Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18
The Easter Season is eight Sundays long, from Easter morning through to Pentecost. That’s an ancient tradition with its roots in Bible times. It’s only a recent tradition that the Fourth Sunday of Easter is Good Shepherd Sunday, but that’s the theme of our gospel lesson today. It’s the second half of a longer speech by Jesus, where he repeats several times, “I am the Good Shepherd.” Our section of it begins at verse 11, but just one verse before it, in verse 10, Jesus says this: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
What is this life, this abundant life, that Jesus gives us? How is it different from the life we have already and that we share with other creatures like dogs and sheep? Don’t bugs and bacteria have life abundantly? And why does Jesus say that he lays down his life? Why give us life just for us to lay it down? What does life mean in the Bible?
Today I’m starting a sermon series on Life. Twelve sermons. This first one is theological, so be patient for the later ones which are more practical. I’ve never preached on Life before. We all take life for granted, right, as if we all know what it means, but I dare you to define it.
Even modern scientists don’t agree on a definition of life. One definition says that “life is the popular name for the activity peculiar to protoplasm,” but that leads to circular explanations. You could say that life is when the elements of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur form compounds. That’s what astronomers look for in their search for extra-terrestrial life. But what if alternative lives were based on silicon instead of carbon, like the Horta in that Star Trek episode.
A complication is that those five elements occur together in substances that are no longer living. Bones. We say that a bone is dead because it lived once, while a stone never lived so it is not dead. A stone is essentially immortal. At our cottage we have stones that are 3.96 billion years old. That’s older than our church. A stone may be immortal but it does not have eternal life. Eternal life and immortality are not the same.
When the New Testament was being written the whole question of life was big in the popular science of the day. Is life an energy? Is life a force? Are the stars and planets alive? Is fire alive? Did life arise out of fire? So said Heraklitus. Or out of the air? So said Anaximines. Or out of water? So said Thales.
Modern science basically goes with Thales, with our image of the primitive planet’s primordial soup, in which some chemical compounds somehow came to life. We don’t know how to replicate it in the laboratory, nor why it doesn’t happen in nature anymore. “As far as known at present all living substance arises from already existing living substance.” A living thing has to get its life from something already alive.
Look at your hand, and the life that’s in your hand. That life, which you got from your parents, goes unbroken and uninterrupted all the way back through some pre-historic primates to some primitive sea-creatures to those primordial protozoans who first came alive. Is it really possible that all plants and animals alive today share a common stream of life that got started three billion years ago from one common source? We assume so but we have no direct scientific proof and we are no more absolutely certain of it than they were in Bible times.
In the midst of these uncertainties we Christians make a claim that the ultimate source of life on earth is the Holy Spirit. We say that in the Nicene Creed, when we say that “we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life.” That’s not a scientific claim, we don’t mean that, but it was certainly always meant as a philosophical claim. We’re not just talking about spiritual life, we’re talking about life on earth, that marvelous stream of life that we share with plants and animals.
We mean that this stream of life has its source in God’s own self, in God’s own inner life, which God shares as a gift to all the creatures of the world from bacteria to bugs to birds to us. We mean this natural life is not just the platform for our Christian faith, it is the target and the interest of our Christian faith. We mean that we are saved in order to live this life, not leave it.
The resurrection of Jesus is an affirmation of this life. Yes, it’s also a judgment on this life, but it’s not a rejection. It’s a saving of what we were ruining and losing by our own designs. The Lord Jesus was resurrected for the life of the world. This is why we celebrate Easter for eight weeks long, to give it time to enter into our lives, because the resurrection of Jesus is not just a one-off, hip-hip-hooray and let’s all go to heaven now, but rather that Easter begins a new reality that enters into the life of the world and into its time and space, and that it takes its time to do its patient and comprehensive transformation of our present lives into the “life of the world to come.”
Now here’s a complication. We use the English word “life” for three different Greek words in the Bible. There is βιος (bios), from which we get biology, ζωη (zoë), from which we get zoology, and ψυχη (psyche), from which we get psychology. The three words overlap, and two of the words have other meanings too, so it’s a tricky business. But when the Lord Jesus speaks of "abundant life" and "eternal life," it’s always zoë, that greatest and broadest stream and energy of life which the Holy Spirit gives to the world from its source in God’s own life. We will watch for this in coming weeks.
When Jesus speaks of "laying down his life," then it’s psyche, which is more personal. Your psyche is your personal life-force, located in your breathing, and it also means your soul, your natural life, which you share with other breathing creatures. What Jesus says in the gospel is expanded in our epistle, in the first sentence, that we too ought to lay down our lives for each other.
But the very next sentence uses the third word for life, bios, but it’s hidden behind that English paraphrase, “the world’s goods.” How did they get that from a word for life? Well, life in the sense of making a living, your livelihood, what you do for a living. I wish they had left it literal, and stronger: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has a life and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
It’s not about the world’s goods. It’s about your power, your purpose, your health, your energy, your momentum, your career, your trajectory, your course of life. Your living and your livelihood are what get saved by the power of the resurrection, your purpose and power and energy are confirmed and convicted and converted and transformed by the power of God’s love, so that you can invest your power and your momentum in the lives of others who may need it. As God does.
Don’t misunderstand what it means to lay-down your life. It does not mean surrender. It is not necessarily dying. It’s more like investing or depositing. Like laying down some cash on the table, or putting down some chips in a card game. Jesus did that with his life. He was investing in us, depositing his life in our living history, putting himself into our sin and grief and judgment, laying his life down within our death, yes, and losing it as you might lose your investment, or lose your chips in your card game, but then he won it back again.
That’s what Peter was doing before the Sanhedrin. He was laying his life out in front of people who had the power to punish him. These are the very same rulers whom Peter was afraid of on the night before Jesus died, which is why he had three times denied him. Now these rulers didn’t know Peter from Adam, so they didn’t know about Peter’s guilty conscience which had condemned him and then how the forgiveness and peace of Jesus had reassured him. So Peter has his second chance and now, because he’s not afraid for his life, he puts himself out there, he lays out his life to them and appeals to them to believe like him and get forgiven and saved like him. He’s loving them.
This is what Life looks like. One scientist has identified life as the reversal of entropy, the reversal of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that instead of everything always breaking down to simple states of equilibrium, life is what builds, gathers, grows, risks, adds complexity, adds color, adds music, shares itself, feeds, nourishes, hopes, dreams. You invest your own life in the possibilities of others beyond you.
So this suggests that the source of life is not water nor fire nor earth, but love, and not just any love, and not determined by philosophy, but the love which God demonstrates to us in action, in the action of Jesus laying down his life for us, and in the constant investment of God in you as your Good Shepherd. You know you’re alive when you know this love in your life.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.