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Message for Sunday 3 May 2020: “Messaging through Metaphors”

The Bible is loaded with the metaphorical use of language such as analogies, figures of speech and hyperbole. The biblical writers understood the power of these rhetorical devices and the creative use of words. In both ancient times and in the present, the effective use of language can grab attention and make a point with the power of poetic persuasiveness.

Today’s lectionary from John 10:1-10 is relevant in that the writer uses an analogy to compare Jesus to a gate through which shepherds and sheep enter. Jesus is not a literal gate, but the suggestion is that Jesus functions as the portal or entrance through which people pass for salvation. One of the issues in John’s writing is his comparison of diverse religious leaders and followers to a flock of sheep. This is a prime example of metaphorical language. The mention of sheep and shepherds as part of a nomadic lifestyle isn’t as relevant in today’s world as it was when the biblical words were first written. Nevertheless, the language John uses makes his point and with some cultural translation even a modern audience can appreciate the comparisons John makes.

John instructs his readers to enter the sheepfold (heaven) by the gate (Jesus). He warns that anyone who tries to find another way other than through Jesus will be treated as a “thief and a bandit” (John 10: 1). John’s loaded, metaphorical language suggests that Jesus is the sole way through which people gain salvation. John then speaks of the shepherd, suggesting that the gatekeeper (God the Father himself?) opens the gate to the legitimate shepherd. The analogy is completed as John refers to the sheep (anyone called by God). In this way, the sheep hear and respond to the shepherd’s voice. If any of this narrative is taken literally then it doesn’t make sense, which is why anyone who reads the Bible must exercise caution as to what were the intentions and context of the original writer.

Jesus clarifies and cuts-through the metaphorical use of language when he flatly states that he is the gate where the sheep pass (John 10:7). Remarkably, Jesus then dismisses all other spiritual and religious leaders by saying that “[a]ll who came before me are thieves and bandits” (John 10:8). Wow! That’s a provocative statement which arouses all sorts of responses. The implications and ramifications of Jesus’ language are significant, especially when some people claim that only those who enter by Jesus will be saved (John 10:9). Perhaps Jesus was using hyperbole, which is intentionally exaggerated language intended to make an attention-grabbing point.

John’s verses remain highly controversial. How and when should John and other biblical writers be taken literally and was Jesus even quoted correctly?  Are the Bible’s words simply an interpretation of the person who wrote them and if so how can anyone reliably claim to absolutely discern the original facts? It is not comfortable to open such troubling issues but they persist and how a person deals with questions may dramatically impact their spiritual health. Rather than force-feed people only one perspective, it’s more productive to invite people of faith to sample various angles so that they have a fuller picture and can then choose what makes the most sense.

In the midst of all the heated controversy there is a consoling verse that provides relief while the debate rages over what Jesus really said and meant: “I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). What comprises an abundant Christian life? This is worth figuring-out because most people can benefit from a life of wellbeing, one which is holistic in that all areas of life (e.g., body, mind and spirit) coalesce. Are you living a life of holistic wellbeing? What stands between you and the best possible life? Is God entering the door of your life and are you welcoming the divine presence?

As you may have guessed, even abundance is a topic that arouses debate between Christians. Some suggest that abundance refers exclusively to inner peace and joy while others claim that an abundant life can include worldly prosperity and financial rewards. Can both types of abundance exist together? Rather than choose just one type of abundance over the other, both can be celebrated. In other words, the diverse benefits of loving God can extend in all directions. Claim the promise that an abundant life can also be a life full of depth, in all areas of existence. Welcome the presence of God and in so doing you can live a comprehensively triumphant life. And that’s no metaphor!

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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