The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks–Easter 4—Year A (video link)
Easter 4—Year A
1 Peter 2:19-25
Any guess as to what Sunday this is? Ah, Good Shepherd Sunday. On the 4th Sunday of Easter, we always get some portion of John 10, and in John 10, Jesus is doing his darnedest to respond to some of his critics who were challenging his authority to heal. In John 9, Jesus has just healed that man born blind. He’s dealt with all the “who sinned this man or his parents” questions (to which he responded, “Neither”). And he’s talked about what makes us truly blind, and the religious leaders, who felt in the know, are getting agitated, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
What if that response by the Pharisees, what if that wasn’t a response with attitude, but was an actual, earnest question. “Could we be blind? Could we really be missing the boat? But we’re supposed to know better—oh no, surely we’re not blind to what really matters, are we?”
It’s interesting, but Jesus doesn’t respond by pulling out his C.V. and comparing his bonafides; he doesn’t recite a litany of those under whom he’s studied; he doesn’t share a bibliography of all the books he’s read—all things I’m tempted to do when challenged. No, he just launches into extended metaphors, designed to pull his listeners in deeper where they might hear something that they’ve not yet been able to hear.
In this year’s passage, we get the part about sheepfolds and shepherds, bandits and thieves—juicy stuff. The first part you can sort of follow. You’ve got your basic sheepfold with a gate. The shepherd enters by the gate. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. Your thieves and bandits don’t go through the gate—they’re sneaky—they climb in by another way. The sheep follow the shepherd because they know that voice; they don’t follow strangers because they don’t know those voices.
We can follow this. We might even be able to identify some of the thieves and bandits who steal our attention and distract us from those things that truly matter—the drive for power or esteem or affection or security or control, or the litany of lack that keeps us running on that wheel, round and round and round, never stopping to rest in the sheepfold or breathe deep of that good fresh air out in the pasture.
There are so many voices calling out to us in our culture; it’s easy to miss the voice of the shepherd. As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall ever be. The text tells us, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Again, the “them” are those who are wrestling with the fact that Jesus has raised their consciousness about their blindness. Do you ever like it when someone raises your blind spot to your awareness? I don’t, and my first stop is always going to be defensiveness. Seeing the truth of what is being pointed out to me, that comes a little further down the road. So, images, stories, metaphors—they help to lower those defenses and can often provide just enough distance for me to look at myself.
But, metaphor #1 didn’t work to lower those defenses with Jesus’ listeners. So, Jesus has to try again. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before, thieves and bandits; sheep didn’t 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.”
Jesus is the gate. It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, does it? The Lord is my shepherd—oh, that’s lyrical. The Lord is my gate, not so much. What does this even mean?
So, when you hear gate, what comes to mind? (pause) Something to keep something in, and something to keep something out. When you hear gatekeeper, what comes to mind? (pause) A block. Someone who’s going to keep me from getting where I want to go. Someone who might protect me. Or, someone who’s trying to protect someone or something, and won’t give me access. It’s an access-mediator. Who in this room likes gatekeepers? Really, be honest now. Most of us, deep down, we don’t like gatekeepers. So, to hear that Jesus is the gate—this starts to stir up some not good feelings and associations, and it definitely lacks the emotional impact of “the Lord is my shepherd.”
Part of this is a problem with translation. The word in greek is θύρα, and it doesn’t actually mean “gate;” it means “door,” as in “entrance,” as in “passage way,” as in “portal.” Oh, now we’re cooking. I love portals. Portals are passages to other dimensions, other worlds—think Narnia, or the drama Once Upon a Time or Dr. Who or Harry Potter. Portals are magical and mysterious, luminous and liminal. I can totally warm up to magical and mysterious, luminous and liminal.
Jesus is the passage way, the entrance, the portal to another life. And what kind of life? “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Jesus came that they/we may have ζωή life, full and whole and complete life, and have it, not just abundantly, but have it exceeding abundantly, over and above, περισσός—exceeding some number or measure or rank or need—this is abundance that is, literally, off the charts.
Wow, that’s really different than the connotations of gates and gatekeeper.
What if we don’t look at this passage as describing who Jesus is going to keep in or out of the either the sheepfold or the pasture, but instead, look at Jesus as a portal to life that is full of grace and overflowingly abundant?
What if we don’t look at Jesus as a bunch of metal attached to hinges, but instead, think of him as a passage that carries us into a space we aren’t currently living in. A space where we are so full that all that’s described in the Acts passage doesn’t seem like a pipedream, but becomes the natural outpouring of what flows when we are living the abundant life. A space where all who trust in this life are together and hold all things in common and sell all those things that possess us freeing up resources and energy to distribute to all, as any have need. No merit system here, no worthiness criteria, just need. This abundant life overflows into their prayers and the way they break bread together, in their eagerness to go deeper into this life, and in their commitment to be in communion with one another—community we would call it today. This abundant life is glad and generous, full of heart, eager to praise, with a sense of having grace and joy with all people. And this abundant life that flows from the heart of God is so daggone attractive, so compelling that day by day, people are added to the community; day by day, people are being made whole, being “saved” in church talk. Five times “all” or “everyone” shows up in this passage from Acts. It’s full and inclusive and expansive.
What if we understood that Jesus is the portal into this kind of life?
Do we believe it’s possible? Do we trust that this can in fact happen? Or do we dismiss it as a naïve fantasy? Why are people more drawn to see Jesus as a gate or gatekeeper, than to see Jesus as a door and portal into the abundant life?
What might shift in us if we understood him in this new way? After all, we do share in his life, we are the body of Christ, so what changes in us if we see our role, not as gates and gatekeepers, but instead see our lives as portals, passageways, doors into the abundant life? How might this abundance take root in our lives, and what fruits might it manifest? What outward and visible signs would people see in us that would reveal this inward and spiritual grace? What would shift in our relationship to resources and possessions? How might we view those in need and our connection to them? What would it look like if we saw those in need, not as a problem to be fixed, but as the natural place where love and life flow from the wellspring of life that is exceedingly abundant within us? What wonders and signs might be done at our hands? How might awe come upon us and everyone we meet? Where might our devotion carry us?
On this 4th Sunday of Easter, we’re three weeks into the season, and the fog is starting to clear. Resurrection life isn’t just something that happened to Jesus, but it’s something that’s happening to us. It’s time to move through the portal, to jump into mystery, to cross the threshold, to experience illumination.
How we view Jesus carries us places. Don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s confining; he’s been dying, and rising, to transport us into that life that is more than we can ask or imagine.
All we have to do is follow his voice, and he will take us where we so long to go.
As we make this passage and travel in this way, soon we will discover this abundance rising up within us, and like magic, our lives themselves will have become that cup that is running over, not because it’s what we set out to do, but because life this full just has to be shared. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 7, 2017