Jeremiah 29:4-7 & John 10:9-10

To be an open, vibrant, multi-faceted, God-filled presence…

A reflection by Dan Spragg

Today I would like to take the opportunity to develop a little further what I mentioned briefly about our vision as a church in the foreword to the Annual Report. Our vision as a parish is: 

To be an open, vibrant, multifaceted, God-filled presence in our communities…

This has been quietly present with us since the formation of The Village and as I said I believe this vision has been birthed out of both who we sense we are and what we aspire to be. I also said that to have these elements already resident within our DNA is a big part of why I believe we have got through this past year without too much fuss! To be open helps us adapt to what comes our way, to be vibrant gives us energy to stick with what we do, to be multifaceted allows that energy to be generated through a variety of experiences and, of course, to be God-filled ultimately means that the substance we find with us and in all we do is not reliant on us – it is the Spirit of God who we can rely on to animate all that is good amongst us. Today I’d like to unpack this a bit more.

Our two scripture passages today I believe form a foundational part of what informs us. Let’s deal with John 10:9-10 first. For me there are two stand outs in this passage. The first is fairly self explanatory. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Following Jesus is about life, and life abundantly at that! We’ve often said from the pulpit that in Jesus, God has a name and a face. Which means that what we see and wrestle with with Jesus is always pointing to the way of God. And in this, in the way of God, we find abundant life. The question really is, who do we see God to be? We would say, Goodness, love, mercy, grace, delight, wonder, generosity, justice… The list can go on and as we follow Jesus in these things the joy of life will follow. We do, of course, have to be careful not to sugar coat it, of course, following Jesus into the way of God isn’t always easy or straightforward. It is often hard work as it means confronting things that need dealing with! Confronting things in ourselves, things in our community, things in our society which do not necessarily lead to life abundant. To find life and find it abundantly the way of Jesus in all its joy and in its hard work is how we will find life to the full, that gift of God that is open to all. Life is what God is about, nothing else despite what some who claim to follow Jesus may promote. In our vision it is Jesus we follow and the Spirit of God who animates all that is good as we seek to be an open, vibrant, multifaceted, God-filled presence.

The second stand out in this John passage is slightly intriguing I think. Here’s the verse: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” In particular I’m interested in the bit that says “…will come in and go out and find pasture.” A friend and I were recently talking about some changes they are making in their church community to their rhythms of worship. Instead of meeting every Sunday for a service of worship this is now fortnightly and on the in-between weeks they engage in service projects in their local community. Some are working on a section of the Heathcote river – weeding, cleaning up rubbish and planting natives. Another group are re-purposing used pallets and making furniture to give away. While we were talking, he mentioned this passage and said, “We behave as if the goal is always to come to church and do ‘church’ things together. But, we understand that sheep don’t find sustenance and all they need when they are cooped up in the yards. They might go in for a time – for medicine, vaccinations, shelter – but it’s always a transitional space, it’s always temporary. They are always released out into the paddock again. Too often we’ve taken the sheep and shepherd metaphors from Jesus and acted as if we are a bunch of sick and threatened sheep who need to be kept in the pen rather than being sent out, because ‘out’ is where we are meant to be. Why don’t we pay more attention to the ‘going out’ bit? What if we were searching for life and missing one of the key places we were meant to find it? Out there, outside of our church services?” Their church has taken this to heart and are finding new rhythms of life in being both ‘in’ and ‘out’ together. Part of following Jesus into an abundant life is to get out and be outside of the ‘congregation’. We know this, but it’s good to be reminded! As we follow Jesus and are animated by the Spirit we are to be an open, vibrant, multifaceted, God-filled presence in our communities!

Let’s look at Jeremiah 29:4-7. This has always felt like a key verse in our life. Our current vision is influenced by it a lot. Not literally, for we aren’t exiled Jews in Babylon, but the picture it paints is compelling. They are a people of faith who no longer find themselves at the centre of society. But in this passage there is a sense of getting on with life, a sense of getting to know the neighbours, a sense of being a positive and useful presence. General reading of Jeremiah contains quite a bit of doom and gloom and a fair amount of judgement but there is also, if you look, a practical and hopeful edge to the message. It seems as if Jeremiah says, ‘look, you are where you are, there’s not much changing it, so you may as well get on with living and living well. Also don’t resent the community around you, in fact look to be useful and bless the city in which you’re in. it will be good for everyone if you do.’

Jeremiah is both realistic and hopeful, especially if we add in verse 11 – a few verses later – “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” 

Realistic hopefulness seems to be what Jeremiah is encouraging. Surely this is quite a helpful posture? We are where we are. We are where we are as a parish as part of the Presbyterian Church in 21st Century Aotearoa New Zealand, which is different from 20th Century New Zealand. We are where we are financially. We are where we are demographically. Where are where we are. As I’ve said, we have our vision of who we are because it is already contained in our DNA but we also have it because it is aspirational in who we want to become. As we build it, this vision, where we are, for the good of those around us, we can hope, always in what God will do through us. 

It’s easy to see the congruence between Jesus’ ‘life to the full in here and out there’ and Jeremiah’s hopeful realism. As we are where we are with hope, seeking the welfare of those around us we are motivated to follow the way of Jesus because in all this, we will find life. It is all about life. Fullness of life but not just for us individually or as a church community. Life to the full is to be found in seeking the fullness of life led by Jesus into the communities around us. 

As we meet today with our AGM and celebrate another year as The Village, let us be grateful for all that is among us. Let us be grateful for where we are, for the life we have. And let us also look forward in hope for this is the only way we can look forward. Can I ask you to help? What is it for you to participate in the open, vibrant, multifaceted, God-filled presence? Let us live this out together as it is who we are where we are and also who we long to become. Let us live into the ‘life to the full’ life of God in hope for all that God will do in and through us.