Rules of the Gate

“I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9).

It would seem to me that the “gate” that is Jesus, ought to channel my thinking, my values and my directions in life.

Admittedly, there is a very strict etiquette to gates; a rule book that you must follow because not to do so may cost dearly, or lead to death, or destroy a family’s livelihood. What are the ‘rules of the gate’?

Well, the first that comes to my mind is, ‘shut the gate after you.’ It’s okay to open the gate to let yourself through but you must make sure it’s closed and fastened just the way you found it, once you’re the other side.

Other rules perhaps aren’t so obvious – if the gate’s held open, under no circumstances must you shut it, especially if you live on an farm with herds of cattle, sheep, horses, etc.. After all, the herd’s access to water is through that open gateway; if you close it disaster may follow: Animals may force themselves through hedges or fences onto a railway line or highway in their search for water with consequences too horrible to dwell on.

Rules also apply to climbing over the gate rather than opening it. Always climb near the hinges so that your weight doesn’t put a levered strain on those very hinges and potentially bend or even break them. The same applies to where you aim yourself if you’re going to vault the gate.

And if you’re tempted (and supple enough) to crawl under a gate – don’t – you’ll wear away the ground and encourage others to do the same until eventually animals will also do likewise. And, of course, always use the gate no matter how much extra effort it involves because to avoid it by scrambling over a wall, pushing through a hedge, or scaling a fence has potential for damage that animals will seek out and follow.

With gates there are rules. With gates there are principles of which to be aware. With gates come obligations that every person should follow. These are things to think on when Jesus calls himself the gate.

Whatever else the metaphor means, it’s clear that it’s about Jesus as the single entrance to the community of the faithful. We can only be part of this flock by going through this one gateway – and in that is our security and our protection. There is no other way in. Jesus is the very gate itself. The strength and clarity of that image is, I think, obvious.

But that isn’t the only thing this images means.

Jesus, the master of parables, uses metaphor in a rich and involving way that encourages his hearers to think long and hard about the images he uses. He requires of us that thinking because it makes us part of his people. We are involved in using his thoughts; musing on his meanings; and engaging with the pictures he himself has given us.

His story-telling style is one that asks effort on our part so that we can live within the images and symbols that he thought important. He speaks in a way that deliberately draws us closer to him. He makes us active participants in his telling, his living, of salvation. We are never just the audience.

An English lad got himself a summer job working on one of the Canadian Great Lakes – it was a real adventure for him. Of course on the application form he had to answer certain questions about his suitability for the job. When it came to the vital one about whether he was able to swim, he wrote: ‘Yes, I learnt the motions of swimming at my secondary school.’

Inevitably the day came when he fell off his employer’s motor boat. There followed wild splashing and shouting. He was clearly in trouble and had to be rescued. When on the lakeshore he had recovered from his ordeal he was asked about his answer on the form. ‘Yes,’ he said, I learnt the motions of swimming at school but I found them hard to put into practice.’ (Thank you to Christopher Burkett for many of the words and illustrations here come from his sermon, “Finding the Gate” in the online resource: Preacher Rhetorica, 2014)

And indeed they are! You can only learn swimming by swimming. Knowing the motions helps, but that’s no substitute for getting wet! It’s the difference between ‘knowing about’ and ‘knowing.’ This is why the Jesus method of teaching requires of us practice. He doesn’t tell us about living faithfully; instead he asks us to know faithful living from the inside. It’s not ‘You might compare my place in our community to something like a gate,’ but ‘I am the gate.’ It is as easy, but also as engagingly complex, as that. ‘Work out your living with me as the gate,’ says Jesus. Take this image and make it part of your living.

Don’t only know about the motions – like the lad and his swimming. Don’t dwell on the theory, as essential as that might be sometimes. But rather let the image, the symbol, the story become the lens through which you see your living of the faithful life. You can’t get faith ready to wear, off the peg. It’s not a system you can be drilled, or forced, or argued into. No, faith is an adventure of heart and mind where you write the script that utilizes the ideas, the images, the symbols that Jesus provides. Jesus, the master story-teller, gives us enough material for a lifetime and more.

