A few years ago I was asked to address a large college audience concerning the question, ‘What is our heritage as Christians?’ The more I pondered that question, the less sure I was that I knew the answer. But one phrase came to mind: “We are the sheep of his pasture.” I thought of how Jesus defined his ministry by means of the central metaphor, “I am the Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” I realized that this is our heritage and our fundamental identity as believers: we are claimed by Christ for his flock. Once we know we are claimed by the Good Shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for our security and blessing, then we are freed to enjoy the fields and pastures that God provides us. Jesus declares: “I come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” That is our heritage: to live the abundant life. That is Christ’s gift unto us. But what exactly does it mean to live the abundant life?
I recall one of the wondrous mornings of my life, the day my daughter Clara was born, delivered by my friend Raleigh Godsey, (son of former Mercer President Kirby Godsey) about seven in the morning on May 5th of 1992. Raleigh placed a beautiful, dark-haired little girl in my arms shortly before my wife Melissa pulled her usual, terrifying, post-partum dropping blood-pressure-routine, which meant I was quickly ushered out of the delivery room into the hall, carrying this newborn in my arms. As I walked down the hallway, I enjoyed one of those moments seemingly scripted by a divine Hollywood director. Through a ceiling of dark morning clouds a shaft of brilliant sun light suddenly broke through, instantly and unexpectedly illuminating the window in front of us. I held tiny Clara before the glass as she opened her eyes to behold her world’s first light, rooted in the Light of the world, the Light and Life of humanity, sending a momentary tingle of wonder through my whole body. It occurred to me that the first shaft of every day’s light should make us shiver with wonder, for the morning’s first light is rooted in the Light of the world and illumines our eyes to a dimension of divine wonder that suffuses every moment of existence. To live the abundant life is to have our eyes opened to the dimension of grace and purpose imprinted upon all our days. Life is an extraordinary privilege. But do we see it?
It is this dimension of abundant life that playwright Thornton Wilder was trying to convey in his timeless play Our Town, where young Emily, who has died in childbirth, begs the other spirits to let her go back and relive one ordinary day of her life. The spirits counsel her against it, but she persists, wanting to relive the day of her twelfth birthday. The stage manager warns her: “You not only live it; you see yourself living it.” It is not long before she understands acutely what he means. She sees her brother with whom she squabbles, sees her mother in her youthful beauty, sees her father in his handsome strength, sees a birthday card from the boy she will one day marry, and though it is just an ordinary scene from an ordinary day in an ordinary kitchen, she sees a penetrating meaning and electrifying importance in every mundane moment. She confesses, “I can’t look at everything hard enough.” But what she sees most is that everyone lives insensate to the wonder of that ordinary breakfast on that ordinary day. None of them detects the specialness, the majesty of their existence. The blindness of every participant in the scene pains her. The irony is, only dead Emily feels fully the privilege of being alive and sees the potential packed into each moment of life. Feeling a crushing regret, Emily asks the stage manager: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?” The stage manager answers, “No. The saints and the poets, maybe, they do some.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky tried communicating this inexpressible dimension of abundant life when he placed the young theological student Aloysha Karamasov in mourning around his beloved Father Zossima’s casket. Aloysha was praying, grieving, and meditating at his mentor’s casket, but was so exhausted that he fell into a deep sleep. He began to dream, to dream of the wedding feast at Cana where Christ began his public ministry. Aloysha stood on the outskirts of the feast, when who should come out to greet him, beaming warmly, but Father Zossima, laughing in youthful vigor, saying, “Come, Aloysha, come to the feast. Yes, our Lord is terrible in His greatness but infinitely merciful. . . .” Father Zossima explained that Jesus was the life of the party, offering blessing to all the guests. He was turning everyone’s water into wine, so the guests’ gladness and celebration wouldn’t be cut short. Zossima invites Aloysha to bring what he has unto the Savior. Aloysha’s view of Christ as the harsh judge, the displeased father, the cosmic scorekeeper, suddenly crumbles. Suddenly Aloysha sees Christ through new eyes as the life of the party who invites him to bring what he had to the party so that Christ might bless and invigorate it. Suddenly, Aloysha awakens and runs out of the monastery and falls upon the earth, crying, realizing that a great strength, a great peace, a great grace, has entered his soul. He falls on the earth a child, but he rises a man, because the fullness of Christ has entered him, he has been filled with abundant life. His eyes have been opened to God’s wonder.
How many of us think of Christ as the life of the party? How many of us think of Christ as beckoning us to come and bring what we have that our Savior might turn our water into wine, that he might turn our talents into something exciting, enticing, intoxicating, exhilarating? Do we perceive that any ordinary moment in any ordinary day in our ordinary lives offers us the potential to experience the dimension of the abundant life, found in the presence, power and joy of God? Do we sense the true freedom and exhilaration that comes from realizing we are the sheep of the Good Shepherd?
There are three foundational truths about our Christian heritage that I hope we cherish every day, three truths that should engender gratitude within us. First, we must know that there is a qualitative difference between mere existence and abundant life. God has given all things that exist the gift of life, but mere existence is not abundant life. Abundant life is a gift that must be unwrapped. The sad truth about most people’s lives is that they simply go through life checking off all of life’s boxes. I remember telling those college kids in that auditorium that day that most of them would graduate and find a job. They could check off on those boxes. Check. Check. I told them that most of them would probably find someone to love and marry. Check. I told them that many of them might well be blessed with children. Check. They might well buy the car they wanted; they might well build their dream house – check, check. I told those young people that many of them would go through life like many of us do, checking off boxes of accomplishment. But here’s the thing: we can live on the surface of life and never really pierce its meaning. We can go through the whole of our lives and reach the end of it only to realize that what we thought life was about isn’t really what life is about. Life is not about checking off the boxes. Life is about experiencing the dimension of abundant life that lies above and below and through the realm of mere existence. The dimension of abundant life can only be found in conversation with the purpose and power of God and living as an instrument of the Kingdom of God.
