Benediction Online

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The gateway to life

1 Peter 2:19-25 
John 10:1-10 

What a nurturing image – the Lord is my shepherd. It’s not surprising that this is a favorite psalm for funerals and times of crisis. The Lord is my shepherd. When everything mortal falls away that loving relationship is still there and we can rely upon the good shepherd to lead us in green pastures. Even when we are in the worst of circumstances, in pain or abandonment, we can trust that the good shepherd will be at our side.

Jesus’ use of the metaphor of the shepherd in today’s Gospel is a little different. He is talking not so much about nurturing the individual as about leadership and community. He is the shepherd, and his sheep know his voice and follow him. In ancient times, wealth was not amassed in banks or investment accounts but in land and livestock. Sheep were very precious. The shepherd was hired to guard them, and to keep them safe and healthy. They were not allowed to wander alone which is why the parable of the lost sheep is so effective. The shepherd’s job was to guard the flock and make sure they had what they needed to flourish, and to keep them together in order to do this most effectively.

We are the flock of Jesus. We grow and flourish most effectively when we are in community with one another. Often people tell me that they don’t need to go to church to know God, and I am quite sure they are right. We do not have a monopoly on God. It would be limiting God to say that in order to know God you have to go to church. It would be like saying that if you do not spend the night in the fold you are not a sheep. So you don’t need to go to church to be a member of the flock of Christ, to be enrolled in the reign of God. You don’t need to. But in order to flourish, in order to grow spiritually, most of us need to be in deep connection with others doing the same thing.

Abba Anthony, one of the Desert Fathers who chose to live away from the cities in the the Egyptian desert said, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor.” He was not living physically close to others but he knew that even in the desert we cannot ignore our human relationships, they are vital to our spiritual growth and health. In faith community we get to have relationships with people we really would not have picked. In faith community, the Holy Spirit can teach us through each other. In faith community we are brought face to face with our own shortcomings and can love each other into truth.

Jesus talks about himself as the shepherd but the gospeller tells us that the disciples did not understand him. So he uses a slightly different metaphor. “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." I hope the disciples found that more understandable. 

So what do you think?… How is Jesus like a gate?...

[Congregational input]

Some people read this “I am the gate” as meaning that you have to be a Christian in order to be saved. I don’t think so. I especially don’t think so because Jesus never defined what it means to be Christian - of course he never used the term. So rather than thinking about Jesus as gateway to a religion I wonder if it is helpful to think of Jesus’ life as the gate to abundant life. In other words, if we look at how Jesus lived and the qualities he exemplified, perhaps that is the gate.

We know that Jesus lived in close relationship to his Abba, an example that we copy in prayer and worship. We know that Jesus lived in close relationship to his disciples, an example we copy in faith community. We know that Jesus struck up conversations and friendships with strangers and with those on the margins of society. We may not be so good at copying this example but we do it when we treat each person with complete respect regardless of their situation in life, never looking down at others even when they seem to be making a complete mess of their lives and never speaking down to an elderly person or a child.
But I think the reading from the letter attributed to Peter that we heard in our second reading gives us a challenging and life-affirming insight; ‘"[Jesus] committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.’

That is a picture of non-violence which is astonishingly difficult for us to follow. But I think more and more that it is the gate. Non-violence is the gate into the fold of Christ and it is the gate to more abundant life and it is the gate to the reign of God.

We are called to live holy and blameless lives, and yet not to self-righteously proclaim our innocence and our virtue but to accept the stuff that happens even though we don’t provoke it, and to respond not with a knee-jerk of anger but with gentleness. I always need to add the proviso that this does not mean we put up with abuse without resistance. Practicing non-violence is never a reason to stay in an abusive situation. Practicing non-violence is the position of strength.

The resurrection is the ultimate non-violent answer to violence of all forms. Despite the violent attempts of humanity to get rid of God, God came back. Like the faithful shepherd he is, Christ returned. And our entryway into the reign of God is the life-changing acceptance that as the reading said, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” Our wounds are the result of human violence emotionally if not physically. Our sins are sins of failure to love, our sins are sins of violence against God and others. They may not look like much taken individually but each one violates the sanctity of another or violates the path of Christ and together they add up to a violent mind, and violent minds lead to violent acts and that is what Jesus took the brunt of when “he himself bore our sins in his body.”

But precisely because he did not respond to violence with violence but with love and by trust in God, “the one who judges justly,” by his wounds we have been healed.  

We are the sheep of Christ because we have heard the call to follow him. We are the sheep of Christ because we commit ourselves to follow the example not just of Jesus’ teachings but also of his life. We are the sheep of Christ because we share not only in his sufferings but in his death and resurrection.
We are a resurrection people, Alleluia!


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