A way through the gate is what is needed. Helping each other to a way through – to the way through, is our witness as people of faith. How do we do that?

When Bishop Michael Pryse (Eastern Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada) met with the Christian Council of the (Ottawa) Capital Area last week, he addressed some good questions about what keeps us from actively pursuing and growing relationships with people of differing faiths from ours. Bishop Pryse said that what motivates him to engage people who are different from him is that doing so always “brings out the best Christian” in him.

Contrary to what we might first think — that hanging out with Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, Baptists, United Church members or Anglicans could ‘water down’ our faith as Lutherans or Christians — engaging the diverse community of faith in truth enhances our loyalty to and conviction in our Lutheran-Christian identity. If anything we should seek out, not avoid, building relationships with those who are different from us, because it may very well encourage to “bring out the best Christian” in us.

The strategy, or rules of engagement, are threefold: First, be a friend. Second, make a friend. And then, bring a friend to Jesus. In that order! These gate rules are, essentially, about practising compassion, care and grace. That’s the best way to be a friend, then make a friend, then bring a friend to Jesus. NOT by trying to persuade the other they are wrong and we are right. That’s not how you be a friend — by trying to win one over against the stranger — to compete with them, to say, “My way is better than your way.” That’s not how you make a friend or keep a friend, is it?

You would expect me to say that the ways to go through the gate are the routes and rules of religion – faithfulness in prayer, in receiving communion, in working with the scriptures, in the giving of effort, time and cash to godly purposes. And that is certainly the case – these are tried and tested pathways. But the Jesus way of engaging us and the world in his saving life does more.

Remember, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: to “love another” (John 13:34; 15:12). Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount: “There is no other commandment greater than greatest of these” — to love God and love neighbour (Mark 12:31). Paul writes to the Galatians: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (5:14).

The image of the gate asks of us effort, imagination and personal involvement. Jesus is the life. And we are to live in his way and dwell in his truth, that we may live his risen life. One of the things the resurrection of Christ means is that all the old criteria of judgement no longer apply – the ultimate criterion of death is no more.

We are to be a people who measure things not by the scarcity of death but by the abundant, resurrection life of Jesus. Let there be an end to cynicism and despair. We need each other to keep that measure bright and usable. Knowing each other; sustaining each other; bearing with each other; encouraging other; learning of each other; supporting each other – in joy as well as trouble.

Following these ‘rules of the gate’ will get us to pasture, through the valley of the shadow of death, and into the life, the light, and the love of Christ, eternal.

“There is a place we can find, a good place
like quiet meadows where flowers spread,
like green grasses by gentle streams;
a place where the heart feels nourished,
where the mind is hopeful, unhurried,
where the spirit is glad and at peace.
We’ll name this place fulfillment,
we’ll name it healing and thankfulness,
we’ll name this good place pasture
for there we seek to feed.

And there is a voice we can hear that calls us,
a gentle voice, melodious,
a voice like songbirds and laughter,
like a mother comforting her children,
like a shepherd calling his sheep.
We’ll name this voice acceptance,
we’ll name it mercy and forgiveness,
we’ll name it the voice of God’s love,
inviting us gently to feed.

It invites us to enter pasture
when we think we’re too hurting to listen,
too angry or grieving or fearful
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.

It invites us to enter pasture
when we’re sure we’re too busy to listen,
too burdened or worried or pressured
to hear the voice that calls us to peace.

It says: Come in and go out and find pasture.
It says: We are safe with the shepherd of all sheep.
It says: Meadows await us, in this moment.
It says: Rest in love. Where you are. Joyfully feed.”

“Pasture”, from Andrew King’s web blog, A Poetic Kind Of Place

You shall know them by their food

School children were asked to bring, for show-and-tell, a symbol that would describe best their religion. Each would take a turn to stand in front of their class, hold up their object and first, without saying a word, wait until one of their peers would successfully guess to which religion they belonged.

