Saturday, May 10, 2014

Who May Enter through the Gate? (RCL Easter 4A, 11 May 2014)

RCL Easter 4A
11 May 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            In September of 1964 I entered Grade 6 and was assigned to Mr Schiff’s class.  All of us who were in his class felt very special; not so much because we knew anything about Mr Schiff, who was an unknown to all of us.  What was special was the location of our class:  not in the main building with the little kids, but in a separate, so-called ‘portable’ classroom on the school grounds.  It was like having our own private school.

            The fall of 1964 was momentous to my eleven- and twelve-year-old classmates.  It was a presidential election year that pitted Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Democratic president, and Barry Goldwater, the Republican challenger.  Johnson, who had assumed the presidency after the assassination of John F. Kenney in November 1963, was seeking his own mandate on a platform of bold social programmes, some of which are still part of the American political fabric.  Goldwater and the Republicans were trying to halt what they saw as an expansion of the government in Johnson’s so-called ‘Great Society’.

            We were old enough to understand some of the political discussions taking place among our parents’ friends and acquaintances.  My father’s family had been dyed-in-the-wool Democrats since the days of Franklin Roosevelt and my mother’s ‘red’ Labour in England.  Within my family circle opposition to Goldwater was pretty strong.

            Because we were becoming politically aware, Mr Schiff decided to organize a presidential debate.  We studied the issues, the party platforms and prepared for the in-class debate scheduled for mid-October.  I was please when Mr Schiff chose me to lead the Democratic team.  Fifty years later I only remember that the debate revealed what has continued to be one of my significant flaws:  I cannot remain dispassionate in a debate.

            What I remember most clearly about my year with Mr Schiff was that he was the first Jew I had ever met in my twelve years.  Intellectually I knew that there were other non-Christian religions, but, in the Colorado Springs of the 1960’s, other religions tended to mean Roman Catholics or Methodists or Baptists or even Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons!  I had been exposed to the anti-Judaism prevalent in American society despite the catastrophe of the Shoah.  Most of my friends would probably have believed that only Christians would go to heaven.

            I do not know how, but having Mr Schiff as my teacher changed the way I thought about other religions and other religious believers.  Although my memories of Mr Schiff have lost their precision over the years, whenever I think of him I am overwhelmed by feelings of respect and deep affection.  If Mr Schiff, a man of deep integrity, was not welcome in heaven, my twelve-year-old mind began to ask the question, “How could God be just?”

            In today’s gospel we are offered two images of Jesus, one that is familiar and comforting, the other that is less familiar and challenging.  The first image is that of Jesus as the good shepherd.  It is comforting to think of our Lord, the Son of God, as someone who seeks us out when we are lost, who risks everything for our well-being and who knows each one of us by name.  As an image it is as warm and cozy as the wool sheep provide.  Is it any wonder that Psalm 23 is used so frequently at funerals?

            The other image is cooler and scratchier:  Jesus as ‘the gate to the sheepfold’. 

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, 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.” [1]

No one can enter the sheepfold, an image for God’s coming reign of justice and peace, unless they enter through the only gate, Jesus.  Any other ‘gate’, the evangelist John tells us, is the gate of thieves and bandits.

            For some Christians, perhaps even the majority, to call Jesus the ‘gate’ means that no one will enter the coming reign of God unless they confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour.  No matter how ‘nice’ Mr Schiff may have been, he was a Jew and, unless he converted, he was destined to be eternally on the outside looking in.  Throughout the world today there are hundreds if not thousands of Christian missionary agencies whose primary motivational message is this:  ‘If we don’t convert unbelievers, then they are doomed.’  Some of these agencies actively practice what I would call ‘sheep-stealing’:  they reach out to Christians who do not share the agency’s particular understanding of Christian faith and practice and imply that any other way of being Christian is also doomed.

            There is another way to interpret this text that draws inspiration from the beginning of John’s gospel.

            In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [2]

John speaks of the Word as the principle or pattern by which God uses to create, to redeem and to bring to perfection the whole universe.  Note that John does not say that the Word is the pattern only for some people; it is the pattern for ‘all people’ and that nothing has come into being without being made in this pattern.

            This pattern, the Word, the ‘Logos’ to use the Greek term, is active in all times and places.  Christians believe that this Word is uniquely made known in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  This belief is summed up in the words of my late teacher, Jim Griffiss, when he said, “All Christian teaching can be summarized by saying, ‘When you meet Jesus of Nazareth, you meet God.’  Everything else is commentary.”

            To believe that we meet God uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth does not mean that we need to condemn the religious faith of other people nor see them as our competitors.  Because the Word, the pattern of life, the ‘deep magic’ of creation, has been active before time and in time, before the kosmos and in the kosmos, this life has been implanted in the very DNA of all human beings, before and after the Word becoming flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.

            We Christians can rejoice that we are surrounded by other peoples of faith whose lives manifest the pattern of the Word --- even when they are completely unaware of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  Whoever works for justice reveals the Word.  Whoever offers compassion embodies the Word.  Whoever does what Jesus would do is a friend of the Word.  Entering the promised reign of God has more to do with living the good news, living a Jesus-shaped life, than it does with having the right religious credentials.

            There are many others, however, in the world, in our neighbourhoods, with whom we do need to share the good news we know in Jesus of Nazareth.  They are seeking life in its fullness that Jesus offer to all who will follow in his path and they have not yet found it.  They know in their innermost beings a longing for the life implanted in them from the moment of their conception and reinforced every moment of their lives.  What they have not yet done is commit themselves to following a path that brings them knowledge of eternal life, the fullness of life in the here and now as well as the hope of that same life in the future.

            I am convinced Mr Schiff knew this life in his Jewish faith and practice.  I am convinced that my Sikh neighbours know this life in their faith and practice.  I am equally convinced that we all live a life shaped by the Word and it is that Word that gives life to all humanity.  But there are many who live in darkness and who cannot see the Word.  It is to them that you and I are sent to proclaim the good news of God in Christ so that they may life, abundant life, eternal life.  May it be so.  Amen.

[1] John 10.7-10 (New Revised Standard Version).

[2] John 1.1-5 (New Revised Standard Version).

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