enters by the gate. While it remains confusing, they are all fine images. They portray Jesus as the one who gives humankind access to God. How badly humanity needs those who can open the way against the burdens of inhumanity! We serve a God who includes all those in society who are without power, the little ones, the lowly, the no account, the expendable, the least, the uncared for. All these are children of God, the very ones that need access to God’s grace and mercy. And so it is fitting that the passage ends with one of the most profound promises in all of Scripture. Jesus says, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”

That is, after all, what we want out of life isn’t it? Abundance is particularly attractive to our insatiable western culture. We are collectors of things. We spend our lives accumulating possessions. On the whole, even those who consider themselves poor by Canadian standards have their basic needs and many of their wants met. We look to things for fulfillment. Businesses thrive on our desire to live abundantly. Ad companies have discovered that emotion based ads outperform factual ones because they make people feel as if things will be fulfilling to them. They will run faster in a certain brand of shoes. They will make friends if they drink a certain kind of beer. They will be happier if they buy the right car or live in the right neighbourhood.

But when it comes down to it, that is not our experience. The accumulation of things rather than satisfying us tends to make us want more. And so we remain spiritually impoverished. How do we access the kind of abundant life that Jesus is offering? He is not talking about accumulating stuff. He is not telling us that being faithful to God will result in untold wealth being ours. That is the message that some interpreters of Scripture would have us believe. I have heard it espoused by televangelists. “Support my ministry,” they will say. “Send money and it will come back to you a hundred fold.” In telling us that he is coming so that we might have abundant life, Jesus is saying that he is the way to fulfillment, enrichment, meaning, and purpose in life.

How do we tap into that source of abundant life? How do we begin to access the generosity of our God? Jesus knew that his shepherding of people was about accompanying every human being to the place where they could be at home. It is about mutual trust, about opening up our lives so that we can trust in God’s promises. It is about awakening our inmost selves and bringing to light something we have known but deeply hidden, so that we can put it into words and recognize it again. It is about speaking in words that we can understand. It is about walking with us on the road of life and showing us how to live.

Jesus the good shepherd speaks in words we can understand. Lives are opened up. Change takes place. And isn't that kind of shepherding that we as Christians are called to? Loving and leading are the two ministries of the church. First we communicate caring for those to whom we minister. That is balanced with leading which allows change to take place in the lives of those to whom we minister. Ministry challenges. It challenges people to become everything they are intended to be.

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles is a reminder to us of the vitality of the early church, its exuberant mood as it began to live with the knowledge of the resurrected Christ at work in its midst. Today we read about that community as it begins to live out its baptismal covenant in the knowledge of the resurrection. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."

It is a picture of a community working together, living out their faith in their daily lives, and reaching out into their community in love. They were convinced that they were equipped with the Spirit. They tried to show it in their lives, not only by telling others about the faith, but also by expecting that the Spirit would work through them to reach out to others in real and tangible ways. Wonderful things happened in their lives because they believed. "Awe came upon everyone," we read, "because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." The call to be the Church was the call to assist one another, to help the poor and needy, to expect the Spirit of God to work in and through them.

The church today has the same call to teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer. These are surely the marks of a Christian community that is truly alive. We are reminded of them each time we celebrate a Baptism and renew our own commitment to God. What difference do those words make in our daily lives? How can we become a Christian community that is truly alive? Do we recognize our own call to reach out to others in Christian love?

For it is not the specific call of the clergy, but rather the call of every believer. We are all called to shepherd God’s people. As I retire from this place it gives every one of you ample opportunity to respond to that call. If I have done my work as a pastor, then you are already exercising your ministry. Together you can discover how to develop and exercise the gifts of everyone as you learn to share leadership. As you move into what is always an uncertain future, God will give you a vision of your ministry together.

What a church this will be! Like the early Christians it will be a place filled with enthusiasm and spiritual vitality. You will be fulfilling your call to teaching, fellowship and breaking of bread. You will be reaching out to the poor and needy. You will be applying your faith to your everyday life. 'And day by day the Lord will be adding to your number those who are being saved.' You will be the Church.
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