The first child held up some prayer beads — a rosary. “Roman Catholic,” someone called out. Later, the second child held up a picture of the Star of David. “Judaism,” another said. There was an awkward pause before the third child rushed through the door to the front of the classroom. In her oven-mitted hands she held up a piping hot casserole dish. There was silence.

The girl’s mouth hung open in disbelief. “You mean you can’t tell?” she croaked. “I’m Lutheran!”

After this month’s well-attended men’s breakfast group where we basically took over a whole corner of the restaurant, we joked that pretty soon the men’s breakfast group might have more out for their monthly gatherings than we get out for midweek worship! So true — if there is food on the agenda of any social gathering, you’ll likely find at least one Lutheran in the crowd.

Indeed, eating together is central to not only Lutheran identity, but for Christians in general. Someone once noted that in each chapter of the Gospel of Luke you will find at least one reference, directly or indirectly, to food or eating (Kelly Fryer, The Lutheran Course).

And that explains why when Christians gather to worship, the Holy Meal is a cornerstone of the liturgy. What distinguishes us from every other religion in our worship practice is that we eat together. Jewish people, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., don’t differ from Christians when it comes to practicing their faith in word, song or spoken/unspoken prayer. But the Holy Communion — the meal — distinguishes a truly Christian worship service.

And a truly Christian worship service is done together, with others. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20). The author of Hebrews exhorted the followers of the Christian way to meet regularly: “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together …” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Because around the table where bread is broken and wine is poured, the love and presence of Christ is experienced.

The Holy Communion is the climax of Christian worship because it best embodies a communal experience of God. We can eat alone. But sharing food causes us to love another.

Last month the Lutheran clergy in Ottawa met for lunch. We went to a restaurant where they serve Dim Sum: This method of sharing food is truly a communal act: We all sit around the same, round table — a rather large one. Then, from menus, we choose the food.

But what we choose is not an individual dish. It is a plateful of the same food that we share by circulating the plate around the table. When we order, we need to check in with all the others to see if that’s also something they would like to try. Eating Dim Sum, as unfamiliar as it may feel, and challenging to coordinate, is worth the work. It is an experience of community building and of practising a self-giving kind of love. Because we need to compromise, give-and-take, and take some risks — all for the sake of the community.

Lutheran worship is not about creating a space for private, individualistic encounters with Jesus. Lutheran worship is not about providing individuals with a what-is-in-it-for-me kind of entertainment. Lutheran worship is not about removing ourselves from the actual social context of the service.

In other words, when we kneel at the railing and come forward to receive the body and blood of Christ, we are doing so in a profound awareness of who is standing or kneeling with us, beside us, at the table of The Lord. We seek their forgiveness, as we forgive them. We are doing this together — sometimes a hard work, but well worth it.

On Maundy Thursday we pause to consider that last evening Jesus had with his followers, his closest disciples. And we recall what he did: He had a meal with them to assure them, and us over two thousand years later, that whenever we eat this meal in his name, Christ is there with us. To underscore his ever-present promise, Jesus kneels in humility and love to wash his disciples’ feet (John 13), and then prays for their unity (John 17) in the Garden of Gethsemane.

On this night we gather not as individuals seeking private, abstract encounters with an imagined God, but as the broken Body of Christ — his body, the church. We gather together to receive the assurance of his forgiveness of our sins, to regard one another in love as co-travellers on the journey of faith, and to share in the food which is his loving presence in our lives. In so doing, we bear faithful witness to the world, that Christians are united in the passion of Jesus.

Not all wanderers are lost and alone

The pathways through the forest are tricky, these days. With winter and spring battling it out for seasonal supremacy, the snow-melt leaves walking paths uneven and icy. It’s a challenge simply to keep on the path.

I make my way through the Grove with a destination in mind. But the forested parkland is marked with a web-like array of criss-crossing trails of dog-walkers, ski-enthusiasts, snow-shoers and joggers. So I leave it up to the inspiration of the moment to choose which path I take, keeping in mind where I eventually hope to end up.

