The gospel of life
1 Peter 2:19-25, Acts 2:42-47, John 10:1-10
by Isaac Villegas
May 11, 2014
Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). This is the heart of the gospel, and it’s the theme of John’s Gospel, repeated again and again. John 1:4, “What has come into being in him was life.” 5:26, “Just as the Father has life in himself, so also the Son has life in himself.” 6:35, “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life.’ ” 11:25, “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ ” 14:6, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ ” 14:9, “because I live, you also will live.”
Life. Life. Life. Life. Jesus offers us an invitation to life, to live in God’s life. That’s what his life and death and resurrection were all about. To show us life. To show us how to live.
And not just show us, but empower us. To infuse us with life, that we become permeated with God’s life. To draw us into the life of Jesus, which is God’s life, which is eternal life, salvation — as we are being saved from all the stuff in this world that disfigures life, that corrupts life, that hurts our lives and the lives of our neighbors. Resurrection is the culmination of Jesus’ message of life. Resurrection is God’s affirmation of life — a declaration, for all to see, that God is for life, not death, that God is on the side of life. That’s how the Peruvian preacher and theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, talks about the God of the bible, the God of our faith. “Christianity is a message of life,” he says, “a message based on the gratuitous love of [God] for us… Christian existence is a style of life.”[i]
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (v. 10). If you want a good way to summarize our faith, that’s the verse. We worship a God of life. And not just worship, but we find ourselves held in God’s life, brought within God, at home with God, finding our life in the life of Jesus. Jesus is the style of our lives, as Gutierrez would put it, our style of being human, which is why we are nonviolent, why we refuse to kill, because we have become part of the life of Jesus. There are others, Jesus says in our passage, who “steel, kill, and destroy” (v. 10). But they aren’t with God. Because, with Jesus, there’s nothing but life. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” he says.
The book of Acts opens up a window for us to see how the first Christians lived in this abundant life of Jesus. We see how they styled their lives as they were caught in the movement of God’s salvation. They met together, we read in our passage, for teaching and fellowship, as they broke bread and prayed for one another. Here we have the beginnings of our model for worship, for church: gathering for biblical reflection, prayer, communion, and fellowship.
But there’s more. “All the believers were together,” it says in Acts, and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as she or he had need” (2:44-45). To be people of God meant that they shared their lives, generously. They lived by grace — the grace of sharing what they had, what they earned, what they worked for.
This style of life captured the imagination of the early Anabaptists, our ancestors of the faith: “Omnia sunt communia,” was their rallying cry, “All things in common,” taken straight from Acts 2:44. They shared their wealth — and their poverty. They developed systems of mutual aid, where food and clothes and money were redistributed in their communities. All of this had to do with the abundant life of Jesus, with living in the gospel, with living in the movement of God’s salvation — with making life possible in a world where kings and princes, bishops and banks, were suffocating them with debt, with indentured servitude, with forced labor. In a world of economic coercion, of financial violence, the Anabaptists found ways to live in God’s free grace, God’s benevolence and generosity. When they couldn’t change the world, the Anabaptists created change in their own communities, as they lived into God’s abundant life, God’s salvation and liberation — they became communities of nonviolence, of noncoercion, of peace, even as they lived in a world of suffocating debt and violent greed. They became a people who lived the gospel of life, the gospel where, as it says: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as she or he had need.”[ii]
Menno Simons, in the 16th-century, put it this way — this is the guy we are named after, as Mennonites: he said, “with all our hearts [we] share our possessions, gold, and all that we have, however little it may be; [we] sweat and labor to meet the need of the poor, as the Spirit [of God], the Word of the Lord, and true love teach and imply.”[iii]
What the church of Acts experienced was the joy of the gospel. That’s a phrase I’m borrowing from the current pope, Pope Francis. Life in the gospel is joyful because it’s a shared life. It’s joyful because, like the church in Acts, we are filled with the Spirit of God.
It’s joyful because, like in Acts, we extend God’s grace to one another — the grace of common life, of experiencing life together, in common, sharing meals and resources, extending God’s care to one another, becoming part of God’s life, the God who shares life with us, who breathes life into our bodies, saving us, redeeming us, transforming us into the body of Christ, into the life of Jesus, the one who offers life, life upon life, life freed from the powers of sin — the resurrected life of Jesus frees us from sin, it says in our passage from 1 Peter, so that we may live for righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). Righteousness — dikaiosune in Greek. The word means justice, to live in justice, God’s justice. In New Testament Greek, there’s no difference between righteousness and justice. It’s the same word. There’s no difference between personal righteousness and public justice. There’s no difference between private piety and social justice. They are the same thing. They are the same because we’re talking about Jesus, the one who came to bring good news to the poor, release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.
