The readings are for “Good Shepherd Sunday,” fourth of Easter, 2017
I have some sympathy with Jesus’ original audience, who heard him speak of sheep and shepherds, gates and gatekeepers, and wondered what he might mean. So he tries to lay it out more clearly. “I am the gate,” he says, as he will also say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Is this any clearer?
This Jesus-gate; this way of truth and life; it is the way of the cross. It is the way of life through the love that endures everything for the sake of the other. Whoever does not enter by this gate comes only to steal and kill and destroy, for his own benefit.
The way of Jesus, the gate that Jesus opens and is, is the way of love: love God, love your neighbour, love your enemies, love one another.
The other ways, those deficient in love lead only to thievery, death, and destruction. Those ways are predicated on self-love, not self-denial; on self-preservation, not self-giving; self-justification, rather than repentance; on self-aggrandisement, leaving no room for the glory that belongs only to God.
As our Presiding Bishop might say, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about Jesus.” If it is not the way of love, for God, neighbour, and enemies alike, then it is the way of thieves and destroyers.
Even the newest disciples of the gospel understood this imperative: to enter through the gate of Love. They offered everything that they had to one another, sharing in the joys and sorrows, the affluence and afflictions of all. They took care of those with nothing to bring, without resentment or reservation. God bless them, they were innocent of all self-interest, placing themselves at the mercy of God, and their neighbours, and their enemies.
There was a couple, in the early days of Acts chapter 5, named Ananias and Sapphira, who wanted to be a part of this great movement for the kingdom of God, but who didn’t want entirely to give up their own self-interest. They were willing to sacrifice a judicious amount to the cause of the community of the saints; but first they would set aside a little something for themselves. They were hedging their bets on the gospel, keeping just a small side-bet on mammon, for security’s sake. After all, they reasoned, they had to take care of themselves first, or no one else would.
Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a field, and after talking it over with her, he set aside their security deposit, and brought the rest to the apostles, pretending that it was the whole price paid for the property. Peter, of course, full of the Holy Spirit knew his deceit at once. Ananias, confronted with the error of his ways, having entered through the gate of thieves and destroyers, dropped down dead, as did his wife Sapphira a few hours later when she attempted to keep up the charade of complete devotion to the community of the gospel and the way of the cross.
We no longer live as the first disciples did. Sharing everything in common and taking care of the needs of the least resourced among us out of the wealth of the privileged went out of fashion somewhere along the road, and the idolatry of the invisible hand of the market replaced that radical trust in the providence of God, predicated on the faithfulness of that covenant to love God and to love one’s neighbour with all of one’s being. Like Ananias and Sapphira, we learned to keep back a portion of our own self-interest, laying the leftovers at the feet of those charged with distributing security to the poor and the helpless, and then worrying about whether it was enough. It is, when honestly assessed, a depressingly faithless way to live, but it is our way.
We might want to think and pray about that sometime.
Within the church, perhaps we try to do a little better: we try to give our best to God, to determine from our prayer and praise the first and best portion that we can use for the good of the community of Christ, striving in love to find our way through that gateway that leads to the kingdom of God, without reservation or resentment of those able to offer less, knowing that all that we have comes from that providence of God.
But even in the earliest days, there was the temptation, and the tendency, to turn away from the way of Jesus, the gateway that is the cross, and just to make sure of one’s own security; a temptation to doubt the power of the gospel to do good.
Where we need to take care is in that sin of Sapphira and Ananias. It is all well and good to offer what we can, but if we are sneaking around the side of our own conscience and God’s claim upon us, setting aside self-love, self-satisfaction, self-justification, securing our selves first instead of offering our selves to God and to one another in love, then we risk our own destruction, the loss of our souls.
You hear the metaphor often of the emergency oxygen mask: first, secure your own; but these are only to be used in an emergency, in a crisis. They are not intended as a way of life. The way of the cross is.
Peter told Ananias, “While [the field] remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!”
With Ananias and Sapphira, it was not the owning and withholding of property in and of itself that was their sin, but their sin was the pretence that they were all in with the gospel of Christ, all in with that covenant of faith that loves God with every part of our being, and our neighbours, and our enemies as much as ourselves; that they were all in, trusting that God would make even out of the way of the cross a way of new life, resurrection, and glory. They pretended to be Christians, while secretly worshipping their own lives; and it was that blasphemy that was their destruction.
The gateway into the kingdom of God is that way of love, demonstrated and opened for us by Jesus in every touch of his healing hands. Even those who touched the hem of his robe received the generous power of his mercy. He opened the gate by every word of forgiveness and grace; opened the way of life for us by his death on the cross, that supreme act of non-violence that absorbed death and transformed it; by his resurrection, his guarantee that the life which God wills for us will not be overcome by sin or shame, death or destruction; that it cannot be stolen by thieves that break in, but it is eternal in its hope, and its faith, and its love.
We may not be able to find our way back entirely to the faith of the first apostles. Sin is our pre-existing condition. And yet, without resentment or reservation, without exclusion or premium, without denial or trial, Jesus has us covered. And I can almost hear him saying, “Go, and do likewise.”