a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year A]
Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
That line always makes me think of one particular fall evening early on in my marriage to Melinda. It was still just the two of us, but our oldest was on her way. We were learning our way—two relatively young people figuring out marriage and how to enjoy the gifts of life together. Melinda loves the fall, and an impending birth must have provoked a nesting mood that evening. She excitedly offered to cook dinner, and I was happy to discover what she had in store.
As it turns out she had found a particular cookbook that interested her called the Cozy Home Cookbook, and that should have been a clue as to what was going to happen. All afternoon she labored happily in our small kitchen. When she finally called me to the dinner table she asked for help bringing out the dishes she had prepared. I reported to the kitchen and the first thing she handed me was a whole turkey breast, perfectly glazed with honey. “Is anyone else joining us I’m not aware of?” I asked her. No, she assured me. That was all just for us. I laid it on the table and went back. She handed me a full 9×13 dish of sweet potato casserole. Each time I tried to sit down, she kept calling me back to the kitchen for another dish. Stuffing. Mashed potatoes. Baked apples with cinnamon sugar. Green beans with almond slices. Salad. And there was dessert waiting when we were all done with that, which, looking at the table once it was set, I realized might be two weeks later.
She and I still laugh about the Cozy Home Cookbook incident and whatever overflowing generosity that came over her that night. Never before and never since has our hearth produced such bounty. All the recipes sounded delicious to her, so she made most of them. She cooked that we might have dinner, and have dinner abundantly.
When Jesus tells his disciples that he comes that they might have life, and have it abundantly, he wants them to know that the servings of love and forgiveness and justice God prepares are intended to just keep coming. The life he intends for us is one of abundance, not scarcity. It is of generosity, not greed. It is of plenty, not poverty. Jesus wants us to be able to sit down at the table of life, where the cup is filled to overflowing, and find there is plenty to relish and plenty to love and plenty to be amazed by and plenty to share and plenty to laugh at and plenty to give thanks for.
We might think that he shouldn’t have to clarify this. We might think that it would be obvious that God wants good things for God’s people, that God would surround us with things that are life-giving. But Jesus is aware that for so much of our history those who come claiming to speak for God end up hoarding and abusing the blessings of life. Like thieves and bandits that break into the sheepfold to steal and kill and destroy, corrupt and selfish leaders throughout the ages have damaged the community of God and exploited the relationships that God intended for good.
Jesus says this to his disciples as he stands in Jerusalem, the holy city and site of the Temple which had become a symbol of power and control. Many people’s experience with authorities in Jerusalem, with the ancient kings and religious rulers, had been coercive and manipulative. They had excluded people based on often arbitrary criteria. They had created a system of favorites, of insiders and outsiders. Has that ever been your experience with religion of any kind? Have other believers or even pastors left the impression that God’s kingdom operates on some kind of sacrifice from you, whether it is your well-being or your honor? Has anything from church ever communicated that God cooks from the Cozy Home Cookbook for some people but not for others? If that’s the case, Jesus is sad we’ve gotten that impression, which is why he clarifies that he is different than the others who’ve come to establish God’s rule. Others who’ve had power have often tended to act like gatekeepers who control who the blessings of God are for. But they are not real gatekeepers and neither are they the gate. Jesus is the gate. And he comes that we may have life and live it to the full.
In this short portion of Jesus’ teachings in the tenth chapter of John, Jesus compares himself to several different things all at the same time. At one point he says he is a shepherd, leading sheep just by the sound of his voice, which was a very customary shepherding practice in the first century. Cattle and camels, by contrast, pretty much have to be driven, which is leading by a series of threats. Sheep just follow by listening and watching their leader. It’s more of a relationship based on gentleness which communicates something about how God wants to relate to us. But in this morning’s text Jesus makes himself more the gate than he does the shepherd. A good gate keeps the flock safe at night. It is a means of protection and security and, perhaps most importantly, togetherness.