I asked those young people in that vast auditorium a question, “What general commanded the Allied forces during the D-Day invasion of Normandy?” Some bright history student yelled out, “Dwight D. Eisenhower!” I replied, “Very good. Now who was the president who authorized the construction of the United States interstate system?” There was dead silence. I provided the answer: “Dwight D. Eisenhower.” I think there is a correlation between a man who witnessed so much destruction, however necessary, and the man who burned with a desire to build something that would bring people together. Somewhere amidst the rubble that he helped cause, Dwight D. Eisenhower realized that he wanted his legacy to include something more positive than simply destroying things. He yearned to build something that would connect lives and regions. The questions that really matter as we look back on our lives are such queries as, ‘What have I done with the talents God has given me? Whose lives did I improve? What wounds did I heal? What bridges did I build? What souls did I save? What difference did I make?’ In answering these questions we delve into the realm of abundant life that lies below and above and through mere existence. These are the questions that truly offer an answer to the question, “Why do I live?” We live to embody the Kingdom of God, to experience the abundant life and to exert a transformative influence on those around us. That’s the first fundamental truth about our heritage. Our Lord didn’t promise us a “smooth life” or an “easy life,” only an “abundant life.”
Second, our heritage includes the privilege of experiencing the immediacy of God’s presence in a direct and personal way. The irony is, even the Christian church has tried to make faith about a host of other things and has endeavored to conflate and obscure the basic truth that we have been given the opportunity and ability to enter into relationship with God directly, unmediated by any ecclesiastical or hierarchal authority. The world changed forever when a man most of you have never heard of began pondering the nature of the relationship between the individual and God. In the early 1400’s, an obscure Bohemian theologian by the name of John Hus became obsessed with the idea that God was trying to reach out to humanity and had empowered humanity with the ability to respond to God’s initiative. John Hus was so far ahead of his time that the Christian church burned him at the stake. But a hundred years later a young monk wrestled with a similar question, asking, “How can I make myself righteous before God?” He admitted, “If any monk was ever going to be saved through monkery, it would have been me,” but his fasting, prayers, pieties and good deeds availed him nothing. Then one day this young monk was browsing the library and found a book of sermons by none other than John Hus. John Hus’ sermons began to illumine his mind, germinating a fixation on one vital Biblical phrase, “The righteous shall live by faith.” The righteous shall live by faith. Suddenly, it was if a dam burst in his mind, and he understood that he could not make himself righteous, but God had done so through Christ. Martin Luther realized that in Christ God had reached out to humanity and through Christ had empowered us to reach back toward God. This thrilling insight empowered Martin Luther to start a theological revolution that we call the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther realized that God had justified him and all humanity through the righteousness of the Good Shepherd and had empowered him and all of humanity to respond to God’s initiative and claim faith for themselves. This is a second vital component of our heritage!
Third, as the sheep of the Good Shepherd’s fold, we are free to appropriate the Light and Life made available by the Word made flesh. This Light and Life is the Light and Life of all humanity and of our own hearts, bringing peace in every storm, granting us an assurance that nothing should be able to shake. This is not a truth that we can know intellectually. It is a gift that can only be understood experientially, in the depth of our souls. I think back to a dark night when I was a young pastor in my first full-time pastorate, when the weight of my pastoral responsibilities simply overwhelmed me. I felt completely inadequate to withstand the pressures that assailed me on all sides. I pondered problems that seemed insolvable, tried to peer into a future that appeared inscrutable. In desperation I walked out my front door and wandered into the town square. I looked up at the glittering night and prayed, “My Lord, my Friend and my Father, I have carried my burdens as far as I can. But You must carry them now. I have no more strength, no more resources. I must cast these burdens upon You, because I am no longer strong enough to bear them.” I walked a little ways farther and suddenly, I felt what Aloysha felt, an incredible tingling peace of Christ, an invisible strength, an overwhelming sense of grace that I cannot truly describe or explain. But I felt this astounding sense of divine assurance. I knew I did not walk alone. I knew the Lord was with me, and every fiber of my being felt empowered, tingling with divine excitement. I felt like a great weight had been lifted from my soul, and I wanted to shout in the center of the town square, “I AM ALIVE!” I had entered that square dead of soul. But I left it alive, with a sense of Christ’s nearness. That dimension of abundant life is part of our heritage as well.
A rich young ruler comes to Jesus and says, “I have kept all the commandments, I have observed the Law, I’ve served on every synagogue committee, what else must I do to experience abundant life?” Jesus answers, ‘Drop it all. Drop it all and follow me, follow me as my friend.’ The simplicity of that formula is so radical that the young man is shocked, and he walks away, missing out on the privilege of abundant life. He misses the privilege of having his eyes opened to detect that every ordinary moment is suffused with divine meaning. He misses the privilege of being freed, as a sheep of Christ’s pasture, to go out into the world with joy, liberated to live without anxiety. He misses the privilege of experiencing the immediacy of God’s friendship and being freed to transform the world. That is the blessing we enjoy, the dimension of abundant life – which is why we gather this morning to give thanks.