Monday, May 1, 2023

The Gate is Open


John 10:1-10

Easter 4 / Year A

The passage we just heard from John’s gospel is one section of a much larger story arc.  John frequently casts these arcs in a set pattern.  They begin with Jesus performing a ‘sign’, a healing or a miracle.  Then follows a dialogue about what happened.  It concludes with a discourse or teaching by Jesus.  The story arc which includes today’s reading begins in chapter 9 and runs through the end of chapter 10.  We read about the sign of the arc on the Fourth Sunday in Lent when Jesus heals a person blind from birth.  Remember all the back and forth between the man and the leaders of the synagogue?  That was all part of the dialogue.  Portions of chapter 10 are assigned to be read on this Sunday – known as Good Shepherd Sunday – in each of the three years of the Lectionary cycle. 

In today’s reading Jesus says to his followers and to the man born blind, “I am the gate for the sheep.”  In his day a sheepfold was an enclosure made by a wall of stones with a gate.  It was a place of safe rest through the night hours.  Multiple flocks bedded down in the fold and the various shepherds took turns guarding the gate through the night hours.  In the morning each shepherd called out to his sheep and, recognizing his voice, those of his flock followed him to pasture lands.

Now, it is fairly common to think of Jesus as being the Good Shepherd.  In fact, in the verses which follow today’s reading this is how he describes himself.  If you grew up going to Sunday School you probably saw multiple images of Jesus caring for sheep similar to our own Good Shepherd Window.  No doubt some kindly volunteer teacher had you glue together cotton balls on a sheet of construction paper which eventually became your rendition of Jesus and his flock.  My guess is you did not spend a lot of time talking about Jesus as being a gate.  In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you have never pondered this image before.

Perhaps one reason the metaphor of the gate is so seldom used is we are embarrassed by its exclusionary imagery.  Many of us shy away from proclaiming there is only one true way to pursue the religious dimension of life and we Christians are the only ones who have access to it. 

In its original context the image is much more generous than it has become.  Remember how the man born blind eventually is thrown out of his hometown synagogue – effectively excommunicated.  The doors to the synagogue are closed to him because he refuses to renounce Jesus as the source of his healing.  When Jesus tells him “I am the gate” he is saying to the man he is not expelled from God’s presence or from God’s people.  While the religious leaders of the day (whom Jesus describes as being “thieves and bandits”) close the door in the man’s face, Jesus opens the gate to his new community of love and acceptance. 

St. Paul’s is blessed to have a magnificent facility and beautiful grounds.  Although the green space and walls look like they have been here forever, the original property was not much wider than the sanctuary and ran all the way back to Clay Street.  There were several houses on various plots of land on what is now our parish grounds.  Acquiring them, tearing them down, and eventually erecting the walls in stages is a process which unfolded over 75 years or so. 

There are three iron gates leading onto our property and, wonderfully, they are left open.  The gates invite people to come in and enjoy the most abundant greenspace on downtown Main Street.  The gates are symbols of welcoming and suggest when you pass through them you are leaving behind one domain and entering into another.  The ways and worries of the world are on one side of the gate and a witness to God’s love is on the other. 

Our witness can be seen in the beauty of our grounds and the glory of our stained glass windows.  It is made real in our prayers, through our music, and most especially when we celebrate of the Eucharist.  And our witness to God’s love in manifested in our personal joy, through our faith, and by how we care about and for one another.  And when we pass back through the gate to reenter the world it suggests we should carry something of what we experience here with us as we go forward.

Let me say one final thing about Jesus’ words, “My sheep know my voice and follow me” because it ties in well with the image of Jesus as the gate.  Some Christian traditions today see themselves as ‘gatekeepers’, determining who God loves and who God hates.  And these folks have managed to get enough officials elected in their communities and states to bring their perspective into the mainstream of public debate and law making. 

Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is famous for saying (as he did at our revival last weekend), “The bible tells us God is love, so if it isn’t about love it isn’t about God.”  If a voice is telling you not to love, but to hate, it is not the voice of Jesus.  Now, neither Bishop Curry nor Jesus is saying we should embrace all manner of self-destructive behavior or actions which harm others.  They are reminding us the gate to the church is open to everyone who desires to be a part of it by living into the beliefs, commitments, and promises of our Baptismal Covenant.  No exceptions.  Jesus is the gate and it is open to everyone who seeks to be a part of the community Bishop Curry calls “the Jesus Movement.”