- Fr. Frank St. Amour III
Sermon - 4 Easter
In the Name...
A man once appeared at the pearly gates seeking admittance and St. Peter asked him if he'd ever done anything heroic. "Why, yes", the man replied, "I referee college football and at the Oklahoma-Texas game, with the score 21-20 for Oklahoma, I disallowed a Texas touchdown in the final seconds." "Really", St. Peter said, "That is heroic. When did it happen?" The man replied, "About five minutes ago."
In this week's Gospel, Jesus said, "I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved."
For a lot of people, these words are heard, and used, as being exclusive, as if Jesus is less the Good Shepherd and more the Heavenly Bouncer who keeps people out of the club. What's ironic is that this is precisely the opposite of what Jesus meant.
Leaders of all religions throughout history have often seen their role as protecting God from others. The Gospel accounts are littered with people who want to protect God. The scribes and Pharisees forbade certain kinds of people from attending Temple worship, not only the physically handicapped - the blind, lame, lepers, etc. - but, also those in certain professions - like shepherds, interestingly enough - lest God's perfect presence be defiled by imperfection. The Sadducees and priests kept money changers at the temple gates so that coins made by pagan rulers wouldn't pollute God's holy place. Even the disciples had issues with the people who brought their children to see Jesus.
But, Jesus was offended with the Pharisees and Sadducees and he told his disciples that he didn't need their kind of protection, thank you very much, and he revealed to us that God was at his most powerful when he was at his most accessible. He said he didn't need to be kept behind a gate, he was a gate.
A gate is an interesting image for Jesus to use for himself because it's an inanimate object. It opens when pushed. It doesn't open by itself. And sometimes gates are locked. After all, isn't that why we have them in the first place, to keep undesirables out? True, that's why we do. But, funny thing about that, though. There are lots of references to gates and doors in the Gospels, but, there are only four cases where doors are mentioned as locked and in two of those Jesus was the one being kept out.
That calls to mind the famous painting by Holman Hunt, which many of you may know, depicting Jesus holding a lantern, knocking on a door which has no outside handle. In that painting, the door represents the door of our heart. Jesus has no key to open it against our will and he must wait for entry until we're ready to admit him.
Actually, as one looks through the Bible, it doesn't seem as if God has a very big key ring. Rather the contrary. In fact, only three keys are actually mentioned in all of Scripture.
The first is what is called the Key of David. This key is used by the Old Testament prophets as a symbol of royal authority. By the time of Jesus, it had come to refer to the Messiah as being the descendant and heir of King David not merely in claiming the right ancestors, but, more importantly, in possessing his power of rule. In performing his miracles, Jesus showed that he possessed a power and authority which no other claimant of the title Messiah had ever wielded. Therefore, when it says, in Revelation, that Jesus holds the Key of David it reinforces who he is.
The second key also appears in Revelation and this key is also a symbol of authority. It is the Key to what is called the Bottomless Pit or Hades. Jesus holds this key and he hands it to an angel whose job is to chain Satan and lock him up. This is an exercise of cosmic power and demonstrates that Jesus is no mere earthly miracle-worker, but, Lord of all Universes, seen and unseen.
And finally, the third key is also a symbol of authority and this is the one he gives to Peter and the Church, what Jesus calls the Keys of the Kingdom. But, when he does, he uses words which are both explicit and dangerous - "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." and John remembers the risen Jesus saying to the disciples in the Upper Room, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.".
This act of delegation should at once thrill and terrify us. Jesus is the gate, but, he doesn't determine if a person enters the kingdom, or not. He is the gate, but, the access to the gate is controlled by us. You and me.
Isn't that a scary thought, that the only obstacle on the road to a person's salvation, the only locked door on the way to the unlocked gate, may be the one put there, intentionally or not, by us.
I think that putting this sort of power in the hands of humans was not a very smart thing to do, but, whatever I may think, it is what God has done. With grace, I'm afraid, comes responsibility. We can't avoid it. That's why when we ask forgiveness for things done and left undone we should be thinking of all the actions and words we did and said which have turned people away from Christ, and all the actions and words we didn't do or say which could have turned people towards Christ. With grace, comes responsibility.
In the same way, the ancient people of Israel were chosen to be the special people of God, not just for themselves, but, to be a light to the nations. They were to be the city upon a hill, not so they could sit smugly and gloat over everybody else, but, so that the grace of God would flow from them and touch the lives of all peoples. We read, however, they didn't do that very well. The Church is the new Israel. The commission is no different.
No one comes to the Father except through Jesus, but, as St. John put it in his letters, we don't see Jesus, we only see each other. What do people see in us? What do we see in people?
Yes, Heaven is a gated community, but, as Revelation tells us, its gates are never shut. Jesus turns no one away who comes to him in faith. May we follow his example. Heroically.
In the Name...