Reading John 10: 1-10
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
At the end of the gospel passage we’ve just heard Jesus tells us why he has come among us. Speaking as the Good Shepherd he says: ‘I came that they [his flock, you and I] may have life, and have it abundantly’.
That word ‘abundantly’ – πέρισσον in Greek – has been variously translated into English as ‘to the full’ or ‘to the fullest’. My favourite is ‘life in all its fullness’, which is how the Good News version translates the word.
Whatever the translation, I hope you get the message. God in Christ provides the vital dimension to life that cannot be found elsewhere, however hard you look.
Businesses, retailers especially, often talk these days about their offer. Well, there are various offers abroad in our society that seem to promise life in all its fullness but inevitably they flatter to deceive. Perhaps these are the thieves and bandits mentioned in our gospel.
Now, for your edification I’ve drawn up my top ten list of such offers. Actually, I guess these offers have always been around in one form or another.
None of the things I’m going to mention are bad in themselves. None of them. It’s when we elevate them to the status of idols, of being able to deliver more, far more, than they actually can that they become problematic.
Some of the items on my list are uncontroversial. Some may raise an eyebrow or two.
So here goes (in no particular order):
- Wealth – I’d be very surprised if this comes as much of a shock to anyone. After all, Jesus said some pretty negative things about wealth. I define wealth as simply having more than we need and we need very little. The problem is that it’s very easy to form an unhealthy attachment to having more than we need. Spiritually, an unhealthy attachment is anything that denies God his rightful place in our hearts. God is always our primary attachment.
- Status – wanting to be, or feeling, superior to any other human being is merely a trick of the ego, and an ego out of control is a great puller of the human person away from God.
- Happiness – well, this may be one to raise an eyebrow. We were put on earth to be loving not necessarily to be happy in any conventional sense. For all I know Hitler was as happy as Larry, especially when he was invading other countries. Actually, I doubt that he was happy but I hope you see what I’m driving at. Happiness isn’t necessarily loving.
- Popularity – we do not become worthwhile human beings merely by having lots of friends, certainly not lots of friends on Facebook. And the love that God has for us doesn’t depend on how popular we are. Friendship is a wonderful thing but it’s not a competition about who has the most of it.
- Travel – it seems to me that the idea is abroad that the more we travel, the richer our lives must necessarily be. But surely that’s a fallacy. If you can’t appreciate, deeply appreciate, what’s at home, you’re not going to appreciate anywhere else deeply. The sheer number of our experiences doesn’t mean that our experience is rich.
- Fun – sometimes people say that all they want is to have fun. Now, believe it or not, despite being a clergyman, I don’t mind people having fun. I even have fun myself – occasionally. But surely, having fun and nothing but fun can’t be living life in all its fullness, can it? Well, I don’t think so.
- Shopping – we all need to shop but shopaholics seem to gain their deepest joy from being able to shop. Of course, our economy depends on shopping. It would probably collapse completely without our credit-charged shopaholic brothers and sisters. But we all know that the thrill of buying something wears off pretty quickly, yet so many of us feel the need to titillate the cards in our wallets and purses by buying something new.
- Pleasure – to be distinguished, I think, from mere fun. Pleasure is, as it were, one of the great pleasures of life. On the whole the simpler the pleasure, the greater and deeper it is. But we all know that if we live only for pleasure, pleasure itself just crumbles to dust in our hands.
- Art – well, here’s another one to raise your eyebrows. It seems to me that art for many people has been elevated into the status of a religion. It’s a kind of religion for people who’ve lost their religion. Now, I love art – music, poetry, films, Shakespeare, the lot. But some parts of our being are only accessible to God. Even art cannot reach them.
- And finally number 10: Winning the Premier League. Winning isn’t everything, and certainly not winning at any cost. Life may actually be less about winning than about losing. We grow far more when we lose than when we win – at least potentially.
As I said before, none of these things are bad in themselves – not even winning the Premier League, though I should point out that the warm glow of winning any league is inevitably accompanied by disappointment for others. I speak as a football fan whose team is currently battling to avoid relegation.
So, I’ve just outlined ten aspects of life that in my view can become idols for us if we are not careful. I could have listed a thousand more. The truth, the painful truth, is that anything can become an idol – even, dare I say it, the one true God, if we allow our conception of God to become skewed into an image of our own inner inadequacies. And that is very easily done.
The 2nd century Saint Irenaeus is chiefly remembered these days for just one sentence, actually part of a sentence, usually translated as ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive’. What we don’t often hear is the end of the sentence, which says ‘and the life of a human being consists in beholding God’.
I don’t think we should take that verb ‘beholding’ too literally. No-one can see God. Rather than beholding God literally, life in all its fullness – being fully alive – consists in experiencing God. And we experience God by deepening our relationship with God.
Idols impair that relationship.
And we deepen our relationship with God by means of all the usual suspects: prayer in all its forms, worship, self-discipline, reading our Bibles expectantly, performing acts of kindness and love. It’s not rocket science though in a strange way it can be even more difficult. Even rocket scientists find it difficult. It has nothing to do with our IQ!
But it’s when we are in relationship, in communion, with others, with God’s creation and with God himself – the source of all reality – that we truly live life in all its fullness.