We have a large fence that surrounds our back yard and recently our young son realized that one of the planks was loose. One day last week he went out there and just yanked it off with his bare hands, leaving a hole just large enough for our dog to get out, and she wasted no time doing so. Then she just kept going and coming as she pleased, out of that hole in the fence, refusing to play with us in the yard, until I could screw the plank back up. Sheep also have a wandering habit, and once one finds a way out, then they all do. A gate forms a barrier that keeps them inside and together and Jesus apparently likes the thought of his sheep together. He knows God creates us to live in community, not separate. God has designed us to share the protection of God with one another, to encourage each other with our stories of God’s presence in our lives, to pray for one another, to taste the salvation that Jesus’ love provides.
But a good gate must also be as easily opened as it is shut in order to let the sheep out to graze in the green pastures. That is where the sheep find their food and their water. It is where they stretch their legs and leap around in their lamb-like ways. A good gate has to be open and shut, and Jesus sees himself as that protector and as that opening to the world. The abundant life contains both of these things—safety from the forces that harm us and freedom to find what makes us thrive. A faith system that denies us the opportunity to explore the world and discover our gifts and use them does not have Jesus as a gate.
The images of both gate and shepherd are demonstrated in extremely powerful ways in the new film Anahita: A Mother’s Journey, which was premiered here in Richmond last week before a crowd of a couple hundred including about a dozen from Epiphany. The film tells the story of a refugee and mother of five from Kabul, Afghanistan, who makes the perilous journey to America in the last days before the country falls to the Taliban. Sensing that her own life and livelihood as a female police officer puts her whole family in mortal danger, she scoops up her children and risks life and limb to board one of the last planes leaving for the U.S.
Some of us may remember the scenes of desperation as Afghans crowded the barricaded airport terminal in August of 2021. In the film Anahita gives us a first-person account of how terrifying it was to confront the concrete and barbed wire barriers stained with blood and littered with the clothes of people who didn’t make it over. Her challenges to leave the country and stay together as a unit are enormous. At one point in the mayhem Anahita’s two young sons get separated from her. At long last she finds someone to make an announcement over a loudspeaker to find them, but she hears no response. Eventually she sees them sitting with a stranger, looks of total shock on their faces and she pulls them to her immediately. Around them people scramble to be saved by finding a gate into the inside of the airport where, as they are told, they will not be harmed.
The determination and sacrifice that Anahita displays in order to provide safety and then a better life for her children is heroic. Even after she succeeds in getting spots on a flight to the U.S. she still must go through an interview process and then, in her new home, scrape by on the generosity of others as she commits herself to learning English and seeking a job to provide for her family. Her husband, still trapped in Afghanistan, has no idea when he will be able to join them.
Hers is a story familiar to many refugees, and to many parents, for that matter, but the film shows very clearly how Anahita is both the shepherd for her children and their gate to a better life and future. In fact, she is an image of Jesus, the good shepherd and the gate, who leads and defends us through the world’s mayhem but also provides our entrance to an abundant, eternal future. Anahita’s journey in many ways reflects the journey of our Savior, who braves the valley of the shadow of death so that we may fear no evil. On the cross he does whatever he has to so that the eternal, grace-filled life of God will come to us, even when it means laying down his own life.
In doing this Jesus shows us that the abundant life is, in fact, the one that is lived for others. The life that is lived to the fullest is one that calls out to the lost and gathers them at great cost where the overflowing cup placed before us is meant to be passed around. The abundant life is the kind of living here and now that mirrors the plenty of heaven precisely because the good gifts we have been given are lifted up and shared for all. Anahita’s story, for example, was made more poignant when it was shown she and her children passed through Fort Dix, and this congregation, in fact, gathered loads of socks and underwear and clothes and bedding to be used by those families as they arrived there that fall. Your generosity helped make their life more abundant!
The abundant life is the life where congregations, whether they sit in a city center, suburban neighborhood, or a rural field, become sheepfolds for all to enter because Jesus himself is the gate among them. In our service ministries, in our hospitality, in our faith formation, we see that our most important task is to call all to sit down at the table of grace with us.
Yes, we learn to sit together and we feast upon the gifts of love he sets before us, beloved sheep that we are, together, equal, where Jesus’ goodness and mercy make us—dare I even say it?—one big cozy home.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.