Let me begin this morning with something a little unusual, perhaps – let me begin by asking about the difference between a thief and a robber. An unusual place to begin, yes, but as good a place as any, as we’ll soon see. As we think about the thief and the robber, we realize pretty quickly there’s a significant overlap between these two words – the thief and the robber are similar in that both take something that doesn’t belong to them – the thief and the robber both take money or property from the person to whom it rightly belongs.
So on the one hand these two words or concepts overlap. On the other hand however, we can distinguish these two words from each other. Specifically, the thief and the robber can be distinguished based on the method of their crime. A thief is someone who steals in a way that is sly or subtle – the thief tries very hard not to be noticed. If you are the victim of a thief, very often it’s not until well after the fact that you realize your wallet or a piece of jewelry has gone missing. It was taken in a stealthy manner. You didn’t even notice.
With a robber, it is much different – by definition a robber is someone who uses force or violence to take what is not his or hers. If a robber takes your wallet, you won’t have to wait a few hours to discover that your wallet is gone – you’ll know immediately that your wallet is gone because you will have been pushed to the ground or hit with something in the process of it begin taken.
The thief and the robber have the same goal, again – to take what is not theirs. The thief does it on the sly. The robber does it openly and with force or violence.
We begin today with the thief and robber because they figure in our passage from John chapter 10. You’ll recall that we looked at this passage of scripture last week, and we’re looking at it again from a slightly different perspective. In John chapter 10, Jesus says this: “Anyone who does not enter the sheep-fold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a robber.” Jesus also says: ‘All who came before me were thieves and robbers.”
This passage is actually chock-full of figures of speech – there are robbers and thieves – there are sheep – there is a sheepfold – there is a gatekeeper for the sheepfold – there is a shepherd. The figures of speech pile up, one on top of the other – so much so that it’s easy to get lost in the middle of Jesus’ words. So many figures of speech it’s not surprising to hear the narrator tell us: “The people did not understand what Jesus was saying to them.” When we read this passage we’re also left scratching our heads. How does all of this fit together?
To try and get into this passage, to get into what Jesus is saying, we could try and explain each of the figures of speech in an analytic kind of way. “The figure of the gatekeeper is really this, and what it means is that.” But I’d actually like to come at this passage in a different way, by taking a bit of a step back from the passage and saying some general things about what it is to be a human being.
Within western culture it is commonly assumed or understood that human beings all want the same thing. We are all striving after the same thing. The ancient philosopher Aristotle has offered one of the most compelling accounts of this striving. The philosopher says that we are indeed all striving after the same thing – and the thing we are all striving after is eudaemonia. Of course, Aristotle writes in Greek, so he uses a Greek word. Eudaemonia is roughly translated into English as happiness – but happiness in the fullest sense. We are all striving after happiness – or better, we all want a life that is full and complete – we are all striving after a life that is good and beautiful.
Now of course this raises a hard question. What is the good life? What is the beautiful life? How do you decide what is the good and beautiful life? In our society there may be some agreement among people about what the good life looks like – but there are also huge areas of disagreement. Different people have different ideas about the good life. We’ll have to come back to this problem. At the same time, though, even if people have different ideas about what exactly the good life is, to some extent we are all pursuing a life that we think of as satisfying or full – the life that we think is good. We all want the good life.
Here’s where we can bring back in the idea of the thief or the robber. As we are on the way in our life, as we are pursuing the good life – we all know there is the possibility that the good life will be taken from us – stolen, if you will. Whether it is stolen by circumstances, or by another person, or on account of our own failures, it is possible to find the good life we had envisioned for ourselves taken from us – stolen. Many have this experience in life.
Sometimes the good life is taken from us by a thief. We hardly notice until suddenly we realize it’s out of reach. Perhaps we had been striving for a family life that was rich and meaningful – or perhaps we had been working along a specific career path that seemed compelling and significant. And as we come to the mid-life or later life, we suddenly realize that it has all slipped through our fingers. Where did it go? We suddenly realize that our relationships with our children or spouse are not what we had hoped they would be – we suddenly realize that there is something stale and unsatisfying about the career we have built for ourselves. Like a thief, circumstances or events or people have taken the good life that we envisaged for ourselves.
There are plenty of examples of this. One that came to my mind was Shirley Valentine – Becky and I saw a production of the one-woman play at the Centaur a couple of years ago. There is Shirley Valentine, a middle-aged Liverpool housewife, who suddenly realizes that, as if by a thief, the good life has been taken away. There she is in the opening scene, commiserating with the Wall, talking to the wall, while she prepares her husbands chips and eggs, wondering where her life went. As if by a thief, the good life she had envisaged was taken away.
