Homily for a Sunday after Easter
Margaret D. McGee
Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
The word “abundant” means plentiful, and it goes back to the Latin for overflow, bringing to mind images of waterfalls and cornucopias, and also less peaceful images, like a river overflowing its banks.
Images of enough, and more than enough.
When Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” what did he mean? What does abundant life look like? How does it come to us?
For a picture of abundant life in Christian community, you could hardly beat this morning’s reading from the Acts of 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 … they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts …”
Sounds like bliss. In fact, a passage like this can sound almost too good, painting a picture of community life that seems hardly possible in today’s world, a picture I can hardly hope to witness myself.
The passage escapes that problem, however, in being set amidst all those other acts recorded in the early church.
This morning’s reading describes an infant community that grew rapidly immediately after the coming of the Spirit to the apostles at Pentecost. Just before this morning’s verses, it says that three thousand new converts were baptized in a single day, after a rousing sermon by Peter. So when our reading starts out, “Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,” it’s referring to those three thousand folks.
Imagine what it would be like here today at St. Paul’s, if three thousand new converts had joined up yesterday. Kaboom—we’re a mega-church. Overflowing. It would be exciting, right? And different. Way different. Wonderful. At times stressful, even disturbing to us—and to the larger community. (I mean, the zoning issues alone…)
In fact, it’s made clear again and again in Acts that, in the course of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ and converting thousands, Peter and Stephen, Paul, Barnabas, and the other leaders in the early church disturbed people both inside and outside the Christian community. Disturbed some people so much, riots broke out in the streets.
Trouble followed them wherever they went, and they went everywhere. A person could be arrested, beaten—even stoned—just for standing too close to these guys. It’s a picture of the raging river overflowing its banks.
And yet the very same book that sets down the mass conversions, riots, arrests, and beatings—that very same writer—also records the picture of community life we heard this morning, as though it’s all part of the same story.
A community that comes together in teaching and listening to the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ. A community that comes together in fellowship and communion, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer.
A community like this one here today, as I’ve witnessed myself.
We know that those early converts included folks from all walks of life, rich and poor, Jew and Greek. In the love of Christ, they discovered that old divisions of class and race no longer held force, and that they could all be together without fear or favor.
Filled with God’s Spirit, their values changed, and their valuables were not what they used to be. They found themselves more attached to God and each other than they were to their material possessions, sharing what they had for the good of all. And in the process, freeing themselves and their neighbors from the fear of want.
“They broke bread … and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”
In the midst of troubled events and fearful times, they cared for each other.
And this I can hope to witness myself, because I have witnessed it, in this place, with my own eyes and ears.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus describes the one relationship at the heart of this community, and how that relationship brings abundant life. He describes the relationship between himself and each of his disciples—between himself and each of us.
Using the metaphor of a good shepherd, Jesus describes a relationship of true intimacy. He says that the shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” A name is a mark of identity. Especially in the Bible, a person’s name is a reflection of that person’s essential nature. The shepherd knows his sheep and calls them by name.
Jesus says that the sheep “will not follow a stranger .. because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Who is a stranger? I want to take a minute to give some background to what Jesus is saying here, because he’s using the word “stranger” in a particular context. The stranger he’s talking isn’t necessarily someone you never met before. In fact, it could be someone quite close, even someone who’s known you all your life, as the events that lead up to this moment show.
Just before our passage today, Jesus heals a beggar who was born blind. After this man regains his sight, some of his own neighbors hardly recognize him. They knew him only as the blind beggar, so they think this fellow with sight must be somebody else—someone who just looks like the blind beggar. And the temple leaders, once they hear the man’s story and see that he has sight, they doubt that he was ever blind in the first place.
Up to now, it’s as if this man’s blindness has acted like a mask hiding his true, whole self from everyone around him—an old mask that Jesus sees right through. In their encounter, it falls away, and suddenly, this man is a stranger to anyone who’s ever known him.
Yet he knows that what has happened is good, that his life just got better. He says himself, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” He turns away from his neighbors and the temple authorities, people who, it turns out, didn’t know him very well at all. They are the strangers that Jesus refers to here. He follows Jesus instead, the shepherd who called him by name.
In explaining how this relationship works, Jesus identifies himself as both the good shepherd and the gate, the way in and out of the sheep pen, saying that whoever enters by him “will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
In some of the best-loved words of scripture, our psalm this morning describes this intimate relationship from the other side, from the standpoint of the one who is saved.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul” (which can also be translated, my life, or my life spirit) “and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.” (in other words, for the sake of who God is, for the sake of God’s own essential nature.)
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me.
Here’s good news that comes to us from the psalm, from Peter, from very first Christian congregation, from this congregation here present, and from the gospel of Jesus Christ:
Our God sees through to the heart, in a relationship that saves, and makes us whole.
In the love of God, nothing of this world—not where we came from, our family, or possessions—not even our old, old masks, some of them put in place on the day we were born—nothing has the force to separate us from God, and from each other, and from life itself.
Jesus says, I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
In this morning’s collect, we prayed, “O God, whose son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads…”
Delivered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, Washington, on April 13, 2008
1 Peter 2:19-25