Gate Contemplation

John 10:1-10

I am the gate.

These are Jesus’s words here. We usually like to focus on what follows, when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But here Jesus specifically says gate. Jesus is the gate.

In this word, gate, there is a certain sense of exclusivity, isn’t there? Consider: a sheepfold in the ancient world was an area closed off by a tall rock wall; completely enclosed except for one opening, the gate. The sheep were led into the sheepfold by way of this gate every night as a place of protection from predators and thieves. They were led out to pasture in the morning, when the sun was up, when the shepherd could easily see predators and thieves by day. But by night, when it was too dark to see, the sheepfold provided boundaries, allowing the shepherd to hear a thief or predator trying to climb over the wall and thereby to defend the sheep. The gate, then, is the way in and out of this protective boundary.

But exclusivity rankles our modern sensibilities, doesn’t it? After all, the church is not some protective boundary from the world, not some place to which we’re supposed to retreat every Sunday for protection from the bad ones of the world, the thieves and predators. Rather, the church is supposed to go out into the world, from Jerusalem to Judea and all Samaria to the ends of the earth. It is the means through which God is realizing the Kingdom. We’re trying to include unbelievers, not exclude them!

Besides, isn’t exclusive thinking at the root of social evils like racism, caste systems, and war?

Exclusivity rankles us, yes. The other side of this coin, inclusivity, feels much better. At least to us. Today. In the twenty-first century. In the Episcopal Church.

And it feels better for good reasons, reasons based on God’s love. God has called us to an outward love, a love that focuses on the other, a love we demonstrate towards our neighbor, someone who is different than I am. It’s easy to love myself. It’s hard to love my neighbor.

But what about inclusivity? Can we take it too far?

At the last general convention of the Episcopal Church, the diocese of Eastern Oregon called for us to consider what they call an Open Table. What they mean by this is a Communion Table open to everyone, regardless of belief, religion, or practice. So, for instance, a practicing Muslim ought to be able to come to the Communion Table if he likes, they say.

This is an inclusive idea, one aligned with radical hospitality.

Yet the naysayers—of which I am one, by the way—say that according to history, tradition, theology, and even Jesus’s words, the sacrament of Communion is only for baptized Christians. Some naysayers I know, including a former seminary professor of mine, go so far as to say that an Open Table is promiscuous!

In any event, we naysayers aren’t inclusive here, but exclusive.

But do you know there was a time in the Church’s history when a practice called “fencing the Table” was the norm? In 1873, in fact, a group split off from the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA for this very reason, because we did not allow baptized Christians to take Communion unless they were Episcopalians. Methodists were fenced from the Table! Baptists were fenced! This group today is called the Reformed Episcopal Church, by the way. Back then we were too exclusive for them. The irony is that today we’re too inclusive for them to consider a merger.

So, do you ever wonder—like me—if maybe we’re focusing on the wrong thing? Ever wonder if we’re focusing so much on inclusivity and exclusivity that we begin to lose sight of the actual gate?

By day we’re out to pasture. It’s warm and sunny; there’s delicious grass to munch on. But we feel a little vulnerable. We wonder if we’re in the right neighborhood, if our kids are hanging out with the right friends, or how to outsmart the sheep next to us. Our thoughts move in the direction of exclusivity.

But by night we’re safe inside, in our enclosure, protected. And we begin to think about those poor, lost sheep outside of the fold. How can we help them? Who will go to them and show them the way to the gate? Our thoughts move in the direction of inclusivity.

The church’s history is a giant pendulum-swing.

But Jesus’s point is that he is the gate. Through it—no, through him—we find safe pasture. Through him we find shelter and protection. Through him, as today’s passage says so clearly, we may have life and have it abundantly.

This is our end, then: abundant life. In our day-after-day routines—waking up, making coffee, eating breakfast, commuting, accomplishing whatever tasks at work or school, praying, reading, studying, watching TV, walking the dog, watering the lawn, deciding whether to be inclusive or exclusive in any given situation—we may know rich abundance, profound joy, in all of this, if we just keep our focus on the gate.

But how? That’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s a person in here who doesn’t want to experience profound joy in his or her day-to-day routine. And if Jesus is the gate, then keeping our focus fixed upon him is the key to the gate, so to speak.

Well, then, how do we do it? I offer a few suggestions from the text.

First, don’t try to enter by another way. This seems to be one of Jesus’s main points, doesn’t it? There is a sheepfold with only one gate, the port of entry. Anyone who tries to get in by another way—climbing over the wall, dismantling the wall, or whatever—is not the gatekeeper or the shepherd or the sheep, but a thief or bandit. These are not friendly words.

A popular notion today is that there is more than one way to eternal life. Some will say it’s reincarnation, others enlightenment, others still that a life of good works will get you there. Now I don’t know about any of that. But I do know that Jesus Christ says he’s the way. And he left us two great sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He has also left us the church and its proven traditions like prayer, scripture reading, and fellowship. Why try entering by another way?

Next, don’t try to enter on your own. Always in this passage we see sheep in the plural. The sheep enter and exit through the gate together. There is also the suggestion that lost sheep join the regulars, thereby becoming part of the flock. But my point here is community. We should engage in the sacrament of baptism together. That’s some of the reasoning behind godparents. It’s the same with the Eucharist and the traditions I already mentioned: do them in community.

A final suggestion: learn to recognize Jesus’s voice. He is the gate. But, as the text goes on to say, he is also the good shepherd. He knows the sheep; and the sheep know his voice.

So what do I mean here, that we need to learn to recognize Jesus’s voice? Just this: it’s a matter of worldview. It’s not just listening for Jesus in spiritual matters—in the church, in sacraments, and in traditions. But it’s listening for Jesus in all of life. You watch a movie or a TV program, or you read a book. Where was Jesus in it? What is Jesus saying to you in your Facebook habits? When you enjoy a family meal together, how is Jesus speaking to you through it? You see? It’s all of life. Jesus is the gate, and also the good shepherd, in a comprehensive way, in all of life. We need to listen for his voice in everything.

Jesus is the gate so that we might live a life of profound joy, a life of abundance.


2 Responses to “Gate Contemplation”

  1. Dear Tim,

    Happy Mothers Day.

    I am copying Stephen on the reply to this post so that he will remember you in his work, and be strengthened in it.

    Maia’s birthday approaches. You know what that means. Or maybe you don’t. Give our love to Holly and the girls. And to Emmett as your strength.

    Love, Jeff Ewer

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