Act 2: 42-47, John 10: 1-10
“Very truly,” Jesus said, “I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” You know, when I let my imagination play with that imagery, I think of all the Saint Peter cartoons. Peter stands at the gates of heaven – and determines who will and who won’t be allowed to enter. “I am the gate.” We think of insiders and outsiders. Add to this imagery the passage from the Acts of the Apostles which depicts an early Christian community. “All who believed were together and had all things in common…Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke the bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts…” They were the insiders. They were a group that offered community – such a strong community, that there was a willingness to share goods to provide for anyone in need.
I’ve encountered a few approaches to Christianity that seem to be designed to create groups that present themselves as closed to outsiders -- as semi-secret societies. If you are allowed in, you become knowledgeable. You are educated in the language and traditions that are a mystery to outsiders.
Sometimes, the sense of exclusiveness is unintentional. When I was in college, I was accepted into the 40 voice choral group that the university used as a recruiting tool and a means of staying connected with alumni. Every year we toured, visiting schools and alumni functions. When I first joined, it was hard to feel that I was a part of the group. Those who had been around had stories that they freely shared with each other. Newcomers felt left out. I learned to tell newcomers, in the following years, that it wasn’t intentional, and that they, too, would feel much more a part of the group after tour. And it was true. You became a part of the group when you shared the story.
As society around us has become much more secular, we often find ourselves speaking a language that outsiders struggle to understand. Near Christmas, one of the high school teachers in Boonville, NY, a town that in many ways reflected life decades ago, asked her students to write something about the three wise men. (Now, I would quibble with the “three,” but her knowledge reflected the beloved carol, “We Three Kings.”) The school librarian told of a young woman, one of the outstanding seniors, who came to her for help. “Who are these wise men?” she asked. “Where do I find information?” For the student, Christmas was a secular celebration. She knew nothing of its connections with Christianity. The assignment asked for knowledge that the teacher assumed was general. Yet, for that bright young woman it was obscure.
For many, the idea of coming into church for a service is daunting! Consider how hard is it to attend even a different tradition We might not know when to sit, when to stand, when to kneel. We might not know how to say the prayers or what responses are expected. And those challenges are for us who are a part of the faith tradition. How difficult would it be for someone who has had no connection with or experience of the Christian faith? It’s a reason for putting things in the bulletin that, once upon a time, might have been omitted because everybody knew what to do! Yet, even that’s not enough. We strive to provide information and “road signs” for those who might come in. Yet there are many who wouldn’t even dream of entering a church!
Anna Carter Florence wrote, “I don’t much like the idea of Jesus as a gate, or gatekeeper. It is just too big a temptation for the rest of us to go and do likewise. This history of the church is littered with gatekeeping battles, some of that wreckage haunts us still.” The church obsesses over who belongs and who doesn’t, over who should belong and who should be kept out. Jesus is the gate or gatekeeper – preventing those who are undesirable and unworthy from getting in to where the good sheep abide. So, the church, influenced by this image, has spent centuries striving to purge the flock of those who have somehow entered when, truly, they didn’t or don’t belong. And, even when we haven’t actively been gatekeepers, we have functioned in a way that often isolates us from the world and sets up unintentional barriers.
What are those barriers? There is the perception (reality) that we are hypocrites who don’t live up to what we preach. We are seen as judgmental and unwelcoming. We are accused of being out of touch, preaching and proclaiming a message that has little to do with the world people inhabit. Maybe it’s that our language – the language of worship, the language of music – doesn’t connect with those outside. Early in my ministry, I had a colleague who had finally decided that worship using King James English was, perhaps, a little dated! Maybe God wouldn’t be angry with him if he started using every day English!
