As we continue through the Easter season, our Gospel readings are no longer accounts of the Risen Jesus appearing to His disciples. Most of our Gospel readings will be from the Gospel of John, and in the reading for this Sunday (John 10:1-10), Jesus uses the image of both a shepherd and the gate for the sheep. At the end of our reading, Jesus says “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
There are questions that come up for me as I reflect on these words. One question is: “Is the ‘abundant’ life Jesus talking about life here on earth as well as eternal life?” For me, the answer is “Yes!” It is possible for us to have abundant life in this life. The next question, then, is: “In the light of what’s going on now, how can this be? There is so much suffering and pain in our world. How can suffering be a part of abundant life?”
And this is what led me to really reflect on what does it mean to “have life and have it more abundantly.” I think what Jesus means by “abundant life” is different from what worldly wisdom would think it means. I think worldly wisdom would see abundant life as having everything one would want, with no worries or cares or anxieties or suffering.
I think for Jesus, and for us as believers, abundant life is something different. Jesus tells us that the basic commandment is to love – to love God and to love our neighbor. When we choose to love outside of ourselves, we will experience suffering. We hear this in our second reading from 1 Peter (2:20b – 25): “Beloved: If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God.” If love is the basic element of how we are to live as disciples of Christ, it is the basic element of abundant life, and so I would say that abundant life involves suffering “for doing what is good.”
Let me be even more outrageous. I believe that if we have life in Christ, we will indeed have no worries or cares or anxieties, not because we have everything we want, or that all of our problems magically disappear, but because we know, because of Easter, that our problems do not have the last word! And knowing that there is no greater gift than the love God has for us in Jesus Christ, we find that life is not about grabbing everything we want, but in giving as well as receiving.
Let me try to express this in a different way. If we buy into the worldly definition of “abundant life,” then what do we say about Jesus’ life? According to worldly wisdom, Jesus’ life was not “abundant.” He was not rich. He was misunderstood. He had enemies. He suffered physically and emotionally, and even spiritually. And He was executed. But from the perspective of faith, Jesus trusted in what He was sent to do. He had life more abundantly on earth, and gave of Himself, so that we could have it, too. In the language of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, abundant life is life relieved “from the bondage of self.” Jesus was totally free!
One more thing. I know that a lot of people are suffering, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with doing good or not. Does this reflection have anything to do with them? For me, it calls us to do what many are doing now: reaching out to others in various ways, trying to alleviate their suffering in any way they can, from the people on the front lines to others keeping the lines of contact open.
This pandemic has taught us many things. I think it has revealed the best of us and also where inequality exists. My personal hope is that when the worst of this passes, and even when we may have effective treatment and an effective vaccine, that we engage in some soul-searching as to what kind of a society and what kind of a world are we called to be in living a truly “abundant” life.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P., is the local superior of the Passionist Community in Birmingham, Alabama.