April 30, 2023 – Fourth Sunday of Easter – John 10:1-10
Abbondanza! Do you remember those frozen pizza commercials from the ‘70’s? Where Mama Celeste, this very authentic-looking Italian grandmother would declare “abbondanza” about the pizzas that bore her name? Abbondanza is the Italian word for abundance and those commercials made you believe that you were getting the real deal when you ate a Celeste pizza. And Mama Celeste’s pizzas probably were the real deal . . . at first. She was a real person of Italian descent – Celeste Lizio – who, with her husband, immigrated to the United States in the 1920’s and settled in Chicago, where they opened their first restaurant in 1932. Some years later, they began selling their pizzas to other restaurants, and in 1969, the Celeste brand was acquired by the first in a line of big national food companies. You can still buy a frozen Celeste pizza today as a matter of fact. But the recipe has changed from Celeste Lizio’s original. There is an abundance of ingredients. But as I read through the label on the package, I have to say that some of them sound a little sketchy. There are a lot of additives and preservatives – flavor-enhancers and shelf-stabilizers. But I suppose that’s true of most frozen prepared foods. But I kept reading. The pepperoni includes “mechanically separated chicken.” I had no idea what that was, so I looked it up – and let me warn you – if you have a weak stomach, you should probably cover your ears for the next 15 seconds. Mechanically separated chicken, according to the USDA, is “’a paste-like and batter-like product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue,’ . . . and ‘edible tissue’ [says The Daily Mail] . . . essentially refers to anything left on the bones, including nerves, blood vessels, cartilage, and skin, as well as a small amount of meat.” Yeah, gross. Vegetarianism is sounding better all the time! But maybe all sausage is like that? But as a pizza lover, what may offend me even more than the additives and preservatives and the contents of the pepperoni is the fact that Celeste pizzas use imitation cheese. Imitation cheese! Is that really abbondanza? Mechanically separated chicken and imitation cheese?
Now I don’t mean to pick on Celeste Pizzas. But it’s just so ironic that their name became associated with abundance, considering our Lord’s words from this morning’s Gospel: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Abundance, for Jesus, obviously isn’t just about a lot of stuff, like all the stuff that goes into a Celeste pizza. Quality matters. But for Jesus, it’s not even about a lot of high-value stuff. It seems to me that many people, even some Christians, confuse abundance with prosperity. There have always been – and there still are today – plenty of people who believe that the amount of financial or material blessings we have is a sign of God’s favor. But that kind of thinking is not biblical. The Bible always lifts up those who are poor and needy; whenever Jesus told a story about a rich person, the rich guy was always the one in trouble; and perhaps most convincingly of all, if wealth were so important to God, why would Jesus have been born poor? The other problem with the so-called prosperity gospel is that we know that it’s just not true. We all know good, God-fearing, Jesus-loving, Holy Spirit-filled people who are not rich, and we all know wealthy people about whom we wonder if they even have a soul. So when Jesus says he came to bring abundant life, he can’t be talking about money. Nor does abundant life consist of an abundance of things. So what is this abundance of which Jesus speaks?
I think we can glean some insight into the meaning of abundance by looking back at the previous chapter in John’s gospel. If we went back to chapter 9, we would find the story that we heard just a few weeks ago in Lent about the sign Jesus performed by healing the man who was born blind. Chapter 10, which we read part of today, is Jesus’ interpretation of this sign. By healing the blind man, Jesus did much more than just making him able to see again. Having his sight removed his vulnerability. Being able to see gave him the ability to provide for himself rather than beg. And in meeting Jesus, seeing him face to face, the man would always have the memory of his presence. Maybe that’s real abundance: knowing that you will be safe and sound no matter what, trusting that your basic needs will be met, and believing that you are never alone.
Now that kind of abbondanza – it won’t sell a lot of pizzas, and because we live in a culture that values accumulating more and more and bigger and better stuff, it may not be the message you want to hear. You may rather hear that God will abundantly satisfy all your wildest dreams. But that’s not the abundance that Jesus promises. Still, his abundance is not nothing. What he promises is enough: enough to survive, and then also enough love and enough grace and enough forgiveness and enough mercy to thrive, and enough of everything to share, so that through our giving and serving we may make sure that others also have enough. When we understand his abundance, we find that our life doesn’t need any flavor-enhancers or preservatives like a frozen pizza. With Jesus, our life is naturally both savory and sweet, and it lasts forever. That . . . is abbondanza! Enough – and enough to share!