On the other hand, sometimes the good life is taken from us not as if by a thief but as if by a robber or bandit. It’s not that we suddenly realize, in middle or later life, that we don’t have what we had hoped for. It is, rather, that some significant, difficult event takes it away in one fell swoop.
Again, we could think of plenty of examples – through the death of a spouse – through the loss of a job – through a significant illness or physical injury – it is possible that we are suddenly and decisively robbed of the good life. We could think this morning of the people of Slave Lake, where a whole community, and individual homes, were wiped out in no time at all.
Everyone pursues the good life in some sense. And it is not uncommon that at some point in our lives a woman or man will find that the life they had imagined has been taken from them.
Having set it up in this way, we can turn to the words of Jesus, who says: “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” Yes – every person is striving for happiness – every human being wants to live the truly human life – every human being wants a life that is good and beautiful. Jesus comes and says: “That’s also what I want you to have. I want you to have that happiness, that goodness and beauty – I want you to have that truly human life.”
Jesus makes the same point, slightly differently, when he says: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” For Jesus, the language of salvation here doesn’t point to an otherworldly, future reality. For Jesus, the language of salvation isn’t just about the sweet by and by where we’ll meet on that glorious shore. Jesus certainly has things to say about the coming kingdom of God – even about heaven. But in John chapter 10 Jesus speaks of being ‘saved’ in terms of the life we live here and now – life lived to its fullness – life that is rich and meaningful.
In this passage, Jesus sets himself up as the anti-thief, the anti-robber.
He is not one who takes life. He gives life.
He does not surreptitiously slip the good things from our lives while we aren’t looking. He gives the truly good things.
He is not one who cuts our legs from under us in the middle of life. He is one who puts us firmly on our feet and gives us true freedom.
They will come in and go out, says Jesus. Coming and going – it’s an image of freedom – it’s a metaphor of movement that elicits delight and joy. We all want freedom of movement – coming and going. They will find pasture, says Jesus – a pastoral image of comfort and satisfaction. We all want to find that place where our most basic needs are met. Jesus says: It’s all of this that I give to you.
All of this brings us back in a way to that question we skipped over pretty quickly a few minutes ago. What is the good life? What does it look like? We could ask about the specifics. Does the good life involve higher education, or not? Does the good life involve children, or not? How much wealth does the good life require? How much stuff do you need for a good life? Does the environment figure in the good life? How important is the health of my body, or the attractiveness of my body, to the good life?
Now the truth is that from the perspective of the gospel the good life can be lived in a variety of ways. It is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Many of the things that people around us strive for can be embraced within the good life envisaged in the gospel. At the same time, of course, there will be lot of things that we value or pursue that might not fit within the good life – after all, Christ’s kingdom is defined by humble service, by justice, by peace, and by goodness. Not everything will fit in that framework.
But here’s the thing. In the face of John chapter 10, and John’s gospel more generally, perhaps the decisive point is this: we only find abundant life, we only find the good life, when we are in touch with Jesus. We only find abundant life, we only find the good life, when we are in touch with the one who is the way, the truth and the life. You see that’s the thing about Jesus – he doesn’t say to us: “ok, here’s a template for the good life – now go and live it. He doesn’t say that.
The good life, the beautiful life – that life is encounter with, it’s life along the way the way, with risen Jesus. That’s why one of the earliest Christians would say something like this: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” It’s not just about following a particular way of life – it’s not about following a particular set of rules – it’s not even about being a good person. On most days I think I’d go as far as to say that God doesn’t care whether we’re good people. It’s about knowing a particular person – it’s about spiritual encounter with Christ.
For some of us, I know, this all sounds just a bit odd. We may have been hearing something similar for years and yet it all sounds just a bit foreign to us. What on earth does it mean? How do we get hold of this vague stuff? Even more, some of us might be quite comfortable with the life we live – we don’t think there’s much more to be gained.
The truth is, even those who are spiritually mature, even women and men of deep faith in the risen Jesus – those who walk faithfully in his way of humble service – even women and men of deep faith, struggle constantly to know what it means to reach out toward, to listen to, to encounter the risen Jesus. It doesn’t help that we live in a culture in which we are alienated from this language and this way of being. Yet this is the essence of abundant life from the perspective of the gospel – life that is deep and meaningful – a good life that can never be taken from us, no matter what else we might lose in life. It is the life of encounter with Jesus.
We all want the same thing – our neighbours, our friends – the strangers we encounter day by day. We are all looking for the same thing – abundant life – life that makes sense and is worthwhile. Jesus says. If that’s what you want then listen to my story; listen for my voice; speak with me. I am never far from you. I give the gift of life. Thanks be to God. Amen.