Updated: May 8
“GATEWAY TO ABUNDANT LIFE”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
May 7, 2023
John 10:1-10 NRSV
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by
another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
The writer of John’s Gospel had a “leadership” problem. Those who were trying
to lead his flock, [ or congregations plural ], were not all what you would call, “good
shepherds.” John addresses this problem through the words of Jesus himself. Several
times Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd, as the living bread, and such. Well
these were ways John was addressing his leadership problem.
The Christian movement had come out of the synagogues and become what we
call “church,” because their belief in a living Christ, in a Risen Lord, in a different sort
of Messiah, meant they weren’t fitting in with the standard theologies of the past.
They had left the synagogues. Some were saying they were thrown out, run out. Nay,
nay, says John, we left because we were following the good shepherd. We left because
the other would-be shepherds were thieves and bandits. The words, and directions of
these “other” shepherds were attempts to use power and control to kill and destroy
anyone who did not agree with them.
I said last week I felt compelled to declare that this would be an “Open and
Affirming Sunday.” The reality is every Sunday is Open and Affirming Sunday
because that is what we are. We have said, in writing, in our covenant that we would
welcome anyone regardless of things like age, ability, gender, mental health issues,
sexual orientation, or about ten other things. Now, every church says, “everyone is
welcome.” But they mean you are welcome to come and change to be what they think
you should be. We don’t do that. We invite you to share your diverse and unique
God-given gifts with us and the world. We say you are welcome to participate at every
level of our congregational life and we live it. We are revolutionaries in a world of
religious purveyors of the status quo: We believe Jesus Christ intentionally welcomed
the people that even today people are trying to take away their human value and rights.
Many of us feel the current day would-be shepherds of our state government
seem intent on passing laws claiming “freedom” while restricting the Constitutional
rights of others to free speech, to gather, to dissent from those in power. They have
outlawed Constitutional and God-given human rights. They ban books and they pass
laws to limit free speech. They dismiss, demonize and seek to destroy anyone who
tries to go against them. Their persecution continues to expand in horrifying ways
toward those particularly that we have fought so long and so hard for to have equal
rights, particularly in the LGBTQ community. I was particularly triggered by the
report that cities are cancelling Pride Parades because of the new laws that threaten
legal action against anyone who hosts an event at which a non-adult might see a gay
These laws are so badly written that they would never survive a Supreme Court
challenge if the Supreme Court at the state and national level weren’t controlled by one
party’s extremists. Today, many school libraries sit empty throughout the state
because every book hasn’t been checked and approved as being “allowable.” They set
up laws for problems that don’t exist. There are no curriculums and no evidence of
teaching the things that they pass laws against. Then they continue to expand the
scope of the laws from just elementary children to all grades. They gerrymander
districts to control the government by a minority of their party, and they have worked
long and hard to line up their candidates to be sure they toe the extreme wing of the
party. And just another example, the state Surgeon General is reported to have
jimmied with the actual data on the COVID vaccine while these false shepherds did
everything they could to claim it wasn’t working.
I know everyone gets nervous when a preacher talks about government. But
when government steals human rights and undoes the moral imperative to treat others
justly, I am required by my ordination to speak out. I am going to speak from a faith
perspective. I am not speaking about partisan politics, I am speaking about the way the
Christian faith has been hijacked to justify these people’s beliefs.
In the face of this Jesus says to them and to us: “I am the gate… all who enter
by me will be saved and … have abundant life.” What does this mean in this context?
What is “saved,” and what is “abundant life?” Remember Jesus, wasn’t talking to
people with exactly the same issues we may have. They were the subsistence level
poor. Those who first responded to the Word were what we would call, “peasants.”
So when Jesus was talking about “abundant life” he wasn’t talking to people wanting
second Mercedes-Benzs or third vacation houses as abundant life. They were
envisioning living without the boot of Rome on their necks, or the condemnation of the
Temple on their souls. They were hoping to be able to live without government and
religion conspiring to strip them of their dignity and humanity.
Jesus’ promise to open the gate to abundant life goes back to the story of the
healing of the blind man. We read that a few weeks back. Remember the blowback
the man born blind gets for being healed? When Jesus talks about the way to be saved
and abundant life it is about a man who was suffering in darkness and shame for
something he wasn’t responsible for. And when the religious people, including Jesus’
own disciples, and the leaders of their faith, tried to blame his parents for making him
gay – er, I mean their sin was what made him blind, Jesus denies this too; and heals the
man, not because blindness is a sin or because the man shouldn’t be gay, I mean blind,
but because his gayness – darn it, I mean his blindness – was a social and physical
barrier to all the rights, and possibilities for community. Jesus opened the gate for him
to participate in the social world that every human being needs to participate in.
