Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (11 May 2014) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter (11 May 2014) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

The Very Reverend David Ison looks at community 'gatekeepers' and concludes "it’s not the gatekeepers who define the community, but the gate: and Jesus himself is the gate."

Acts 2.42-47; John 10:1-10

'I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.'

When I was working in Bradford a particular feature of interfaith work were the gatekeepers: those who said that they spoke for their particular faith or ethnic community, and controlled its relationships with other groups.

Some of the gatekeepers were truly representative: but many were self-appointed, or had been around for a long time and claimed to speak for others, even if they didn’t.

So the Cathedral in Bradford convened what it called the Common Good network, a loose group of people of all religious backgrounds and none, trying to work together for the good of the city, in particular to encourage younger professionals to have a place to share their good work in the wider community.

But we had to keep asking ourselves the question: were we enabling new people to speak out? Or were we simply making a bid to be an alternative group of gatekeepers in the city?

"Gatekeepers” are an issue in all communities: the people who say they hold the access to their communities, who are often self-appointed, and sometimes self-interested. Who are really the people with power in their communities? And do they use power for themselves, or do they give it away to others?

In John chapter 10, Jesus refers to himself both as the shepherd who leads the sheep through the gate, and as the gate itself. To understand what he means you have to see this saying in its context, as a continuation of what precedes it.

In chapter 9 of John’s gospel, Jesus walks along the road with his disciples, sees a man born blind, and heals him. This infuriates the Pharisees, the religious leaders, the "gatekeepers” of their community.

Not only is it done without their permission, but it's done on the sabbath, a day when work – and healing was defined by them as work – shouldn't be done.

As far as the Pharisees were concerned, Jesus couldn't be from God or a proper Jew, because he didn't keep the details of the law.

And note the unspoken addition – HE doesn't keep the law, but WE do. It's a them-and-us statement – Jesus isn't one of us, and whatever good he may have done, it's not really good.

We're right and he's wrong. We're the gatekeepers, and we say to you, Mr oh so clever ex-blind man, and to your friend Jesus, that you’ve got it wrong and you're out of this community.

The gatekeepers have spoken. The people who were meant to help and heal a blind man in the name of God have rejected him instead.

And so, these words of Jesus at the beginning of John chapter 10 redefine what true religious community is.

The Pharisees said that they held the key to the gate of the community. Jesus tells them, and also tells us, that he is the gate: it's Jesus who defines who is in God's community, not the Pharisees – or the elders or the lawyers or the bishops or GAFCON or the imams or Moore College Sydney or the Pope or the Evangelical Alliance.

The heart of it is in verse 10, when Jesus says: 'I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly'.
The Pharisees had shown that they weren't really concerned with giving life, but with having the keys to the gate. No glad and generous hearts for them, but controlling and crabby ones. Whereas Jesus comes to give us life in abundance – with healing and hope for the blind in body and spirit.

The reading we had from Acts chapter 2 has in it all of that abundance of life: it’s a picture of a joyful and inclusive community of the early Christians in Jerusalem, sharing material as well as spiritual things, transforming lives through hope and healing and in practical care.

Today is the beginning of Christian Aid Week, when people all over the country – not just Christians – raise money to help the poorest of the world, some of whom are Christian, but most of whom are not. From rebuilding a Kurdish village community in North Iraq, bombed and destroyed by Saddam Hussein, to providing a home and livelihood for ethnic Africans fleeing persecution in Sudan, Christian Aid Week is about sharing the abundance of life.

This is a different kind of gatekeeping, a Jesus-focused kind: not drawing boundaries around communities and locking the gates to keep them in, but throwing the gates open wide and encouraging people to come in and out: not policing the community, but enabling everyone to have fullness of life.

Many of us will have faced, in our own lives of faith, the challenge as to whether we will act out of fear or love, anxiety or generosity. It’s hard to follow Jesus through the gates when you’re told by the gatekeepers that to go outside your community means you’ll never be allowed back. Think of what can happen when a Jewish Israeli makes friends with a Palestinian; a Muslim woman marries outside her community; an evangelical Christian supports same-sex marriage; a white preacher confronts racism in their church community; or anything else where the gatekeepers will tell you that you’ve betrayed their community.

Let us take heart! For John tells us, it’s not the gatekeepers who define the community, but the gate: and Jesus himself is the gate through which we go to find the pastures of life, in a place beyond the narrowing boundaries of controlled community.

Christians aren’t meant to be the ‘new Pharisees’, those who define the boundaries: we’re called to be the people who follow Jesus Christ, the shepherd who leads us beyond the gate to find abundant life – an abundance found, not in following the rules which the gatekeepers insist on, but in being a thriving community of faith and love in a broken world.

And if a gatekeeper tells you that following in the way of the generous love of Jesus Christ will take you beyond the pale, outside the fence, then perhaps it’s time to face up to our fear and step through the gate and go.

For Jesus says, he is the gate for the sheep: he is the way to community life in the presence of God which endures.

Today at this Eucharist, as they did nearly 2000 years ago in Jerusalem, we eat together with glad and generous hearts, as we pledge ourselves, together with all God's people around the world, to open to others the gate of life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

'I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.'