Here is the problem with John 10. It is just too full of mixed metaphors.
Is Jesus the Shepherd or the Gate?
Who is it that is climbing over the wall and how do we identify them? By their actions? By what they say?
I’m confused Jesus!
Evidently, so were Jesus’ original disciples since he has to take more than one crack at explaining his metaphors to them.
What are we supposed to take away from Jesus’ words here?
John 10 follows immediately after the extended story of the man born blind, whom Jesus healed and who then is set upon by the Pharisees who want explanations. The whole of chapter nine is an exhausting exchange between this man who Jesus has touched and who wants to celebrate his good fortune and the Pharisees who want answers, trying to fit the event of his gaining his eyesight into their own system of how God is supposed to operate.
Everyone is questioned; the man, his parents, bystanders.
Accusations are hurled — about Jesus, about the man and what sort of man he is/was, and about the situation.
In the end the man Jesus healed sits dejected, not sure who or what to believe anymore.
It is at that point that Jesus re-enters the story, allowing the man who has sight again to “see” him. Jesus make commentary on the blindness of the Pharisees.
It’s clear from that story that Jesus is indeed talking about the Pharisees with their rigid rules and categories when he talks about who are the thieves and robbers.
It is clear also, that Jesus is trying to issue a warning. There is something about following the teachings of the Pharisees that robs you of something.
It all has to do somehow with the “abundant life” that Jesus has come to bring.
But this is again where we end up scratching our heads because we’re not really sure (along with the man who was born blind) what this “abundant life” is that Jesus has come to bring? What does it look like?
What is abundant life?
In fact, this is a point at which I want to introduce a little audience participation in the sermon, because I’m pretty sure that we all have an idea of what abundant life might be.
So then, what does “abundant life” mean to you?
So, as I suspected, “abundant life” means different things for different people, and I don’t really think there is a “wrong” answer to that question “What does abundant life mean to you?” I think variations in that are perfectly normal, because I think that what Jesus is really warning against in this whole section of John’s Gospel is what might be called “measured life.”
That’s what the Pharisees pursue in their questioning. How do we measure whether this is from God or not?
Measured life we discover is exhausting. Just ask the man who had been born blind. As soon as he could “see” the first thing he ran up against was measured life, people trying to qualify, or quantify, or identify, or exemplify him.
It was exhausting, answering all those questions, and every time he tries to interject some witness to another way of living, “do you want to be a follower as well?” He gets struck down and verbally assaulted as one who does not “measure up.”
“You were born in utter sin, and are you trying to teach us?” The Pharisees bark at him.
Living a measured life is exhausting, and you know that because so much of your life is measured, is it not?
You live with a certain set of expectations about who you are to be, how you are to behave, and what is to be expected of you.
Expectations and measurement come your way in your workplace. You feel it when you have to face the dreaded “performance review” or “annual review.” Measurements will be taken of how you have acted, how you have performed in your position, how you “measure up” against colleagues, or expectations or quotas.
It will take something out of you, won’t it… even if you exceed expectations, you then have just set the bar a little higher for next year.
You live with certain expectations about relationships, and family, and family roles.
Am I a good father?
A good mother?
Am I living up to the expectations of my parents? My peer group? My coach? My instructor?
How do I “measure up” in their eyes? In my own expectation of myself?
A measured life seeps into the fabric of our daily comings and goings.
You have experienced a measured life if you’ve traveled. There is the TSA agent barking out his or her orders, shoes off, jacket off, liquids out of the bag. Laptop out of the bag. Put it into separate bins. No, not that way. Be uniform, we’ve changed the protocol. And if you have a green check on your ticket the procedures are different, but you can still be singled out for extra screening.
It’s all done for our safety.
It’s all done for our own protection and our own good.
It’s all supposed to make us feel safer, more in control, more comfortable with travel.
But, it is a measured life, and we feel it’s false assurance and constricting weight.
Even in the church there is an element of a measured life. Is our church growing, or dying? How do we measure up next to others? What should the church be about? Are we forgiving enough? Faithful enough? What is the measure to be applied? How much we do? How much we give away? How many groups are welcomed? How big our Sunday School is? How much food we move through the pantry? How many quilts we put out? How much we collect for CROP walk?
We may not all agree upon what an abundant life consists of, but there is no lack of agreement about what a measured life looks like and its double edged possibility.
If we think we are “measuring up” there comes the danger of being complacent, taking things for granted, it will always be like this.
If we fail to “measure up” to expectations, then we watch what it robs and steals from us.
It robs us of dignity.
It steals in like a thief taking away things before we notice they are even missing, our innocence, our confidence, our trust in others.
The measured life makes us wary, fearful, and always ready to assume the worst in others and in events.
“You just can’t trust people, you know…” so we begin to believe, and so we don’t.
That in and of itself becomes a thief, robbing us of the relationships that we all long for but are now fearful to engage in.
Robbing us as well of the opportunities to forge relationships which might indeed be life giving, might open up the pathway for living together in mutual trust and care for one another.
Oh, we know well the measured life!
Moreover, the measured life is what is pushed upon us and fed to us, often by those in authority who are supposed to be wise guides.
We are told the measured life is for our own good, or for the greater good.
We are sold the necessity to be vigilant, to fear the other, to watch for stranger danger, and in so doing we are assured that we will be kept “safer.”
But at the end of the measured life pathway there is no guarantee, no final word of reassurance, and no comfort.
So, while we may not agree on what the abundant life means for each of us, it is still what we long to have, and it is something that Jesus says we can only obtain by not listening to or following the “thieves and robbers” who sell us measured life.
Instead, we are to look to the one who opens the gate, who stands in it, and who watches over the flock.
Does this mean we’ll be safe so long as we keep our eyes on Jesus?
Yes, but let’s be clear also about what we mean by “safe.”
Jesus is, after all, the one who goes willingly to the Cross.
It’s not physical safety that is assured to us.
It is life that is assured and given, a quality of life that is not subject to the measurements of this world.
“Abundant life,” which often stands in stark opposition to this world’s “measured life.”
As alluring as it may be to want to be physically safe, if you follow Jesus the first rule of order is that you may be called upon to lay down your own life for the sake of the other.—be that friend or foe.
You are able to lay your life down in complete confidence that even if your life is required of you, what will follow in the wake of such sacrifice is still “abundant life.” A kind of life that sweeps away the measurements of this world.
We know this abundant life. We celebrate it when we see it in action.
It is the gift of organs that makes the sick to run and live thankful lives.
It is the estate plan well executed that gives hope and life to the next generation of an institution or agency, letting it impact the future.
It is the choice to not push back when criticized, to diffuse the hostile act and set aside the differences so that a new direction, a new and abundant opportunity can be pursued.
It is loving when you have no reason to love.
It is forgiving when the world would say to you, “exact the maximum penalty.”
Abundant life comes in the wake of every decision NOT to protect yourself, not to live a measured life, not to be bound by the constraints of this world that cannot imagine anything good coming out of Nazareth or anywhere else.
What is abundant life? It is what it is for you, we may not agree upon it, but we can agree upon this.
Abundant life is not living under the oppressive measurements imposed by a world that cannot picture or imagine grace, or that it would be freely given, flung wide like a gate so that all can come in and go out and find pasture and graze in safety.
This is the kind of life Jesus offers, a life without measure, and free of “measured life.”