Carter Florence wrote about seeing something new in this morning’s gospel lesson. She noted this gate is not something that is closed, permanently, or locked. It swings open and it shuts. And the sheep go in and out. “When he calls, we come in, and we go out, and we come in again. When he calls, we listen. When we listen, we are saved, because we have the pasture we need…we go out and we come in, even when we are saved. Good pastureland is not simply self-evident…So the flock keeps moving, according to the shepherd’s best wisdom…There is nothing particularly magical about the gate; it simply marks a boundary between a place to graze and a place to rest. It is part of the dailiness of life.”
We have to get beyond what jumps out at us – perhaps the word gatekeeper or the description of the early Christian community as one that was “together and had all things in common”—so that we do not miss the rhythm portrayed in both passages – the coming in and going out that were and are a part of the life of faith. “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people.” “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
The Reverend John Buchanan, who was pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, wrote of the need to have the church be a place set apart from the world’s noise. It is a place of respite. Yet, he said, it cannot be merely a place of escape or retreat. If and when it becomes so, it has missed its very call. He wrote, “The church is called to be in the world, in the city, and that means intentionally, imaginatively, creatively, and aggressively in the city, living in and for the human community in order to be faithful to God.” He went on to quote Professor Langdon Gilkey who said that the world is in need of the religious community of grace. That grace should embrace and accommodate the world’s creativity while acknowledging and speaking to its fallenness, its flaws. He said, “How to balance these two requirements is a trick practiced with accomplishment only in the kingdom.”
I think it’s interesting, in Jesus’ metaphor, that the flock finds nourishment not in the ingathering, but out in the world, in the pasture. Yet, is there not something nourishing in participating in God’s redeeming work in our world? We are fed as we work for God’s realm. We are fed as we work for God’s ways. Yes, nourishment comes in rest. It comes in our time together and apart from the world. But it also comes in our work out in the world, where the shepherd leads us.
We might picture the flock somewhat scattered in that wide pasture – mixed among the other sheep from other flocks that have gone out to graze. Yet, they know the shepherd’s voice. They still belong to that one flock. Carter Florence wrote, “A sheep that flat-out refuses to go out will die. Likewise, a sheep that flat-out refuses to go in, when the call comes, may soon be lost in the night. So the gate is part of life and also the key to life, but not because it keeps us out or in. It simply marks the boundary between what we are to do in each space.” She asserts that salvation comes not in the space, but in the going out and coming in, heeding the shepherd’s voice.
It’s easy to get locked into thinking that we are supposed to be on one side of the gate or the other – and forget that it is the movement where we find our salvation. The story in Acts gives us a glimpse of the early community’s life – many scholars say that it is an idealized glimpse. But this limited look gives us a sense of the movement of the community. They gathered in homes. They worshipped in the temple. Something in the rhythm of that going out and coming in was welcoming to others. They weren’t shut away. Their actions in the world –out where others could see them – was a form of testimony that intrigued and invited others to join them.
One of Ann Weems wonderful poems asks the question, “Do we or do we not believe the news is good?” She asks the question in a poem that challenges the way we might worship. “How one will we come before the Lord with tired spirits and droning voices? How long will we sit in half-filled churches and sing praise with noiseless songs? How long will we worship with bored faces and dulled senses and offer tin when we could give gold?” Something about the way that early community of believers worshipped in the temple, something about the way they interacted with those around them, proclaimed the news they knew was good! They knew and celebrated the good news in their time apart and in the world around them.
Buchanan noted that the church, too often, has thought of its engagement in mission as something extra that we do. Emil Bruner said, “the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.” Buchanan says we can’t merely exist. We can’t be the sheep that are shut away from the big, bad world. We’re not supposed to just survive or succeed as institutions. He asserts, “We are called, as churches, to be faithful to Jesus Christ and to serve the world as he served it, to love the world as he loved it, to give our lives away to the world as he gave his life away.”
There is a rhythm to being God’s people. We strive to live by our faith – and that very faith takes us out into the world so that we – or more importantly – God can by known by love. It is the call to each of us in our daily lives. It is the call to us as a community of faith – to live giving ourselves away to God’s beloved world.
Christmas Eve Service
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