Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10
1 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

No one wants to be described as a gatekeeper. A quick look at Wikipedia, and you will see the various ways ‘gatekeeper’ has gone from keeper-of-the-city-gate to, well, a gatekeeper.

Newspaper editor, admissions officer, financial advisor, each has been given the informal title of gatekeeper. They decide which stories, applicants and financial instruments made the cut, which ones deserve a place in the newspaper, organization or portfolio.

Informally, gatekeepers are anyone we resent for having authority to decide. Within the United Church, the presbytery Education and Students Committee are often described as gatekeepers, charged with determining the suitability of candidates for ministry. In this sense the charge is both accurate and unfair at the same time. They have the authority to make decisions on the future of an individual, much like an HR department, but they are also a metaphor for the people who control access to something sought after. If you could call ordination something sought after, that is.

The non-literal role of gatekeeper, keeping some out of the club, is likely as old as the literal gatekeeper, keeping watch over the entrance of the city. You see, anytime a group has exercised a right to choose who is in and who is out, the gatekeeper function has existed. There are more than a few examples in the Bible, of course, but I think my favourite is the story of Simon the Magician found in Acts 8.

Simon is a local magician who follows St. Philip, accepts baptism, and is astounded that the apostles can give the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. Simon offers to buy the right to do it too. Unimpressed by the offer, it is St. Peter who says, "May your money perish with you!" (8.20). Simon repents, and even asks that Peter pray for him, but this doesn’t stop the early church from giving his name to the terrible sin of buying a position in the church, forever called simony.

So the church does it, and business does it, and your broker does it, so why the negative connotation? We depend on the gatekeeper function everyday to make sure that the right people are doing the right job in the right way. I kind of like the idea that the College of Physicians and Surgeons is on the lookout for quackery and incompetence (do you know how long I’ve wanted the use the work ‘quackery’ in a sermon?). Seriously, the gatekeeper over at the MTO, saying yes to one driver and no to another, is performing a valuable public function.

Generally, though, the idea of the gatekeeper seems to offend our inner Canadian, some deep part of us that thinks everyone deserves a shot, that taking on the role of gatekeeper is somehow haughty, and that really we just want everyone to have a chance to play too. I once made the mistake, while talking to my dear friends Ted and Caroline, to refer to the National Yacht Club as “the club where I belong.” “Oh, do you now,” came the reply, and another statement I’ll never live down was born.

I guess I meant “the club to which I belong,” but the moment passed and I gave up my membership anyway, not out of shame, but because you don’t need a membership to sail, something you golfers might want to note.

It was Groucho Marx that said, “I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member.” And as funny as that line is, it points to the truth that we have a healthy ambivalence about being in or out, member or non-member, part of the club or forever on the outside.

So what do we do with John 10? A good commentary will note that the passage Joyce read has two parts. In the first part, Jesus is the shepherd, who enters the sheepfold, and speaks to the sheep. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and they follow him. They will not follow a stranger’s voice, a voice they do not know, only the voice of the shepherd.

In the second part, Jesus is the gate, stating it twice in three verses, and using the “ego eimi” (I am) formulation that reminds us to pay attention, to note that this idea is foundational to Jesus’ self-understanding. So Jesus is the shepherd, but he is also the gate, a somewhat confusing passage that has tripped up many a preacher through the ages.

The simple solution, for this passage, is to assign the role of shepherd to God and follow the “I am” clue, making Jesus the gate. And this certainly fits with the other assigned lesson for the day, with Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”) underlining that for John 10, at least, it is the God that the sheep follow, through the gate, that is Jesus Christ.

And this certainly fits with that other very famous passage in John, where Jesus is the ‘way, the truth and the life, and no one gets to the Father except through me.’ John 14 is perhaps the clearest statement of Jesus as gatekeeper, certainly on par with saying “I am the gate.”

But once again, we are ambivalent. We have learned, in this post-modern age, that truth claims are tricky and saying Jesus is the only way to salvation excludes four or so billion others who have their own version of the truth. And so, in the spirit of the age, we correctly say that our truth may not be their truth, and that all roads (with a few nasty exceptions) can be said to lead to God.