Sin is whatever it is in us and in our world that works against Jesus. Sin is the stuff in us and in our world that resists God’s abundant life, that resists God’s liberation of the oppressed and the prisoners, that resists God’s healing of our eyes and bodies, that resists God’s economic justice for the poor. In other words, sin is the opposite of the abundant life of Jesus. Sin is a power, all around us, infecting us, that resists God’s movement of life, God’s salvation of the world.[iv] Sin is an infection that attacks life — our lives, and the lives of our neighbors. Sin is a prison, keeping us from experiencing the joy of creation, the joy of being fully alive.
I was teaching a class on death row last year. I had them read some poems by Jimmie Santiago Baca, poems he wrote while on death row in Arizona. We took turns reading out loud. The men in my class loved the poems. I was saving my favorite for last. It’s called “How we carry ourselves.” I flipped through the pages, found the poem, and I was about to read it to them, but I stopped myself, because I noticed the subtitle of the poem, which I hadn’t really paid attention to before. On the top of the page it said: “To Others in Prisons.” In that moment, I realized that the poem wasn’t for me, it wasn’t written to me. It was for prisoners, “To Others in Prisons.” Jimmy Baca wrote it to the men in my class, not to me. So I stopped myself, looked up from the page, and told the guys that it felt weird for me to read it. I told them that the poem was like a letter, addressed to them, and I thought one of them should read it. “To Others in Prisons,” not me.
I asked for a volunteer. A man in the back row raised his hand. Over the course of the semester, I had learned that this particular man was respected. When he spoke, everyone listened. He had a way of speaking and carrying himself, with gentleness and humility, but he also seemed like a distinguished man — as if he should be wearing a suit and tie, a bowtie if fact, and silver cufflinks, and polished black shoes.
I thought he was volunteering to read the poem. He stood up, wearing his bright red jumpsuit, and said to me, “What makes you think you’re not in prison?”
I’ve been thinking about his question ever since. Maybe he’s right. Of course, my prison isn’t as harsh as his. My life isn’t as confined and regulated as his. I’m treated much better than he is. But, maybe, he knows something about me, about why I do the things I do, and what keeps me from doing what I should do. Maybe I live in a prison of my own making, a captive to greed and sefishness, grudges and resentments, a captive to sin, to all the ways I restrict the flow of God’s life through me, the flow of God’s love for the world, as John 3:16 puts it, the God who wants to live in me, in the work of my hands, in the desires of my heart. Maybe I’m imprisoned by my attempts to be in control, in control of my time and money, my property — imprisoned by my attempts to control my identity, to control how you perceive me, what you think of me.
How about you? “What makes you think you’re not in prison?”
The good news of Easter is that Jesus has come that you might have life, and have it abundantly. The gospel is a life, the life of Jesus, living in us, setting us free from all the ways we refuse to live in God’s life.
I’ll close by reading part of that poem from Jimmy Baca, because it gives us a sense for what prisoners hope for, when they hope for life, which is what Jesus wants for all of us: abundant life; and because maybe there’s something in it for you, as you struggle to find the hope of God’s life while living in your own prison — a prison you’ve built for yourself, maybe, or a prison others have thrown you into.
“How We Carry Ourselves: To Others in Prisons.”[v]
if you can take the hammering, they will give,
if you can hold on while they grip you
and hurl you ragefully at the ground,
if you can bite your teeth when they bend you,
and still, you do not fit,
you can be who you are.
You can see the morning and breathe in God’s grace
you can laugh at sparrows, and find love
in yourself for the sun, you can learn
what is inside you, you can know silence,
you can look at the dark gray machine around you,
souls going up like billows of black smoke,
and decide what you will do next…
But you breathing, smiling, struggling.
[i] Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own Wells, pp. 1 and 4.
[ii] See James Stayer, The German Peasants War and Anabaptist Community of Goods, esp. chapter 5: “The Anti-Materialistic Piety of Thomas Müntzer and Its Anabaptist Expressions.”
[iii] Simons quoted in quoted in Peter James Klassen, The Economics of Anabaptism 1525-1560 (The Hague: Mouton & Co, 1964), 48.
[iv] Stanley Hauerwas: “We’re captured by it [sin] in various ways. But we’re captive to a power. That’s the way I want us to think about sin: not as something so much that I do as something that I’m captured by and that I don’t even recognize as captivity.” (Interview by Rodney Clapp in Books & Culture, Nov/Dec 1998.)