Abundant Life as an Integrated Life

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

I wanted to share some reflections from a homily I gave at our most recent faculty retreat, and share a book recommendation in the process.

I’m starting with this declaration from Jesus in John 10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” I never get tired of reflecting on this declaration of Jesus, and what he has come to inaugurate for creation. Not just “life”—not even eternal life, or new life—but abundant life.  Somehow, “life” by itself seems pretty good, until you put it next to “abundant life.” Then, when paired this way, “life” sounds minimal, meager—like barely getting by; because “abundant life” sounds so rich, overflowing, and lavish.

I have been thinking about this declaration in light of a book I have been reading this past week: The Cost of Moral Leadership: the Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Geffrey Kelly and Burton Nelson. The book begins by noting the essay in Christianity and Crisis written by Reinhold Niebuhr, titled “The Death of a Martyr.” In this essay Niebuhr writes, “[Bonhoeffer’s] actions and precepts contain within them the hope of a revitalized Protestant faith in Germany. It will be a faith, religiously more profound than that of many of its critics; but it will have learned to overcome the one fateful error of German Protestantism, the complete dichotomy between faith and political life.”

The authors go on to argue that from our vantage point, in the 21st century, “…a strong case can be made for enlarging the scope of Niebhur’s early judgment. Bonhoeffer’s legacy address not only the widespread dichotomy between faith and political life; it also challenges the dichotomy between faith and daily life in all its complexities: between faith and discipleship, between faith and lifestyle, between faith and our human relationships, between faith and social action.” I have also experienced these dichotomies in the lives of individuals–and even in the lives of congregations–and I believe with my whole heart that they can be overcome through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us.

In this spirit, then, I see this gospel message of abundant life as an invitation to integration—integrating God’s presence, God’s call, God’s gifts into all aspects of our lives—led, of course, by the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit. This abundant life is not grounded in anything we achieve, design, or build, but simply in God’s lavish love, forgiveness and grace; and in the wholeness of our personhood that God’s love creates.

I think this call to integration [both individual and communal] is really the point of the whole book, which describes different aspects of Bonhoeffer’s Christ-centered, Spirit-inspired spirituality, and the way his deep faith led him to concrete actions that resisted the temptation–so prevalent in Germany at the time–to compromise the call to discipleship [or at the very least, compartmentalize it] in favor of going along to get along with the Nazi Party. He understood the Christian life as being fully and entirely enveloped by Christ’s call to discipleship and the Spirit’s inspiration; and one’s party affiliation, and the way one engaged with one’s [Jewish] neighbor were not outside that call.

The authors write, “The Holy Spirit, Bonhoeffer says categorically, ‘establishes community and is presumably also the spirit of unity’. God, now revealed as the Holy Spirit, is the gathering force of those who have become the church community. This same Spirit is the cohesive web that supports the unity of Christians despite the disparate personalities that compose and ‘actualized church'” [57, my emphasis].

I love this image of the Spirit as a web of life, a web of connective tissue, a web of love linking the whole human family together across time and space. For Bonhoeffer, the ramifications of this were clear: “Our being Christians today…will be limited to two things: prayer and action for justice on behalf of people. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action” [41]. In the Christian life, there is no dichotomy between praying and prophesying, “courageous deeds” and “trustful prayers,” [40] Jesus and justice.

At our faculty retreat, we talked about the important work of setting more places at the table, empowering brave questions, and connecting the mind with the body—modeling fully and richly—personally and professionally—the abundant life to which God is calling us. This is the Spirit’s work of integration: overcoming dichotomies, compartmentalization, and marginalization of one’s identity in Christ, and accepting Christ’s invitation to embrace full-blown, full-body discipleship in the world.

But we need to be as clear as Bonhoeffer was that this work, this work of abundance, is first and foremost, finally and fully, God’s work—Spirit led. As much as it feels like it sometimes, this work does not rest heavily on our shoulders, as though it is all up to us. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. It is his life that we share, his breath that breathes in us, and his love and strength that moves in us, drawing us together, manifesting abundance—individually and as a community.

The authors of the book argue the following: “The practical question thus became for Bonhoeffer how, in a non-triumphal Christianity, to prevent Christians and church communities from squandering their identity with Jesus Christ in the midst of their involvement with the secular. This is in essence the fundamental question of how one’s spirituality can be integrated into one’s everyday life” [43].

This is a fundamental question of our day, too.

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