Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Easter 4, 30th of April, 2023
‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’
The division of the Bible into chapters and lectionary readings does us a disservice today, because our gospel reading is the third act of a three-act drama. We saw the first two acts on the fourth Sunday of Lent. In Act One, a man born blind was miraculously healed by Jesus, who thus completed the creation that had been left incomplete at his birth. Act Two was the response of various groups of people to this healing. His neighbours were unsure whether he was the same man; his parents came close to disowning him; and the Pharisees at first tried to convince the man to describe Jesus as a sinner and then, when he refused to do so, drove him out of the community. Jesus then sought him out, introduced himself as the Son of Man, and the man born blind worshipped him. That second act ended with Jesus saying:
‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.’ (John 9:1-41)
Now, we are in Act Three, in which Jesus tries to explain what has just happened.
The man born blind was a sheep of the flock and yet the religious leaders had first ignored him, while he was blind, and then rejected him, once he had been healed. Jesus, in contrast, first healed him and later, after he had been driven out, looked for him and revealed himself. The man born blind knew Jesus and worshipped him, able to follow Jesus because he knew his shepherd’s voice. But just as the religious leaders remained blind, so they now also fail to hear Jesus’ voice. ‘Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.’ So Jesus speaks again.
‘I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture’. A gate provides both access and protection. When the gate is closed, those in the fold are kept safe. When the gate is open, the sheep can leave the fold in search of nourishment. I have mentioned before that Jesus’ parables are not allegories; we are not meant to find a specific identity for each character. Even less are we meant to do this with his figures of speech. We do not need to worry about whether the religious leaders to whom Jesus is talking are thieves and bandits, or simply sheep who have failed to hear the shepherd’s voice. Nor should we worry about who the gatekeeper might be if Jesus is the gate. These figures of speech simply give the same message that was demonstrated by the healing of the man born blind: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’.
What does the abundant life that Jesus the gate opens to us look like? I suspect it looks like the life of the early church that Luke describes in today’s tiny snippet from the Book of Acts. Today’s reading is about what happened immediately after Peter’s preaching to the questioning crowds at Pentecost, when Peter told them that Jesus was their Messiah and Lord. The crowd had immediately responded to Peter’s sermon by asking ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ and Peter told them to repent and be baptised. Thus we come to the part of the story that we read today, the description of how these newly baptised Christians live out their baptism.
I mentioned the first part of the description of this new Christian life last week, when we heard the story of the two disciples who encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Then I said that Jesus reveals himself to these disciples, and they journey from despair to recognition, through the same things that we do in church services today: ‘the apostles’ teaching and fellowship … the breaking of bread and the prayers’. As the disciples do all these things thousands more become Christian: ‘day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved’. Luke began the Book of Acts telling us that Jesus’ followers numbered about one hundred and twenty people; after Peter preaches three thousand more joined them; now even more are being added each day.
If we do not already feel inadequate enough by this story of phenomenal growth, Luke also tells us that ‘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.’ For these new disciples becoming a Christian had an immediate economic effect. The rich became less rich; the poor became less poor; everyone had enough. While Luke is exaggerating a little, and later in the Book of Acts we will find that there were members of the church who still had goods and lands and used them to support wandering apostles like Paul, there does seem to have been a sense that wealth was there to be shared. A generation or two after the events described by Luke, the theologian Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD) wrote about Christian community: ‘We who once took most pleasure in accumulating wealth and property now share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of their different customs now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them and pray for our enemies.’ And the theologian Tertullian (155 – 220 AD) wrote about Christians’ well-known and well-deserved reputation for generosity: ‘Our care for the derelict and our active love have become our distinctive sign before the enemy … See, they say, how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other.’ If we compare ourselves to the early church as described by Luke, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian, we are always going to feel inadequate. If this is what abundant life looks like, are any of us living it?
Luke is doing two things with this description of the early church. For Jews, the life of the community would be evidence that God’s Spirit is with those who follow Jesus, in the same way that the ‘many wonders and signs … done by the apostles’ reveal God’s presence. As the Prophet Joel had promised, God has poured out God’s Spirit upon all flesh, and a new community of Spirit-filled believers is the result. That the disciples ‘would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need’ is more evidence that Jesus is the Messiah.
For Greeks, this holding of all things in common would show that the mythical Golden Age described by writers like Plato and Ovid has been made manifest among Jesus’ followers. Plato said that in the early days of Athens the Athenians held everything in common; Ovid said they did so in the Golden Age of humanity. Luke was also showing that Jesus’ followers were acting according to the highest ideals of Greek friendship. A well-known Greek proverb said ‘all things in common between friends’. The astonishing thing for Luke’s Greek readers would have been that, in the Christian community Luke is describing, the people who are living as ‘friends’ are not just adult male citizens.
Jesus is the Messiah. The Christian community is made up of friends whose lives imitate the Golden Age of Greece. Even once we know why Luke is writing that ‘[a]ll who believed were together and had all things in common,’ we are still left with the fact that he wrote it. The first Christians did not simply gather on Sundays to worship, they shared their lives and their goods on the other six days of the week. They knew that devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers, involved actively following in the footsteps of Christ spiritually, emotionally, and economically. I suspect that the idea that being Christian should change our attitude to money is the greatest challenge Jesus makes to those of us who live in an affluent, individualist country like Australia.
Christianity is not meant to be about financial guilt trips. We should not read this description of the early church and berate ourselves for not following its example. But we can use this description to examine our own practices. Do we use our money in such a way that it leads to the life in abundance that Jesus came to bring, for us and for others? Do we, for instance, give money to causes that bring health and hope to people in need? Do we buy things that have been produced in fair and sustainable ways? Do all the many people involved in getting food to our tables receive a living wage? Can we say with Justin Martyr that, ‘We who once took most pleasure in accumulating wealth and property now share with everyone in need’? Can we say with Tertullian that ‘our care for the derelict and our active love’ identify us?
The members of the early church, in their community and caring, with gladness and generosity, lived the lives of abundance that Jesus came to bring us. They were sheep who knew that their shepherd would make them lie down in green pastures and lead them beside still waters. They were able to share everything with each other because of their faith in the God who prepared a table before them and anointed their heads with oil. That faith, and the generosity it prompts, is our heritage, too. Jesus is the gate by whom we can come in and go out and find pasture. So let us share the good things our good shepherd gives us with glad and generous hearts, praising God, so that we too may have the goodwill of all the people. Amen.
 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 62.
 Plato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987) pp. 191, 226.
Pingback: Sermon: In death and life | Rev Doc Geek
I wish I had a chance to read your exegesis before I write my sermons instead of after the fact. Sometimes two or these weeks after. Oh well. I’m still enlightened by your work and the lectionary will roll this one around again and even though I’ll be retired, I’ll probably be supply preaching somewhere, so I’ll just tuck this into my back pocket for later use. Thanks!