I Am Gate

In our gospel reading Jesus repeatedly tells the Pharisees that he is "the gate". For some reason I cannot shake the image of Jesus saying "I am the gate," and sounding to them as though he might be Groot, from The Guardians of the Galaxy. Hear me out on this. 

All Groot really says in the film is his name, “I am Groot.” Strangely enough, the only one who understands him is a genetically altered raccoon with a terrible disposition (arguably the least empathetic of the bunch). In the end [spoiler alert], Groot saves the lives of his friends at the cost of his own life. The good news is that he is basically a walking tree, and he is able to be re-grown in another form.

Hearing it that way (and from the pulpit) Groot may sound a little Jesus-like than previously imagined. You could certainly view the character as a Christ like figure if that was all you knew about him. The real reason I am making the comparison between Groot and Jesus – beyond self-sacrifice and resurrection - is that sometimes I am afraid that we have become like those that cannot hear or understand the words of Jesus apart from a phrase like, “I am gate.”

So much of Christianity in the post-modern, post-Christendom, post-911 new millennium is focused on individual salvation that we have turned Jesus into a concierge instead of a savior. Maybe you haven’t. Maybe I haven’t, but Lord knows that we have done it collectively – as a people - and we have to realize that there is more to life and to faith than a personal reward after we die.

We live in a world bent on violence. Even last night there was a shooting downtown after all the joie de vive that is Festival International. In fact – I hate to bring it up – even though the Festival generates millions of dollars for our local economy and a chance for us to raise money for our youth, it brings with it increased arrests and harassment of the homeless and a spike in the activity of human trafficking in our region.

Now it would be easy to say that these evils could all be managed if those people would just turn from sin and follow Jesus, but I have a sense that there is more to it than that. You see, the thing I can’t shake is that all three of our readings today were about the way sin and salvation works in community.

Peter spoke to Israelites gathered from all around and not only convinced them that Jesus was the messiah, God’s anointed one, but that they were responsible for his death. Why? Because they were the people of God! So, what should they do? Repent and be baptized, all of them!

This was kind of a new thing that started with John. People did not go out in groups to be baptized before that. It was something you would do to purify and prepare yourself to come before God as a part of the community of believers. To be baptized in the name of a teacher was kind of a new thing, and Peter promised something more as a part of it – the gift of the Holy Spirit!

It’s not like God was never active before, but this kind of activity was different. It was totally and completely transformative. It created in them the ability to be moved and formed and shaped as God’s people. It changed their priorities. It gave them a desire to learn more and more what it meant for Jesus to be the messiah, and what this resurrection might mean for them. It made them want to be together, to share even their food, and to constantly open themselves to God’s presence together. Is that not what it means to be the church?

Surely the church is the same today as it was then – unless, of course, all we are willing to hear is a song of personal salvation and the statement that Jesus is the gate. Instead, I think we need to hear the words of Jesus in a new way (which is really an old way). We need to remember, as David Lose (President of Luther Seminary) wrote, “Forgiveness of sin is wonderful, of course, but… if that’s all we understand salvation to be we are, at best, only back to square one and miss that Jesus offers not just life, but life in its abundance.” He goes on to say that “we are not only saved from something but also for something, for life in all its abundance here and now.”

Now, he does admit that Jesus is not really clear on what abundance is like, but you have to remember that this passage follows the healing of a man born blind. This passage is Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and their spiritual blindness. So, for the man born blind, being able to see is abundance. For the Pharisee, being able to understand is abundance. And in the same way, for the single parent that gets diapers from the Diaper depot – that’s abundance! For the child that gets picked on at school who has a friend stand up with him, that’s abundance. For those who cannot recover from the flood by themselves, any help at all is abundantly more than they had before!

For the home owner we helped this week, Carmen, after months of living in a FEMA trailer next to her gutted home, a crew came in and even fixed a porch light that had not worked for years before the flood! For her, that was abundance!

The thing is, abundance and blessings are not just things that make life better for you or for me. First off, they come from recognizing that every moment, every second, and every breathe are gifts from God. Beyond that abundant, living comes from our release from whatever is keeping us from living as God intended. And our release is connected to our neighbor’s. Our release finds its fulfillment when we take part in someone else’s release.

If we can see it that way, then the church (again in the words of David Lose) can become less of a place to come and hear about abundant life, and more of a place that sends us out to experience it and share it as we commit ourselves to the wellbeing of all God’s children and, indeed, the world God loves so much.

And while we cannot fix every problem, we can be a part of the salvation that God is offering to all the world without partiality. In fact, just by being together as a community of faith we find that we are a part of things we could never imagine managing on our own. That’s why I still believe, with all her flaws and failures, it’s good to be the church. In fact that was the # I used last Wednesday when I left our PDA community dinner. I was full from breaking bread and from learning from and teaching our guests about our shared faith in Christ.

I looked over and saw the nursery in use for the Nurturing Parenting class. Then I also saw someone park in our lot and walk across Johnston St to go to AA, and I was struck by the abundance of it all. Let’s be sure to pay attention to that. Let’s use #itsgoodtobethechurch when posting about the events and activities of the church – not to be boastful, but to celebrate what God is doing here and now, in and through us. Let’s encourage one another to study, and lean into, and lean on the living Word of God!

It will probably take you places you don’t expect, and some you may not want to go to. Some places are exciting like the upcoming Cuba trip! Some are not – like the time it takes be with someone in need, or the compassion required to hear and see the needs of others, or the responsibility of bringing peace and light in a world where there can even be violence late in the night in a city that just hosted a party for several hundred of its closest friends.

Since we began there, I want to close by telling you how one ministry in our Presbytery is transforming a neighborhood in New Orleans that has been compared to a war zone. By now most of you have heard of the Okra Abbey community garden and new worshiping community. If not, just know that their work has already begun to transform that neighborhood through the sheer force of goodwill and compassion. One of their most recent initiatives is a partnership with RAWtools, a non-profit out of Colorado with the goal of disarming hearts and forging peace by taking firearms and literally transforming them into gardening tools.

I’m sure that we will not all agree on the rights of gun owners, but there is something deeply transformative about a tool for destruction becoming a symbol of hope. For the cross of Jesus is the gate that God has offered us. It is the gate that calls us in and sends us out so that we, and all of those that inhabit this spinning clump of dirt we call home, might have life, and may have it in abundance.

I pray that it may be so with you and with me, and all to the glory of God. Amen!
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