And it even fits with our revised understanding of the Gospel of John. It was the last to be written. It was the book written at the peak of a competition between emerging church and existing synagogue and therefore it reflects the politics of the day. “Religious leaders” become “Jewish leaders,” even though everyone in the story was Jewish, and John even goes so far to have the chief priests say “we have no king but Caesar,” something they would never say.

So the context determines the nature of the claims made, so we can support some and retire others, but we are left with the gatekeeper Jesus and his role in our life together. Now it gets really muddy.

I don’t tend to read the National Post, but I followed a link, and read an article published yesterday on the emerging split in the United Church. A couple of things first: split is an intentional over-statement, I think, but you will need to read the article for yourself and decide. Next, the National Post is famous for highlighting problems with the United Church, most often the church’s approach to the State of Israel, and occasionally on social issues.

The split, as described in the article, is between the theists and the post-theists, the people in the church who continue to believe in God and those who have moved on. Not moved on from the church, mind you, but moved on from a belief in God and continue to exercise leadership in the church.

For most people, particularly people outside the church, this is one of those scratch you head, “what the heck” kind of ideas that belongs in the “oddly enough” section of the newspaper and not the religion section. It begs the question why someone who no longer ascribes to the core beliefs of the church would choose to remain in the church, and to that I can only say ‘we live in strange days.’

The debate, of course, is not new. There has long been a fringe group in the church who long to shift Jesus from the centre to the margins, and this too is noted in the article, through a fine quote from my friend and colleague Connie den Bok:

“In the 1960s and ’70s we became embarrassed about Jesus. And so we distanced ourselves from Jesus, and the point is without Jesus there’s no point in having a church. iTunes has better music and the NDP has better policies; everything else we do now somebody else does way better. The only thing we can do is this Jesus thing,” she said.

And here I think Connie finds the heart of the matter. Theist and post-theist is just fancy language for the process that starts when you decide that Jesus is no longer at the centre of the church. It is his church, it belongs to him, and while not the founder (that honour belongs to Peter or Paul) he is certainly the reason for the whole enterprise.

And so, once again, Jesus is the gate. Jesus is the narrow way that some choose to enter and some cannot. We avoid the language of in and out because it offends our modern sensibility, but in the case of where the church is headed and who will be at the centre, Jesus is clearly the gate.

But back to the Post article for a minute, it follows the assumption that rogue leaders, post-theist leaders, and the high church officials that tolerate them are the root of the problem, but I have a different view, and I’ll tell you why.

A few years back I ran into a minister I once knew, and we talked about old times. We compared journeys and stories, starting back in Kingston and catching up to present times. My friend’s story was much more interesting, and he told it like this:

One day I woke up and I said to myself, ‘ don’t believe any of this anymore. I just can’t believe in anything I’ve preached all these long years.’ So I went to the Board of the congregation and I told them what I had discovered and told them I was happy to go but then something surprising happened: they asked me to stay. ‘We love you too much to lose you,’ they said. ‘Great, I said to them, let’s have an adventure together!’

Back in my day, when a minister lost his (or her) faith, they became a teacher or a social worker or a night guard at the mall. They didn’t continue being a minister. The story my friend told me, is a breakdown of an accepted tradition that understood loss of faith as loss of vocation. And without wanting to be too judgmental, this was a case where the congregation, the people who hold the mission and do the ministry, should have said, ‘you’re right, you should move on. We love you, but you should move on to something else.’

Jesus is the gate, not in a negative way, not in a judgmental way, but in a definitional way. He helps us to see where we are, in the fold or outside the fold, in the church or outside the church. Not in a “take sides” kind of way, a way to serves no one, but in a way that allows us, as individuals, to know where we stand and know where we belong.

To follow Jesus and follow in his way is a choice we make, something we ‘put on’ to define ourselves. It should never be something we extend to some and not others, rather, it is something that we allow people to claim. Even Simon the Magician, guilty of simony, wasn’t ejected from the church, but told to repent, and then prayed for. Jesus is the gate, not to exclude, but to allow people to self-exclude. It should be no other way.

God has given us the gift of God’s son, a source of mercy and truth, a source of healing and fullness, a source of new life and life everlasting. It is the greatest gift, and one we accept with humility. May it always be so. Amen.


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