Based on Acts 2:43-7, 1Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10
The second paragraph of the “Declaration of Independence” states and I quote: “…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness….” That last “unalienable right” has always perplexed me. Does God really want me to pursue a momentary feeling known as happiness? Did Jesus really come and die on a cross for me to spend my life seeking to be happy? It is clear to me in the New Testament that Jesus never says a mumbling word about pursuing happiness. He speaks about pursuing love for God, our neighbors and each other and about not seeking the fleeting happiness of worldly treasures which thieves can steal and time rot away. So where did the writers of this foundational document get the idea that God created all people with rights to life, liberty and happiness? Life and freedom are self-evident, but what about that pursuit of happiness thing?
Turns out the “happiness thing” is a limited translation of either the Hebrew word “shalom” or more likely the Greek word “eudaimonia”. Both shalom and eudaimonia are robust words that have been used in Judeo-Christian and philosophical writings for millennia. Shalom means more than momentary peace or the absence of war. Shalom indicates a permanent inner state of serenity, wholeness or completeness which is given by God. Eudaimonia to Aristotle specifically, and to the ancient philosophers generally, is a word commonly translated as “happiness”, but better defined as “well-being”, “human flourishing” or possibly “living the good life”. Eudaimonia is something which can be seen in a person’s behavior and approach to the world, and it defines the well-lived life no matter how that person is feeling. St. Thomas Aquinas characterized eudaimonia as the state of complete blessedness of the direct perception of God – in other words, salvation. Later philosophers truncated the definition of eudaimonia to happiness, and that is the term that the writers used in our Declaration of Independence.
Our scriptures today speak to us not of happiness, but of abundant life and blessedness – of eudaimonia that comes from following the good shepherd, the risen Christ. Whether it is following the good shepherd or the teachings of the Apostles through good times and bad – these activities lead us to a more abundant life in and through God. Let us go now to God in prayer giving thanks for our good shepherd who leads us to thrive…
Our reading from Acts opens with the new converts to the way of Jesus being awed by the power of God made apparent in the miracles worked by the Apostles. The new community of faith was conducting itself with an eye to the needs of others before self – sharing everything “as any had need”. They spent their days worshipping in the temple and praising God, and their nights sharing a meal and their lives. The Bible tells us that living this way, “…day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved….” Living in a way that followed the teachings of Jesus made the community of the faithful fruitful and abundant.
The pastoral letter of 1Peter is reminding those believers in modern day Turkey that enduring suffering for their beliefs will bring them God’s approval. Following Jesus is about being able to follow Him all the way through the cross. As it is written here, “…by His wounds…” we all have been healed and returned to right relationship to God. The actions of the good shepherd have called us sheep back from our wanderings and restored us to the “guardian of our [your] souls”.
The ninth chapter of the Gospel according to John was all about spiritual blindness of the Temple leadership versus those who can see who Jesus is. Jesus continues the teaching in the tenth chapter, moving from eyes to ears – ears of the sheep who can hear the voice of their shepherd. Discerning sheep know the voice of the shepherd who guards them and leads them to good pasture. They will follow no other; especially the thieves and bandits of the worldly leadership of Israel or Rome. Those who follow the way of Jesus will find not only good pasture but salvation – a flourishing of mind, body and spirit. Jesus states quite clearly here that the reason He came was so that all who believe “may have life, and have it abundantly….”
Though later philosophers altered the work of Aristotle on eudaimonia, the writers of the Declaration would have known that while the Bible does not support the pursuit of the feeling of happiness as a right of being a child of God, it does very much support the idea of living fully into our God-image and discovering our salvation by growing into the mind and heart of the resurrected Christ. After all, our scripture today states categorically that Jesus came to give us abundant life – to give us eudaimonia. Thus, when one reads the Declaration of Independence, one should understand the God-given unalienable rights as life, liberty and the pursuit of human flourishing given to all persons equally.
Flourishing, thriving, living abundantly, eudaimonia…in this time of suffering and life-threatening illness, how is it that we can live as God intends? They key to unlocking that answer lie in our readings for today. The portion of the letter in 1Peter that we read today lies in a section which is reminding believers how they are supposed to be the Church in the world. At this time in history, it was perilous to be a believer in the risen Christ…it could get you killed especially if you were a woman or a slave. Thus, enduring the unjust punishments and everyday trials of being on the margin of society was something that connected believers with the maligned and abused Jesus. The witness of the suffering servant to the world is one that will continue to spread the good news of the good shepherd and lead one to abundant life.
Living in unity of spirit holding everything in common creates a unique and thriving community in the early Church. Thousands had been added to the movement, and more were added every day to this alternative form of communal living. It was uncommon in that day (and even more so today) to sell everything and share resources among unrelated persons. Yet, there is an opportunity for us to view this egalitarian and maybe utopian way of life as something that could help to heal our modern world. What if the Church today sought to live into the reality of the words of Jesus and the Declaration of Independence that all persons (not just males) – ALL persons have been given equally by God the rights to life, freedom and the ability to flourish or live into their full potential? What would our society look like if every day we were about doing the work of God by seeking to improve the lives of everyone so that they could be truly free and abundantly alive?
I believe that we are living now like those early followers of Jesus. We are meeting in small family groups, sharing meals and worship. We are also helping each other live fully and well by preventing infections and excess death. We are sharing the burden of self-sacrifice and living the teachings of John Wesley to, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” In this way we live fully into our Methodist heritage as well as the teachings of our good shepherd, Jesus. Eudaimonia – the pursuit of human flourishing (or salvation) is the ultimate goal of all persons created by God. In this time in our world as followers of Jesus, we must suffer and be inconvenienced in order to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. Living into the Great Commandments to love God with all that we have and all that we are and our neighbors as ourselves, means that we have the opportunity to give of ourselves in ways large and small for the greater good of all. If we dedicate ourselves to listening to the voice of Jesus, however, we will discover the awe of seeing God’s miraculous work of the healing of ourselves and our world. We will find our pastures of peace and plenty and we will know abundant life. May God give us the resolve to listen to the good shepherd and follow Him all the way to eudaimonia. Amen!