Abundant life meant not being excluded, hated, blocked from the same rights and life
of the rest of his family and his neighbors. Salvation and the abundant life were
neither an afterlife reward or a present life blessing of a multi-billion drachma
executive bonus. As Karoline Lewis put it, [ Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org, May 11,
2014 ], “The man blind from birth is saved from isolation and marginalization. His
healing saves him from everlasting darkness. Never again will he wonder where his
next meal will be or who will answer his pleas as he sits begging outside the city. He
will know the safety and security of community.”
“God so loved the world…” That is John’s radical claim on behalf of Jesus in
the 3 rd Chapter of his gospel. Everything else comes out of that first principle. The
gate that Jesus refers to in these verses is not a closed gate. It is an open gate. It is the
false shepherds, the thieves and bandits that close the gate and lock out sheep. The
leaders of our religion, many of whom are driving the government turning back human
rights to the ‘50’s [ as in the 1850’s when slavery was still legal ], have misled us about
the meaning of these words. They have misled us about the truth of the Gospel. They
have spiritualized it to the point of meaninglessness in everyday life.
Another writer, a theologian and pastor writes, [ David Lose, workingpreacher.org, May
5, 2014, ] “Jesus says, ‘All who enter by me will be saved.’ But have we, perhaps
influenced in small part by Paul and in greater part by medieval interpretations of Paul,
adopted a primarily negative view of salvation? Salvation is often understood as the
erasure of our sin and failure rather than the creation of new life and possibility.
Forgiveness of sin is wonderful, of course, but it occurs to me that if that’s all we
understand salvation to be we are, at best, only back to square one and miss that Jesus
offers not just life, but life in its abundance. … at the heart of the Gospel is the
resurrection promise of life and possibility and potential and power. We are not only
saved from something but also for something, for life in all its abundance here and
now.… saved from whatever seeks to rob the us, children of God, of our inheritance of
life, purpose, and joy.
Jesus promise of “abundant life,” and “salvation itself — is highly contextual.
For the blind man it is sight. For the single parent it might be companionship and help.
For the bullied teen it might be acceptance and an advocate. For the impoverished
neighborhood it might be dignity and the chance of self-determination. For the retiree,
it might be involvement in a worthwhile cause. For … Well, you get the picture.
Abundant life looks different in different places and to different people, but it always
manifests itself as a response to whatever seeks to rob the children of God of their
inheritance of life, purpose, and joy.
“Third, if these two things are true — 1) that salvation is more than forgiveness
but abundant life itself and 2) abundant life is contextual, defined by release from
whatever is robbing us of God’s intentions for us — then I think in this passage there is
a profound invitation for us not simply to listen to Jesus’ promise of salvation and
abundant life but actually to live into it. How? By joining ourselves to his mission to
bring abundant life to all of God’s children. That means, of course, that we must first
pay attention to what is robbing the children of God near us of life and then stand with
them against those forces so that they might have, not just life, but life in abundance.”
What John tells us is that as they focused on who Jesus was, what he did and
what he said they began to understand how to change the world. What they did is they
began to live out the commandment Jesus gave them: “love one another as I have loved
you.” They didn’t go and pass laws that made it illegal to be an unmarried woman
from Samaria, they welcomed her as a sister in Christ. They didn’t scorn the man born
blind, they welcomed him into their community as a brother. They didn’t stop lepers
from being part of their community out of fear they would “catch their disease.” They
welcomed them in and made them coworkers in the fight for what Jesus called the
“Kingdom of God,” what we might call “God’s reign of unconditional love on earth.”
See what drives those who make horrible laws to marginalize others and use
God as an excuse to commit sins against those they disagree with is fear and hatred.
Their ignorance has been fed by false shepherds who have taught falsehoods in God’s
name. Their fear has been fed by alarmists who use scapegoats like “trans people” the
same way other Christians have used “Jews” as scapegoats. Fear and hatred did not
change the world like the disciples who followed Jesus did. They let “God so loved he
world” drive their actions and their efforts.
So we must not give in to the fear and hatred that others use. Those tactics have
always failed and will always fail. We must use love and compassion for those who
suffer the most to drive us to stand against the hate and fear others live by. We must
trust that the gate Christ has opened for abundant life cannot be closed by false
shepherds and fearmongering politicians. Love wins. Compassion overcomes fear. It
was the way those first followers of the good shepherd worked at loving others, serving
others, bringing those in who being excluded by false shepherds and bandits. Let us
embody that love in the face of the fear and hatred of others. Let us not give in to the
way they use power to harm and hurt. Let us live by the power of the love shown us
by Jesus to overcome these times, these misguided leaders, and by our love they will
know we are speaking the truth, living the truth and the power of God’s love to
transform the world. AMEN.