By Mike Cantley*
“I am the gate.
“I am the gate.”
Jesus said this to those who had just excommunicated the now-seeing-but-formerly-blind man. He said this to those who had appointed themselves gatekeepers. Those asking… perhaps thinking, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (John 9:40)
Jesus honors their ability to check and choose for themselves. Check what they see in him and through him. What do they hear of him and from him?
This recent lectionary passage in context is a sobering word to religious leadership. Those first verses from John 10 — “the gate” and the “Good Shepherd” verses — are so often quoted out of context that they have become conditioned for many of us into comforts akin to warm and fuzzy Hallmark cards.
“The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice…”
But in context, there’s a distinct rhetorical push.
“I am the gate…” and yet you are acting as gatekeepers.
“I am calling…” and you are not responding.
“My sheep hear my voice and follow…” So, what are you gonna do?
It’s an in-the-street-after-the-conflict-and-you-just-kicked-us-out-of-the-church kind of conversation.
“So, what are you gonna do?” might get more toward the flavor and the feeling. You may turn around and go right back to your “gated” church. You may elect to be the holiness inspectors, the tomato graders, the keepers, and the cullers; or you may duck that “responsibility” conveniently, hiding behind some other council as they continue to run all things “church.” But what spirit will govern the gate?
Unless the gate to the community of discipleship is Jesus, it will always be a dangerous bottleneck. A place of greedy, consumeresque stampeding and worse. Stealing. Killing. Destruction.
So many of us are religious leaders, today’s welcomers, and greeters for the community of discipleship. We stepped up back when we were hearing a call to point the world toward the Gate. Yet so many of us have placed different signs over the gate. We’ve opened multiple gates: “progressive” gates and “traditional” gates, all claiming orthodoxy and orthopraxis.
Hanging so many signs, we have obscured the Gate.
In this moment, there’s still a huge “sign hanging” and multi-gate campaign underway; it seems to lack the manners to offer a ceasefire even during our global pandemic. As we shelter in place for the good of all, trying to contain a worldwide viral threat, there are active political agents campaigning to divide the church along lines of holiness and righteousness. We may never see the wider world unifying and working together like this again in our lifetimes, yet some church leaders are still actively building new gates to divide sheep.
The sorrow proliferates like a virus, yet we know the Lord Jesus somehow allows all of this freedom through that amazing, divine grace. Maybe we can sense a bit of the Lord’s own sorrow there on the street when the religious leaders ask him, “Surely, we are not blind, are we?”
The Lord’s great and gentle grace is indeed available to us all in this momentous season; we each can still check and choose for ourselves. But rather than check the party lines and choose what we want or what we’re most comfortable with, let us pray for the courage to check what we see in him, through him.
The Gate. What we hear of him, from him.
So, what are you gonna do?
Before the church campaign escalates to some getting “kicked out,” and before the COVID-19 crisis allows us to “go back in,” let’s prayerfully ask the Lord to help us team up and work together to contain the divisive infection that is killing our fellowship. By God’s grace, the pandemic can teach us that we can indeed give one another room and still work together.
Thanks be to God, there is One Gate, now and forever. Amen.
*Rev. Mike Cantley serves as pastor at St Luke’s UMC in Martinsburg, WVa.