The Abundant Life
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
From the prophet Isaiah, we read, “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). These ancient prophetic words, now more than 2,000 years old, are not about the outcome of today’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles. Instead, they echo a promise, found throughout scripture that life goes well, or at least better, for people of faith as compared to those without faith. He came that we may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10b).
In today’s gospel, Jesus is a miracle worker. He begins with healing Peter’s mother-in-law and proceeds, within the span of four verses, to work through the population of an entire city—healing the sick and casting out demons before heading out to a deserted place the next morning, all alone, to pray. (Mark 1:31-34)
If we are honest sometimes passages like today’s Gospel feel cruel, or at least inaccessible. What are we supposed to do with Jesus’s healing stories? Have things changed so drastically since Jesus walked the earth ushering in God’s kingdom with all manner of miraculous signs and wonders? Where has all the magic gone?
“The problem with miracles,” Episcopal preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own. Every one of us knows someone who is suffering. Every one of us knows someone who could use a miracle, but miracles are hard to come by.”
There is a cottage industry today led by the false prophets of the prosperity gospel who would lead us astray with promises of wealth and success if we could only learn to pray like them. Yet we know where this path leads. Sooner or later, real life intercedes. People die, or become injured, chronic illness and old age eat away at precious talents and abilities, and others today will become victims of violence or injustice.
We are confused about what the promise of the abundant life means and also compassionate so like the false comforters of Job sometimes we say silly things —or at least, I certainly have. Have you heard people say, “God is using this sickness to build your character.” “God never gives you a test that’s too great.” “Satan is testing you — stay strong!” “God’s timing is different from ours — be patient.” Or here’s a good one “Have you tried fasting?” In addition, there a plenty on TV telling you “Send me/my church/my ministry money, and God will heal you for sure!”
A closer look at scripture and today’s gospel offers some help. we see Jesus is not very interested in magic. The urgency of his message is an invitation to live with the mystery of the ‘already-and-not-yet.” Yes, the kingdom of God has come, and its in-breaking is even now revealed in Christ Jesus. Yet Jesus healed only a small number of people in one tiny part of the world before he died. He came to proclaim the kingdom of God, not to eliminate the world’s disease and despair. The abundant life we receive does not make us impervious to loss or rescue us from frailty and finitude. Becoming One with the undying life of God is not freedom from pain, but freedom despite pain.
Our Christian ancestors understood this. Their embrace of finitude and no longer being afraid their own mortality is what made them different. Because they were confident in the resurrection, fear was replaced with compassion. Because they stood with the sick, the poor, the oppressed, they learned to be healers. They suffered with them. Their newfound freedom from fear of pain contributed to the beginning of Western medicine and hospitals. The gospel freed them to participate in improving their lives and those around them. Unity in the Undying Life of God led them further on the path to abundant life following the way marked by the cross of Christ Jesus.
The early Syrian Fathers Ephrem and Simeon actually proposed that tears be a sacrament in the Church. Saint Ephrem went so far as to say until you have cried you don’t know God. Jesus said blessed are those who weep (Luke 6:21). In this Beatitude, Jesus praised those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to remove or isolate themselves from its suffering. This is why Jesus says the rich person often can’t see the Kingdom because they spend too much time trying to make tears unnecessary and even impossible. (Richard Rohr, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, 2/01/18)
Solidarity with the suffering is the counter-intuitive sign of the abundant life. It makes us hungry for justice. True systemic change requires a willingness to be self-critical. I’ve read one of the commercials to be aired during the Super Bowl today will urge citizens to “Please stand up” for the flag and national anthem. I’m curious what it says about our national pastime that we want to prevent NFL players from exercising their constitutional right to free speech? Their solidarity with the suffering is regarded as sacrilege in our temples of civic religion—where patriotism, nativism, and bad religion are mixed together in a tasty adulterated stew.
But we are called out. Members of the ekklesia, the church, have been literally “called out” of the world in order to live free of its dictates and to belong fully, at every moment, to God and to one another. To live a just and abundant life in this world is to identify with the longings and hungers of the poor, the meek, and those who weep. This identification and solidarity is in itself a profound form of social justice. (Rohr)
Righteousness is not something we do in private or by being polite; it sums up the global responsibility of the human community to make sure every human being has what they need, that everyone pursues a fair sense of justice for every other human being, and that everyone lives in right relationship with one another, creation, and God.
In our gospel today, Jesus showed us how to follow him into this abundance. Early in the morning, Jesus sought out a deserted place, alone, to pray. The English writer and Catholic teacher Edwina Gateley’s beautiful poem is full of wise advice:
Before your God.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God—
Yes, God is infinite and Wholly Other, while we remain finite and deeply known and therein lie the mysteries, as compared to the magic, of prayer. Change, pain, birth, and death are the way of all life along with grace, beauty, love, and joy forever. This precious and abundant life God has given us all.