Last week’s gospel included one of the most confusing sayings of Jesus. He compares himself to a gate and to a good shepherd. Joy explained aspects of this and reflected on it with great insight last week in terms of VE day, Christian Aid Week and the Pandemic. I don’t wish to revisit the episode in detail but, but just want to pick up two aspects of it which might help to shine a light on what I want to say this morning.
Although I rarely visited a farm during my 3 years working in the commercial sheep section of the Meat and Livestock Commission that time did give me a heightened appreciation of sheep and sheep farming.
So, every time I hear a biblical reference to sheep I try to put to one side my naturally modern urban perspective.
when reading last week’s gospel I was struck by how often in church circles Jesus’ words are taken to be about gathering sheep into the fold, into a safe place- which is often taken to in turn to refer to the church itself.
But the whole point of the sheep fold is to be a place of temporary refuge, before the shepherd leads the flock back out into their life of freedom and pasture. The life abundant.
Every week I meet on- line., on a zoom call with all the other area deans, assistant area deans, the archdeacon and the Bishop of Kingston to catch up with news and how people and parishes are faring.
We often begin with a conversation about the Gospel reading for the coming Sunday, and one point that was forcibly made by a colleague was that there is a great temptation to interpret Jesus declaration ‘ I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,’ in fashionably secular ways.
The accumulation of experience, status, autonomy, stuff and wealth that have come to define what is to lead a good and abundant life in our society.
My colleague was sure that this was not what Jesus had in mind.
Some will interpret Jesus’ words as a straightforward offer of eternal life, but there are many good reasons to think that is a simplification.
This morning’s reading from Acts might help here.
And it tells us a shocking and brutal story. Of the last testimony, and the murder by angry mob, of St Stephen.
Surely this is not what Jesus meant by an abundant life?
A brief life, cut short by violence. The first martyrdom.
But then do we think that Martin Luther King, or Thomas More, or thousands of others who lost their lives because of their moral and spiritual convictions wasted their lives because of the brutality of their ending?
There is no doubt at all that St Luke who wrote the Gospel under his name, and the book of Acts, was drawing parallels between St Stephen and Christ himself.
He reports thar both of them, at their moment of death ,surrender up their spirit, and both ask for forgiveness for those who are full of hateful and murderous anger towards them.
Each too has an inner vision which turns out to be perilous to share.
For St Stephen the turning point, when the crowd switch from disapproval to homicidal aggression, is the moment he experienced and proclaimed a vision that they deemed blasphemous.
‘ … filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.’
One of the things that is often forgotten is that the church, even at the darkest moments of persecution, did not encourage martyrdom. Even people not that au fait with church history might have heard that St Augustine disapproved of a movement called Pelagianism, but I am guessing that few of you will have heard of his greater target, Donatism. The Donatists were particularly unforgiving of all those Christians who submitted or compromised during periods of persecution. They were intolerant of all who survived, regarding them as not real Christians.
An abundant life is all about how life is lived.
When I was talking about this with my colleagues, I immediately turned to the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount.
I am sure you might have noticed how I come back to those words of Jesus over and over again.
According to St Matthew they comprise Jesus’ opening statement- Implying that they are fundamental to his vision.
The word translated as blessed , is Makarios, and it has a range of meanings- divinely blissful, happy, prosperous, so if we want to look for clues about the shape of the abundant life they might be found here.
Blessed are those who are poor in spirit- the dejected- those who know their fragility.
Blessed are those who mourn
Prosperous are the gentle
Blissful are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
How happy are they who put their lives at risk for what is right.
Blessed are the merciful for they will be forgiven.
Abundant life seems to be about quality not quantity.
St Stephen suffered because he had an unpopular private vision and inner spirit. His hallmark was forgiveness, but he received hatred in return.
All because he followed what Jesus in today’s Gospel called His way, His truth and His life.
Some final thoughts.
I think we too often forget that every single human being has a unique inner life- a unique personal history and character, which can be shared to an extent but fundamentally remains mysterious and unknown. Too often way we judge each other’s value and sacredness in a way reminiscent of the crowd who turned on St Stephen. We don’t want to listen and if we can we silence competing voices.
The great American writer Marilynne Robinson has advocated a religiously inspired sense of individualism which she thinks is much better than the competitive pseudo evolutionary model, which has become predominant and sets people against one another.
Her model, which has really got me thinking, instead is about seeking to nurture and protect in others what we should most value in ourselves- which isn’t our possessions and out external stuff- but our inner lives and unique experience- our souls.