First Parish Congregational Church
United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine
Rev. Kate Dalton
March 3, 2019
Scripture: John 7:32-52; Isaiah 55:1-5
In his most recent book, Unbelievable, John Shelby Spong makes a point to distinguish direct experience from the explanation of that experience. Spong uses the movement of the sun as an example. Throughout history, people have been aware of the movement of the sun. Explanations for this experience have changed over time. For example, in ancient times the Greeks believed that the god Apollo rode his chariot through the sky pulled by fiery horses creating the phenomenon of the sun. Aristotle suggested that the earth was the center of the universe – the sun revolving around the earth. Eventually, Copernicus reverses this, asserting that the earth revolves around the sun. All of these were explanations for the same experience.
This is important to remember when reading the Bible. Spong’s point is that the Bible documents an explanation of people’s experiences. These explanations are influenced by the culture and world of the times – a culture and world that are very different from today. And so, we must take care as we strive to find meaning in the stories of our faith
This does bring up the issue of how you understand scripture. Scripture is defined as sacred writings, writings connected with God. The issue to be grappled with is – is scripture literally a transcription of God speaking or is it a documentation of how people understood God in a particular time and a particular place? And if it is a documentation of how people understood God in a particular time and a particular place – then how should scripture inform our lives today? For me what seems to be true about scripture is that although I believe it is specific to a particular time and place, it also contains information that helps me consider and understand God in this time and place. It’s a point of reference.
In the New Revised Standard Translation of the Bible, the heading for Isaiah 55 is “An Invitation to Abundant Life.” The passage is then echoed by Jesus in the passage we read from John, John 7:37-39:
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38 and let the one who believes in me drink. As[a] the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart[b] shall flow rivers of living water.’”
An invitation to abundant life, timeless. Christianity is inviting us to abundant life. Whether or not Jesus ever said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,” is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that the people who wrote down these stories understood this as central to Jesus identity. Jesus was identified with offering us abundant life – for me that is a distinct marker of the Christian faith.
I don’t know how abundance was viewed in ancient times – but I do know how abundance is viewed in today’s world. It’s almost mythological. Our culture in particular is based on a scarcity model. If you have more than what you need – you deserve it. You earned it. And it is perfectly acceptable for you to hoard it. In fact, the more you have the more status you have in the eyes of the culture. And it’s important to hold on to what you have because clearly there is a shortage which is why some suffer. Protection against suffering has been equated to storing assets just in case. This understanding of the world is a construction – one we use to prop our culture and our accomplishments. One we use to make ourselves feel better when we know that others live in gross poverty.
And yet, this is not reality. Take hunger for example. People in this world are not hungry because of a shortage of food. People in this world are hungry because of poor food distribution. If we were secure enough to share well, if we trusted in abundance, we could eliminate hunger.
Perhaps the idea to unpack this morning is – what is abundant life? What is the living water that Jesus is offering? Following Jesus, drinking the living water, happens when we orient our lives to God’s intentions not our own plans. That’s the change Jesus is constantly offering to us. That’s the change that causes so much friction in Jesus time. When you think about it, the Pharisees are not so different from us. They are legislating faith based on a codified understanding of how to do things – an understanding that was particular to a specific time and place. But the Pharisees don’t adjust because time has gone by or because the world is different – they blindly proceed. Jesus challenges that. Jesus demonstrates a dynamic alternative suggesting that following God is dynamic. How we follow God and how we understand God will change and should change. Our understanding of the world should affect how we understand our faith. And yet, there are fundamentals that come from God which must be interpreted and understood in every age.
Abundant life is one of those fundamentals. God’s intention is abundant life. Our task is to determine what that means in our time and context. And while our understanding of what abundant life means may not be the same as our ancestors understanding – what’s critical is that our experience of what abundant life is, is the same. May God bless us on this journey. Amen.