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

Where is God?

Where do we look for God when tragedy strikes? When bombs go off in public squares killing and maiming innocent lives? Where is God?

The Psalmist expresses what, in the Bible, is a consistent divine message whenever we find ourselves “in the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4):

Through the Psalmist God says, “Fear no evil …” How is that possible? Is this some trite expression oozing from the lips of a feel-good religionist?

The Psalmist does not deny the reality of evil nor its capacity to wreak mayhem. Yet, despite the real threat of evil, the Psalmist has adopted a resolute stance: No Fear.

But why are we not to be afraid? On what grounds are we not to fear? Is it because the police are already on the scene? Is it because enhanced surveillance methods will allow law enforcement officials to identify the perpetrators more quickly and effectively? Is it because our military has new tools to exact vengeance so that the ‘bad guys’ will never hurt anyone again? Is this why we should not fear?

Our reaction to terror over the last twelve years hasn’t really gotten rid of this fear, has it? A hard-hitting, “shock-and-awe” response was widely thought to be the tonic for getting us over our fear and punishing our enemies. Has it worked?

I suspect we are still very, very fearful. The events in Boston over the last six days have proven it to me. And yet, God’s message comes again: “Do not fear …” Why?

“…. for You are with me.” It’s the core claim of biblical faith that there is but one God and that all trust belongs to that God. We are in a relationship of grace with God. We aren’t alone, even in that valley.

Perhaps we need to confess that when trouble comes we compulsively try to find solace in every place but the proper one. We tend to look for God in places that do not, in the end, communicate the transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ. We tend, do we not, to look for God in places of our own doing — efforts and demonstrations of power and influence: Our successes; Our praise-worthy accomplishments; Our ‘winning’ at the game of life? Are these the places where Jesus will find us with his transforming love?

In the Gospel text, Jesus is walking under the Portico of Solomon in the temple at Jerusalem. This was the sheltered walkway — a natural place for someone to find refuge on a cold, blustery, winter’s day. But to leave it there would be to miss the significance of where Jesus was found:

This portico lined the perimeter of the temple. Jesus was walking around the outer edge of the temple during the Dedication. The Dedication was the annual festival celebrating the political triumph of the Maccabean revolt that restored Jewish control of the temple following its desecration by Antiochus IV in 167 B.C.E. So, being at the temple itself was a big deal on this very holy day.

And where one stood in the temple was significant. The Holy of Holies was at the centre of the temple, where only the High Priest entered once a year. The farther “out” from the centre, the less important you were. Conversely, the closer to the centre of the temple building you were allowed to go, the higher status you held in the religious world of the day.

Jesus was not where we might initially think he should be; that is, closer to the Holy of Holies. Instead, he was in that part of the temple where the common people were allowed to enter.

Where does God choose to be revealed? In places we would not normally look for God. Jesus was born in a manger, not in a palace. Jesus died on a cross, a criminal of the state, not on a comfortable bed surrounded by adoring loved ones and the best medical attention. How could God be like that?

Yet, this is Jesus — the God we worship and confess as our Lord and Saviour. If we are looking for positive change in our lives, if we seek personal transformation, if we yearn for a new beginning and resurrection in our lives — then we cannot jump from Palm Sunday (Hosanna!) to Easter (Alleluia!) and bypass Good Friday (The Cross!).

Success doesn’t come without embracing failure. New life doesn’t come without losing something precious. Receiving doesn’t happen without giving.

Some of us with children have expressed concern about all the horrific images they  may see on TV news reports over the past week from Boston. The vivid and terrible images of devastation on a sidewalk could be traumatic, for anyone, to watch over and over again. What can we say to our children who could be adversely affected and overcome by fear, by watching this?

“Do not be afraid”, for focus your attention on those who are helping. Look at the first-responders as they risk their own lives in a chaotic, uncertain and dangerous environment providing care, love and compassion to the victims. “… for You are with me.”

Where is God? God is revealed in places where we would least expect. And in those moments of human frailty and weakness — not by denying our wounds and pretending we can by our efforts alone be perfect and invincible — God is with us. Jesus’ wounded hands will hold us. God will not abandon us in our greatest sorrow and vulnerability. In those places — on the ‘perimeter’, on the edge, of our lives — God will bring us to the fullness of life.

Thanks to Timothy F. Simpson, “The 23rd Psalm in an Age of Terror: A Pastoral Response to Boston”, posted on 16 April 2013.