One of the things that I find most challenging about the Gospels is that they drive a coach and horses through easy assumptions about God and those who take God seriously. It’s no wonder that some Christians find Paul easier to handle (he develops arguments) than Jesus (he gives pictures).
I came to the conclusion a long time ago that we should read Paul in the light of the Gospels and not the other way round. Discuss…
Anyway, one of the glaring features of the Gospels is the way the religious leaders (usually for very good reasons) see themselves as the gatekeepers of (a) the truth and (b) access to the community that claims that truth. They end up crucifying Jesus. Clearly, one of the things that rubbed them up was Jesus being a bit unclear about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’ of what we might call ‘church’ but Jesus called ‘kingdom’ (or, the place where he is ‘present’).
For example, he tells a story that says we should stop worrying so much about our own ecclesiastical purity and let the weeds grow along with the wheat – he’ll sort it all out later. In another story he encourages outrageous waste of seed – the sower is to chuck it everywhere and be surprised by what takes root where. In another image, gifts given by God are not to be preserved in isolated purity, but risked out there in the big bad world where they might even get lost or perverted. I could go on…
This might seem an odd thing to think about when Liverpool have just this very afternoon shown great humility in losing at home to Spurs. (And writing this is not a form of distraction therapy. Honest.) But, it was sparked by an excellent sermon in Bradford Cathedral this morning by the excellent Dean, David Ison. Maybe this is blatantly obvious to everyone else in Christendom, but … a gate is not the same as a gatekeeper.
Jesus described himself in John’s Gospel as ‘the gate’ through which the sheep enter. A gatekeeper usually sees it as his (or her) job to keep people out – discriminating, sifting, excluding those who aren’t fit or won’t fit. A ‘gate’ doesn’t engage in such activity.
Now, I don’t for one minute think this means that anything goes (the charge usually levelled at anyone who is less worried about their own purity than opening the gate to as many people as are willing to go through it). But, it does put a question mark over how we see the church and the role of those of us committed to building, growing, defending or maintaining the church.
For myself, I am less worried about the purity of those who go through the gate and more concerned to open the gate of the Kingdom of God (that is, into the presence of the God we see in Jesus) to as many people as possible. (After all, they let me in…) It seems to me that Jesus said it was his job then to sort out later the mess that might ensue. In other words, we religious professionals need to keep a check on our protective and defensive instincts and make sure we don’t lose sight of what we are here for in the first place: to open the gate to God’s presence where his love, mercy, generosity might be experienced in a community whose experience this is.
A hallmark of the first Pentecost community of Christians was their ‘glad and generous hearts’. It is pretty obvious that this isn’t always the rumour about the church outside the church. But, it would be a good one to develop.