Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 11 May 2014: Year A, Christian Aid Sunday
Life in its fullness- for everyone!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Someone told me a tale recently of a young girl from Glasgow sent to stay on holiday on some Hebridean island. The island aunt and uncle were strict Sabbatarians, and after church in the morning there was not a lot to do, for she’d been told that she ought to stay in and quietly read an improving book. She certainly wasn’t go out and to play and disturb the island’s Sabbath calm. But she asked her aunt if she could be allowed to at least go out to take a quiet walk to the bottom of the garden. The aunt- who was a kindly soul, really- relented, and the wee girl went out the door and set off- quietly and slowly, down the garden. Next to the garden was a field, and in the field was a donkey, which strolled over as the wee girl approached. She noticed that the donkey had that sad, Eeyore kind of look that donkey’s faces have, and she took pity, and stroking the donkey, whispered in its ear, ‘So you’ve got religion as well?’
At the end today’s Gospel text, Jesus says that he has come ‘in order that you might have life- life in all its fullness’. Yet that tale- and novels, films and TV love to portray Christians as people who are killjoys. Instead of bringing an abundant life, many people today believe that Christianity sucks the fun out of life, and that Christians don’t just go for a simple life, but for a miserable life. Where’s the fun in Christianity, they ask?
Part of the problem is, of course, that some Christians do practice their faith by living lives which seem narrow and funless, not celebrating the good gifts of God which help to make for a full life. But mostly, people in our culture think that way today because they imagine a full life to be one in which we make the most of our consumerist culture. We are commanded by our culture to fill our lives with cheap thrills, and lots of things that we buy. And Christianity, they think, stands in opposition to all that.
A few years ago, an atheist group put an advert on London buses, reading, ‘There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life’. But the statistics for things like antidepressant drugs prescriptions and suicide rates suggest that there are plenty of non-religious people in our secular society who don’t worry about God and still manage to have a pretty miserable time. For our culture can fill our homes with lots of stuff, but I’m afraid, it doesn’t fill us with what we really need. We rarely find life in all its fullness.
When Jesus says he has come ‘in order that you might have life- life in all its fullness’, it’s a reminder that Christianity is not supposed to be about a grim, humourless, miserable existence. Rather, Christ makes it possible for us to know a full life, in which we know the security of being in the hands of our good shepherd. He is, he Jesus, the good shepherd of his flock. People of faith will listen to him, because he is like the shepherd whose sheep know his voice.
Apparently that actually happened in ancient Israel. Shepherds could keep their flock together, safe, calling out to them, and the sheep would recognise the voice of their own shepherd: ‘the sheep hear his voice as he calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out… and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice’ Jesus contrasts this with what happens when someone else- another shepherd, perhaps- tries to call the sheep: ‘They will not follow someone else; instead, they will run away from such a person, because they do not know his voice’.
And then Jesus sets up a contrast, between himself as the true shepherd, and others- thieves, robbers- who might try to steal the sheep. He says he is like the gate for the sheep (or the one who holds open the gate to the sheepfold and calls the sheep into safety. The sheep won’t listen to the thieves, but ‘Those who come in by me will be saved; they will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only in order to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come in order that you might have life- life in all its fullness’.
The atheists say if we forget God, we can stop worrying. But in fact Jesus says he is the one who takes away worries. A shepherd calling his sheep off the hill and into new pasture, or a safe sheep pen, is offering fresh grass and water, and safety from thieves or wild animals. For a sheep, plenty of fresh water (scarce in the Holy Land), green grass and is life in all its fullness. The thief, on the other hand- the false shepherd-comes only in order to steal, kill, and destroy.
In Christian Aid Week, we recall that there are many people around the world who seem not to have life in all its fullness. You cannot have a new life if you’re not safe, if you struggle to find food, if you don’t have access to clean water. This year’s Christian Aid week is focussing on places around the world where Christian Aid partners are working with people who have had to abandon their homes because of violence. For a growing number of people across the world, the horror of war is a part of daily life. Right now, fuelled by the devastating violence in both Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the numbers of people driven from their homes by war is on the rise- there now 42 million people around the world who have been driven from their homes by war. We’re all well aware of the situation in Nigeria, where over 200 hundred girls have been kidnapped by Isalmist terrorists. They weren’t even safe in their school. life in such places is hardly ‘life in all its fullness’.
We cannot, as Christians living relatively safe lives, speak about ‘life in all its fullness’ if we are not prepared to do something about it. We need to be peacemakers- discouraging war and violence whenever it rears its ugly head. And we can do practical actions- one example being taking part, in some way, in Christian Aid Week.
For they money we raise during Christian Aid week goes some way to helping to make life safer for people who have been through terrible times. Let me cite one example of how Christian Aid helps people who have come through terrible experiences nevertheless experience life in all its fullness:
Ever since the peace accord of 2005, around 2 million south Sudanese people living in exile from civil war have begun returning home. The numbers of returnees have intensified since 2011 when South Sudan gained independence and became the world’s youngest nation. Those returning speak of precarious journeys home, fraught with ambushes, looting, violence and rape: stories of fear from people who for all that have still travelled in hope. But their new home is a fledgling country whose transformation is regularly disrupted by inter-communal violence, rebellion by militia groups and localised conflicts over land and natural resources. Making peace and living in reconciliation remains a critical challenge for these people.
In Apada, South Sudan, returnees were provided with land by the government but little else. There was one brothel, but no housing, schools or clinics. With no tools, people here used their hands to build temporary shelters and sold what little goods they had to feed their families.
One of Christian Aid’s partners in Apada is Hope Agency for Relief and Development (HARD). HARD provided the returnees with hope in the shape of temporary shelters, blankets, water containers, mosquito nets and other essentials.
In the longer-term, HARD is providing finance for shelters that will withstand the rains and cash grants to initiate businesses. In turn, people are hiring labourers and buying goods from host community shops, and people like returned [refugee] Teresa Wel Ater see their long held hopes begin to take a concrete form.
Yet while HARD has helped give Teresa and fellow returnees a safe and secure home, Teresa’s contribution to the community has been equally important – she opened a church because she knew that it was faith that sustained her hopes in the toughest times. She says: ‘A church is important for a community. When I returned, I opened up this church. It is full of people. We sing, we pray and we support each other. Everybody is welcome.’
Today, as we baptise Blair and Sophie, I’m sure one of the things we would hope for them would be that they would grown up in safety, that their homes would be places of love and security. We would want that for all children- so that they can truly grow up to have life in all its fullness. And on this Christian Aid Sunday, we are hoping for that for all children, everywhere- for a world in free of war and terror, and a world where children can be safe, and to have life in all its fullness. For today we stand in solidarity with people like Teresa and her church in that refugee camp in South Sudan- folks whose faith in Christ the good shepherd has been tested in ways we can hardly imagine. Teresa has known the thieves who come to kill and destroy, but she put their faith in the one who leads them, even in the hardest times, to green pastures and quiet waters. We can help her, and many like her. And she has something to teach us about the reality of Christ’s promise to grant us life in all its fullness.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo