I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:10
If you google “Christ the Good Shepherd Catacomb of Priscilla”, you will see an image of the Good Shepherd from the fresco on the domed ceiling of the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. Dressed in a Roman chiton, Christ stands with a sheep or goat balanced on his shoulders and one to his right and to his left, as birds on trees frame the scene. It is one of the earliest pieces of Christian art existing, thought to be produced in the late second or early third century.
In today’s lectionary readings, we are given a taste of life in the early Christian community. From the book of Acts, we read of a communal life where all is shared and everyone’s needs are met. The new Followers of the Way of Jesus have “glad and generous hearts” and “the goodwill of all the people”. In 1 Peter, the community is encouraged to walk in the footsteps of Christ, not returning abuse for abuse or threats for suffering, but living “for righteousness”. And in John, Jesus picks up the ancient image of the Good Shepherd – one we first heard in Psalm 23 – to speak about God’s way of abundant life in contrast to the way of the thief who steals, kills and destroys.
These peculiar days of lockdown that we are living through now make me wonder about the ways we have been unthinkingly living in our world. I look around my house and see more books than I can count, more clothes than I can wear, more things than I could ever need. How did this happen? And I look at my pre-lockdown diary and see myself poised to run from place to place and activity to activity. Can a person live thoughtfully, aware of the consequences of her choices, if she is always on the run? Don’t get me wrong. I love doing the things listed in my diary – a lot. But there is a sense of being driven to do and be more, more, more whilst living a life in which there is too much already to appreciate properly. Locked down, I breathe a little more slowly. Locked down, I think about how I want to live. Locked down, ears ringing with birdsong, I think about how the earth is healing whilst we are not running around working and consuming.
Those first Christians, the ones who heard Peter’s first sermon and flocked to be baptised, recognised that the way they had been living was problematic and unGodly. They took up their new life as Christians with gusto and with glad and generous hearts. They saw themselves as a community, responsible for one another and especially for those in need. Their faith enabled them to turn the other cheek, share their second coat, suffer and not retaliate.
Granted they lived in a much simpler world. But that does not stop us asking whether we –living on autopilot, assuming we can have whatever we want whenever we want it, not thinking about the consequences of our actions – are living the life Christ came to give us. Are we?
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought home to me in a strong way that we are creatures, not the Creator, and that we are part of an interdependent web of life here on earth. All of our actions have consequences. We already knew that from the looming crises of climate change, but the pandemic has shown us how quickly everything can change due to forces outside of our control. We’ve snapped to it (to lockdown) now that we know that literally our lives and the lives of others are at stake if we don’t. We have been forced by the pandemic to think about how our actions affect other people.
Once lockdown is lifted and we are relatively free to move about the country, will we go back on autopilot? Or will we take the time and thought to consider deeply the life we are living and how it impacts people around the world? To consider whether abundant life consists of sharing, gladness and generosity, endurance and living rightly…or the amount of stuff (things and experiences) we can accumulate?
As never before we are aware of our vulnerability. As never before the circumstances of our world ask us difficult questions about how we live. As never before we need the strength, insight and wisdom that our faith tradition can offer us.
Jesus speaks of the gate to his sheepfold – the sheepfold of abundant life – being narrow. Maybe we need to let go of a lot of stuff to get through it. Like our assumptions that we are entitled to everything we desire, or our failure to consider the wider impact of our choices. Maybe we need to look critically at the way we are groomed to be shallow and selfish so that someone, somewhere can make money off of us. Maybe we need to let go of unnecessary plane trips and luxury goods. Maybe we need to live simply, so that others may simply live…so that the human family will survive this century’s profound challenges.
God, help us. Really and truly. We are a far way off from the life You have for us. We don’t know how we got here. But perhaps, just perhaps, we can see more clearly where we are and maybe even where You would have us be. We are going to need a lot of strength, wisdom and courage to get there. We need You.