But there are options. I’m reminded of the Psalmist who doesn’t just talk of one path describing the Lord’s way, but of many: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness” (Psalm 25:9-10). And so I have some fun deciding which path to take; that is, which one is suited more to my abilities and interest on that day.

In describing the kingdom of God to Nicodemus, Jesus talks of salvation, and being born again (John 3:1-17). In case Nicodemus is tempted to believe life events such as birth and re-birth are something he can direct and control, Jesus talks about the nature of God’s work in the matter: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (v.8). There’s a wild, free, untethered quality integral to the journey of life and faith.

To be sure, some pathways are easier — wide, flat and well-trodden. Others require me to focus more my attention on where I place my feet, lest I trip over an exposed tree root or sink into foot-deep snow. One thing is for sure: It’s very satisfying to discover a new path I never knew was there, a path that gives me a new perspective on the forest, regardless how uneven or narrow it is.

To the casual observer I may appear directionless, lost, wending my way around and through the Grove. Some may wonder what I’m doing in there. Is there not something more productive I should be up to rather than wandering in the forest? Sometimes going to worship, participating in activities of the church, engaging the ministry and mission of God in the community may seem rudderless, unproductive.

This faith journey can appear to some rather cavalier and pointless — a glorified hobby of self-indulgence and of no real consequence: Because Christians like everyone else suffer and experience the difficulties that everyone does. What sets us apart? Why bother?

When the hardships come as they do to us all, the journey of the faithful starts to nudge at something deeper inside us. Deep down, though on the surface it may look otherwise, we know we are not lost in our wandering. We look up, from time to time. When the journey gets difficult, it’s natural and rather tempting to look down all the time, to be constantly turned in on oneself, to see only one’s own problems and disregard altogether the world ‘out there’.

When the journey of life gets difficult, our hearts are nevertheless open and free to accept the gift of faith. This gift of faith declares in our hearts the conviction that: I am not alone, in this dark, dangerous forest of my life. I am not alone.

There is a broad consensus that Psalm 121 was not expressed in the faith life of ancient Israel by individuals, on their own, by themselves. In other words, these words weren’t spoken originally between one person and God. It’s not about ‘me and sweet Jesus’.

It was a song sung responsively as a congregation, an assembly, a caravan, on the road together from Jericho — some 1500 feet below sea level — up to Jerusalem where God’s presence awaited in the temple of the Lord. The structure of the poem suggests a question-answer kind of liturgy between various voices — voices assuring one another of the hope they had on this dangerous road. A hope they would find by lifting their gaze towards their destination.

In this stance to life, individuals would be guarded against falling into the trap of feeling isolated in their suffering. At the same time, the different voices would challenge any potential “misery-finds-company” quality in relationship. Ample differentiation in the community encouraged the paradox of ‘hopeful realism’ on the journey of life; that is, on the one hand not denying the pain of the journey; but, doing so in the conviction that ‘death has not the last word’.

The predominantly old-growth stand of Hemlock trees in the Grove through which I wander contrasts with the white of snow on the ground. Even during the brightest part of the day, this is a relatively dark spot in the forest. And I can’t see where the path leads through the thick, coniferous growth. Nevertheless, I can’t help but occasionally look up, with a smile on my face. The trees reach to the sky, reminding me of the direction of our faith.

When we step out on our journey — whatever that journey is — we can do so with confidence and trust in the One who calls us and sends us out on the path. You may be embarking on a new journey in your life — a journey to change jobs, move to a new home, a journey of exploring a new relationship, or renewing old ones; your journey may be a challenge to live with the reality of increased physical limits, or, dealing with a newly diagnosed illness. You may find yourself at a cross-road in your life. So, what do you do?

At those moments of decision and sometimes despair, think again when you are tempted to feel that you are lost, and that you are alone on this journey. Because you belong to the church — the Body of Christ — to share in prayer and song on this road we travel together. And you know, in faith, the end of the story, the end of the road — which is good.

Some helpful thoughts on the journey of faith come from Charles Foster’s “The Sacred Journey” and  Alan Roxburgh / M.Scott Borden in “Introducing the Missional Church”

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