“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10.10
I wonder if it could be said that the author of the Gospel of John was an expert in producing soundbites or memorable catchphrases… short and snappy phrases that would easily take hold of people’s imaginations, and that could be remembered and would be easily recited. More contemporary soundbites with which you might be familiar include Tesco’s ‘Every little helps’, M&S’s “It’s not just food, it’s M&S food”, or perhaps even “Beans means Heinz “ or “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play”. These are simple, memorable phrases that capture the imagination and embed themselves in people’s memories so that we can recite them at will without really having to think about it. While English Bible translators might take some credit for the phrases from the Bible we remember in English, the originator of some of the most well-known verses of the Bible is undoubtedly St John himself. He opens his Gospel with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. This idea itself has been borrowed from Greek Philosophy. This would not be the obvious place to go for a strapline or memorable catchphrase today, and yet John makes it work. Apart from Genesis, I wonder how many opening sentences of other books of the Bible that you could recite without looking?
In Protestant Christianity, a second popular phrase from John’s Gospel that is often right there on the tip of Christians’ tongues is John 3.16. I would probably not need to remind most of you of this verse but here it is: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life”. For many Christians, just as the opening sentence of John sums up for us neatly who we understand Jesus to be, so this verse encapsulates the heart of the Christian Gospel. I mention both John 1.1 and John 3.16 as phrases that have captured the Christian imagination, and that are easily remembered and often recited because, especially in more recent years, John 10.10 could be said to fall into the same category: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
While this particular verse may not be as popular as some other of John’s phrases, this notion that Jesus came not just to give us life – but an abundant life – has become absolutely central to Christian self-understanding in many parts of the world. In the poorest and most desperate parts of the world, where people do not know if they will be able to eat today, or whether they will even still be alive tomorrow in contexts of conflict and terror, Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel speak powerfully. That is, yes, without Jesus we cannot exist – “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” – but so much more than this, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reveal the depth of love that God has for all that he has made. God wants us not just to be alive – to exist – but to live life in its abundance. This verse speaks so meaningfully to Christians in other parts of the world because it serves as a powerful reminder that God always wants the very best for us and that, while that is his promise to us for the world to come, he wants all that he has made to have the very best possible life on this earth. And so, this verse expresses not just Christian hope of what the world will be like when Jesus brings all things to completion, but it challenges all humanity to work towards ensuring that every human life is valued, and that every human life is given the opportunity to live life in all of its abundance in the midst of this wonderful and beautiful world that God has given to us to enjoy.
In our current circumstances, John’s words speak very powerfully to us today. The lockdown we have been experiencing over the past few weeks has been orientated towards ensuring the NHS can cope with the spread of the pandemic and to minimise the number of new infections and subsequent deaths of people who contract Covid-19. Every day we see large numbers of people who have died as a result of Covid-19, and among them particularly high numbers of people who were already vulnerable due to age, underlying health conditions and, indeed it transpires, people from ethnic minorities. The numbers that are reported everyday are quite staggering, but behind every number counted is a human life that has been lost – a life that God lovingly and wonderfully made and that was intended for life in all its abundance. The inability for some to be present at the moment their loved one dies, or even to accompany the person who has died to their final place of rest, has been utterly heart-breaking. If anything, this terrible pandemic has reminded us of what really matters: just how precious life is, how important other people are to us, how much we need one another.
In 2016, I happened to present in New York on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. I went to Church that Sunday morning, and the priest who had been in charge of that Church in 2001 came back to preach. He told many stories of the events of that awful day in 2001, but one thing he recounted really did stick with me. He said that when the twin towers had been attacked, as people were trying to escape, and it seemed that their own death was imminent, the one thing people most wanted to do at that moment was to phone their families and tell them that they loved them. They didn’t, he said, phone people up and give someone a piece of their mind, or seek to have the last word in a conflict. When it came down to it, he said, the thing that people prioritised was the emotion that transcends and overcomes all others – love!
John 3.16 reminds us just how much God loves the world and John 10.10 reminds us that because God loves us, we too should seek to love one another and to make sure that every human life is valued and is lived to its full potential. It is sad that it takes something like 9/11 or Covid-19 to bring us back not only to the heart of our faith, but to the very essence of what makes us human: our desire for life, and our capacity to love. In the face of all the suffering and death, the remarkable acts of generosity, kindness and love of so many people have been quite inspiring. In spite of the very many awful things this terrible virus has done to our world, when all this is over, may we be reminded to live out the kind of life that God calls us towards: A life of abundant love – for one another and for the precious gift of life itself. Amen.
Wayne Morris Easter 4 3rd May 2020