“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10.10
It’s important to know who’s at the gate. Everything depends on it. Abundant life or no life at all. Of course, it also all depends on who gets to define what life is, or as Michael Ignatieff recently put it, on who controls the narrative.
In the 1999 film, The Matrix, Thomas Anderson, a computer programmer with a hacker alter ego named Neo, awakens to discover that the life he thinks he has been living has been generated by a computer program called “the Matrix”. He has spent his entire life so far as one of millions of bodies whose sole purpose is to generate heat to energize the machines who have taken over the world. The machines control the narrative and make people believe they are actually living the life the Matrix projects into their minds. When Neo is rescued from the body farm and awakened to reality, he discovers what many of us discover at one point or another – that the story we have lived by is not the story that will bear our human weight.
That new weight-bearing story is not comfortable. In a powerful Matrix scene, Cypher, (a crew member of the resistance ship Nebuchadnezzar [!]) agrees to sell out his comrades and return safely to the Matrix. He sits with the Matrix’s agents, eating a steak, and says, “You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?” At this point, he takes a bite of steak and answers, “Ignorance is bliss.”
It’s tempting to choose ignorance, to embrace the thief’s definition of life, to let the machines control the narrative, because the thief can make ignorance taste better than truth. The machines – political, social, economic forces that seem so dominant as to be irresistible – depend on our choosing values like comfort and pleasure over such things as justice and compassion. They hope that we won’t persevere, that we will abandon our quest for a life that is truly abundant and settle for “as good as it gets.”
And that, I think, is where we find some wisdom in another of today’s readings:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts….
Here is, I think, a framework for abundant life. First of all, it “controls the narrative”. It tells the story of the apostles and teaches that story as truth. In the face of the same seductions that confront us today – stuff, status and power – it insists that abundance is something that emerges in community and is intended for the common good. And spiritual life is grounded not in pleading for more, but in giving thanks for the abundance already at hand. I am convinced that our church is called to tell and live this story in a world whose taste for ignorance is both grievous and menacing.