John 10:1-10, Acts 2:42-47
The book of Acts tells the story of the early Christian church, a church formed on the day of Pentecost, the story that directly precedes our reading from Acts today.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples proclaimed the good news of Jesus and baptized thousands of people on the day of Pentecost, and through baptism, these new Christians also received the Holy Spirit. Both the proclamation of the good news and baptism changed the lives of these new Christians. These changes were not small changes. It was not simply a matter of where they went on Sunday mornings or what they believed in their minds about God. Through baptism and the proclamation of the gospel, these early Christians changed how they understood property ownership, namely that they held “all things in common.” The good news and baptism changed who they ate meals with, one another, and how they spent their time—in study, fellowship, prayer, and worship. They no longer saw other people’s crises as simply those people’s problems to solve but problems they all solved together. This was a new way of life, a communal way of life, an abundant way of life.
I don’t think that we really get this—that the early Christians’ way of life, a life shared in community, could be an abundant way of life. We are maybe out on the edge of this kind of life, and from the outside, we are hesitant or even downright stubborn about allowing others to really know us and be in relationship with us. I get that. Abundance is rarely understood as a measure of our relationships. Everything in our culture shouts that abundance equals wealth. In our culture, we are entitled to what we own, what we work for, even what we don’t work for. Everything in our culture shouts that a large house and a fast car, a well-paying job and an iPhone are signs that we’ve made it, that our lives are abundant. I’m sorry, but that could not be further from the truth. Now, you can experience abundant life while having all those things, sure. But owning materials things has nothing to do with abundance. You can have all of that and still be empty, still be living in despair, still be lonely, still lack meaning and purpose.
In the gospel today, Jesus preaches he is both the shepherd and the gate, ones who keep the sheep from danger. And he cautions the disciples from following thieves and bandits who come only to steal and kill and destroy. By way of contrast, Jesus comes that the disciples may have life, and have it abundantly. In following him, the disciples receive this abundant life, a life full of feeding others—and themselves, healing others—and being healed, drawing people into community—including themselves, and all along, sharing these experiences with the other eleven disciples plus Jesus. Remember: Jesus and the disciples’ itinerant ministry did not garner them material abundance but instead an abundance of relationships with people who decided to follow Jesus and live in community with other Jesus-followers. Post-Pentecost, the early Christians followed the way of Jesus not only in prayer and Bible study but in community, in their sharing of themselves with one another. Both for Jesus’ disciples and for those who became the church, abundance was a matter of deep sharing in community: sharing of resources, of time, of energy, of love, of themselves in relationships.
Last week during Grace Time, the time in between worship services when we normally do Bible study, we put together May Day baskets for those in our community who struggle to get out of the house. Each basket contained personal care items, items that most people need or appreciate when they have. The items in the baskets were all donated by members of our community here at Grace. The Grace Time group had fun putting together the baskets while also sharing our own highs and lows and prayer concerns for the week. Then, after traditional worship, a group of us delivered 5 of the baskets to homebound members of Grace, and I delivered a few more during the week. Each person who received a basket was delighted—not just by the items though the items were practical. For the recipients of the baskets, per their own report, being visited by people in the congregation and knowing that they are remembered and loved was far more powerful. They were not passive recipients, either, but actively engaged in conversation and giving in the ways they could back to us who had come to visit. Those of us who delivered baskets—that was probably the greatest delight—shared not just helpful items but ourselves in relationship with the people we visited.
Jesus tells the disciples this week: I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly. Then, Jesus leads them into that abundant life, a life fundamentally grounded in relationships with one another. By evidence of the gospels, abundant life doesn’t have anything to do with material abundance. I know there are some well-meaning pastors who preach that God wants material prosperity for all of God’s people and that the outcome of faith is material prosperity. But that particular message is a misreading of scripture. It is a misreading of scripture. Certainly, God desires that all people would have enough materially for God commands time and again that the people of God would care for widows and orphans, the most vulnerable people in the ancient world. God commands time and again that farmers leave the edges of their field unharvested so that those who do not have food will be able to harvest it. God commands time and again that sisters and brothers in Christ share what they have with one another so that no one is ultimately in need. It is not that God desires poverty and hates wealth. Not at all. What I hear today as I read Jesus’ words side by side with the account from Acts is that material possessions and wealth are not part of the abundance equation. Wealth and material possessions are not even a factor in abundance.
What the witness of Jesus, the disciples, and the early church tells me is that abundance is found in sharing ourselves with one another. You—just you, you apart from whatever material things you have or don’t have—you are a gift to us all, just by being yourself and sharing yourself here with us as we pray and break bread and sing and talk together. Sharing ourselves, that is abundant life. And I know this is scary. Totally scary because, for some reason, people really knowing us and being accountable to a community feels risky. But it is also a great gift, especially when we all share of ourselves, when we all show up for one another. This is the abundant life Jesus came for, a life shared with others. This is church.