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If you are a fan of a certain sort, you are familiar with the phrase “live long and prosper.” Live long and do well. Live long and flourish. What does it mean to flourish though? By what or whose measure do we say we are doing well? We talk about “living the dream.”
What if our version of living the dream results in someone else’s nightmare?
What if we were to talk about the good life as the abundant life? A life filled with a super-abundance. What does Jesus mean when he says, in the passage we looked at in John 10 not many weeks ago, “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.”?
Some in the church have taken this to mean that to have life abundantly is to have an abundance of cash or an abundance of stuff. I remember hearing a preacher on television once telling a story of how she was doing her grocery shopping and when the young man bringing the groceries to her car remarked on how nice the car was, told him that he too could have such a car if he would only become a follower of Christ. In some circles, lack of material goods are a sign of a lack of faith. Is this what Jesus was talking about when he said that he came so that we might have life and have it abundantly?
This is not to say that what we do doesn’t matter when it comes to work and money and having enough to sustain our lives. I recently took a course that was called Faith, Work, and Worship and it was a really good course. I found out that there has not been a great deal of theological reflection, of reflecting on God and work in the history of Christianity. It’s interesting considering that work is something that many of us spend or have spent a lot of our waking hours doing. A lot of what has been written has been about the inherent value of doing everything as if it were for God. There is a verse in Colossians where Paul talks about this - “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.” Now we might read that and think that this talk of inheritance is making us think of material reward once again. You can think of the scene in countless movies where the family is waiting to have the patriarch or matriarch’s will read, usually with someone they perceive to be a financial interloper in the room (I saw this most recently in the excellent “Knives Out”). We’ll come back to this idea of our inheritance as followers of Christ though.
For now, let us stick to this idea that to spiritualize abundance or prosperity does not mean that we don’t attend to work. Take a look at a verse like Proverbs 6:6 “Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways and be wise.” Or Proverbs 10:5 – “A child who gathers in summer is prudent but a child who sleeps in harvest brings shame.” Doing everything as if we were doing it for God is a good thing. Being like the ant is a good thing. Gathering while it is time to gather is also a good thing.
But does abundant life mean that God wants us all to be rich?
It would seem not. You’ve heard me talk about a church near me with a sign that says “Stop Suffering.” Jesus never promised a life of not suffering. In fact, he promised that in this world his followers would have trouble. In the same way, following Christ is not a guarantee to avoid financial hardship. Paul wrote to the people of Galatia and he told them this:
10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now, at last, you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me but had no opportunity to show it. 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.
Paul had learned the secret to abundant life. Life in which abundance is not prescribed by how much or how little one has. Life in which one’s identity or worth is not measured or valued by how much one produces and how much one consumes. “My God will supply my needs according to his riches in glory,” Paul writes. What are these riches? We talked about this recently when we talked about exploring the riches of Christ. Of coming to a greater understanding of what this means. There is a spiritual truth contained in this image of the riches of Christ. It’s one we hear echoed when Christ tells his followers that he has food to eat that they know nothing about. It’s echoed when Christ tells his followers that he is fed by doing the will of the one who sent him.
To have life abundant in Christ is to be tapped into the loving relationship that has existed between God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit since before the beginning of time. It is to participate in the life of the risen Christ. We mark this every time we gather around the communion table and are affirmed in it. It is to have the Holy Spirit living in us, teaching us, reminding us, forming us, shaping us. It is to live in the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control of the living Christ. It is to be formed by the one who created all things and loves all things. What does it mean to you? What has it meant to you?
It means giving up the idea that we can control things or need to control things based on what we have around us. If there’s one thing this pandemic has done, it’s stripped away the idea that we can control things. Jesus at one point had an encounter with a rich young ruler. The young ruler asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. The rich young ruler says that he’s kept all the commandments. Jesus tells him to give up everything he owns. He can’t do it. He was reliant on them
Donald Adams writes in 'With Hands Outstretched,' “Jesus is saying that true riches are not a matter of what we control. True riches are a matter of what controls us. God’s glorious riches in Christ Jesus are centered in what comes into our lives when we allow him — his love and truth — to be the controlling center of our lives.”
I put the question out to a number of people - “What does abundant life in Christ mean to you?” Here’s what some of you said:
I have joy regardless of the outcome. Without Christ, I would not have learned of an eternal joy that comes in all circumstances and peace surpassing understanding.
Experiencing the fullness of generosity God wants to bestow.
Salvation, freedom from guilt, eternal life, and a connection with God who loves me unconditionally.
- As you walk the path and reflect the image, you fill others with the love, grace, and peace, and you too are filled!
Despite our circumstances, God is near and is in control. Our future is in His hands.
I live in an excess of His love and mercy.
Peace during stressful times.
Experiencing joy and having Christ to thank for it. Walking through sorrow and having Christ as a companion.
“Perplexed but not in despair.” I find myself perplexed about lots of things in life and the reasoning behind why certain things happen… sometimes there is not one answer that makes sense. In those cases I’m thankful that I don’t need to despair because I know God loves me, He’s fighting for me and he provides me with a “peace that transcends all understanding.”
The ability to reach out and talk to God any time, any place on any subject.
The thing about all this talk of abundance is this. You might be sitting there thinking “Well it’s very easy to say that this is a spiritual truth as we are living comfortably in the comfortable West.” What about for those who don’t have an abundance of things or who lack material goods? Well, there are things for us to do about that. Jesus’ brother wrote about this (James 2:15-16).
If we are to look at abundant life spiritually and take that seriously, I think that should cause us to look at an abundant life materially and ask the question what is enough? What would a theology of enough look like? This is something I need to ask myself all the time. It’s so easy to fall prey into the pit of consumption. Do I need another hat or another pair of shoes or whatever? How do we practice a theology of enough in a society that wants to convince us that we need more of everything? Will this even be a thing after COVID?
For an example, we can look at the Israelites gathering daily in the wilderness. This was one of the first lessons to be learned after their deliverance from slavery. To try to hoard what God was providing meant that it would spoil. We’re meant to gather sufficiently and then rest. One day per week there was no need to gather at all. Do we trust God enough to rest? The second thing to take from this story is – everyone had enough. Shane Claiborne wrote this: “I’m convinced God did not mess up and make too many people and not enough stuff. Poverty was created not by God but by you and me because we have not learned to love our neighbors as ourselves. Gandhi put it well when he said, ‘There is enough for everyone’s need, but there is not enough for everyone’s greed.’ One of the first commandments given to our biblical ancestors while they were stuck in the middle of the wilderness somewhere between Pharaoh’s empire and the promised land was this: each one was to gather only as much as they needed… Over and over we hear the promise that if we only take what we need, there will be enough.”
We too are living between Pharaoh’s empire and the promised land. The allure of empire is strong. May we cling to the truth of what it means friends to live life abundantly – to live life in communion, in fellowship, in partnership with the Divine love that has existed before the foundation of the world. The love that was revealed in Christ. The love that is enabled by the Holy Spirit of God. At the same time may we know the meaning of enough, so that the words that Paul reminded the people of Corinth of would be true in our days – “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” May these things be true for all of us.