Readings: Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 41/42; John10:1-10
The last line of today’s gospel is sometimes lifted out and held up as a kind of summary proclamation of the mission of Jesus: ‘I have come that they may have life and have it to the full’. But it raises at least these two questions: what kind of life is life to the full, and how does it come to be in us?
The life Jesus speaks about is his risen life, the life of the new creation that has been established through his resurrection from the dead. We know that this is in some ways a continuation of human life and in other ways a radical transformation of human life. In their encounters with the Risen Lord, the disciples learned that there was continuity and discontinuity between his condition before his death and his condition after his resurrection, between the human being alive in the first creation and the human being alive in the new creation.
God is always the source of life and goodness. All life, all holiness comes from God through the Son in the Holy Spirit: so we say in the liturgy. Peter has a vision of all sorts of living things, animals and wild beasts, and a voice from heaven certifies them to be ‘clean’. The new creation, then, does not mean despising the old one: ‘what God has made clean, you have no right to call profane’. Peter’s vision, followed by a visit from three men, is reminiscent of the experience of Abraham at the oak of Mamre when three men came to assure him of God’s continuing presence and care in the unfolding of creation.
The history of creation now flows through the gate of the paschal mystery. This is the dramatic new development that has come about through the death and resurrection of Jesus. So what kind of life is life to the full, the life that flows through the gate of the paschal mystery? It is a life lived in the Spirit of Jesus: ‘the Holy Spirit came down on them in the same way as it came down on us in the beginning’, Peter says. Life in the Spirit means a life completely centred on Christ and on his work, a life of joy and courage in following Christ and witnessing to him. So we can begin to list the characteristics of life to the full: appreciating God’s work in creation, attending to God’s voice in prayer, recognising the voice of Christ the good shepherd, turning away from stealing, killing, and destroying.
Life to the full also means freely going in and out, sure of finding pasture. This rhythm of life seems to speak about contemplation and action, part of this life spent with Christ in the safety of the sheepfold, another part following him out of the sheepfold to do the many things involved in mission: searching for the lost, caring for the weak, witnessing to Christ, bringing his presence to every place, calling others to attend to his voice and to learn from him.
Life to the full means dissolving barriers such as that between Jews and Gentiles: ‘so you have been visiting the uncircumcised and eating with them, have you’, is a criticism of Peter when he returns to Judaea. So much of the teaching and example of Jesus is about the dissolution of barriers. Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners? Prostitutes enter the kingdom of heaven before the righteous. Many will come from east and west, north and south, to sit at table in his kingdom. We still long for this universal inclusiveness to be completed and the Church itself struggles, as we see it did from the beginning, to understand how it should bear witness in its own life to this universal inclusiveness.
So life to the full appreciates creation, attends to God’s voice, recognises the voice of Christ, turns away from wicked things, is contemplative and active, dissolves barriers between people: this is life in the Spirit of Jesus.
How do we come to live by this new life: this was our second question. At the end of today’s first reading the Church in Judaea surprises itself by saying ‘God can evidently grant even the pagans the repentance that leads to life’. The Spirit of life to the full clearly works beyond the barriers and limitations we will be inclined to set for it. Even while they express admiration for God’s ability to bring the pagans to repentance, they seem for the moment unaware of the fact that God has done exactly the same with them. They have been brought to change their minds, to repent of how they formerly thought about things, so as to open themselves further to the new thing God is doing within the creation.
The simple answer to our second question, then – how do we come to live by this new life? – is: repentance, changing our minds, thinking in a new way. It is always easier for us to see how other people need to change their minds than to see how we need to change our minds. But we have life to the full only when we have, as Saint Paul says, come to share the mind of Christ. We can begin to practise those virtues that characterise life to the full: appreciating creation, attending to God’s voice, recognising the voice of Christ, turning away from wicked things, being contemplative and active, dissolving the barriers that keep us from others.
The danger here is that such a list of virtues will begin to seem moralistic and effortful, as if life to the full were not also, as all life is, a gift granted to us.
On the other hand we cannot simply say ‘sorry, I have not received this gift’. Life to the full, the life of the new creation, is also continuous with the life of the first creation, and so we will find in ourselves intimations and longings that already draw us towards it, prepare us for it, and give us already, however faintly, some understanding of what love, joy, courage and peace might mean.
In today’s psalm the deer that yearns for running streams represents the soul thirsting for God: ‘when can I enter and see the face of God, the God of my life?’ ‘Send forth your light and your truth’, the psalmist says, a prayer we believe to be answered in the sending of the Son. ‘Let these be my guide’ – we recognise in the voice of Christ God’s light and truth leading and guiding us. ‘Let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.’ This is the Church, the sign and presence already of life to the full, where the mysteries of the gate are celebrated, the paschal mysteries of death and new life.
The first creation teaches us to yearn for life to the full. The new creation brings that life to us, healing the wounds of the first creation and fulfilling our desire for life in ways that are unexpected, radically transforming.