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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Holy Week in Chester 8: “I AM: The Burning Bush, Ends and Beginnings”

“It is accomplished” cries Jesus from the cross, his final word in St John’s passion story. It’s natural to think of Good Friday as a day of despair or resignation as the other gospel writers do. St John stands out for his sense of completion, something accomplished, brought to its proper conclusion. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” Jesus has said near the beginning of the gospel. As he turns his face towards the cross he prays, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do”. Tetelestai! It is done.
Endings and beginnings seem to meet at Golgotha as we hear John’s great narrative. The cross feels like a great full stop, a closure, an end. We hear in Jesus’ words an unmissable tone of finality, even triumph. Perhaps that takes us by surprise? Not if we’ve been paying attention to the way St John has told his story. This end is not, for him, the petering out of a life that began so well. It is not the tragedy of a career that has been wasted, brought to nothing. It is not the extinguishing of a guttering candle flame finally overcome by the darkness. Rather, it’s that this great light has never shone more steadily, more brightly than at Golgotha. Far from representing the waste of a man’s career, this is its moment of culmination. His life, said Jesus speaking of himself as the good shepherd, was not taken from him. He laid it down of his own accord.  On the cross he draws all humanity to himself. On the cross there is vindication of all that he came among us to be and to do. On the cross his work of love is accomplished. What binds him to the cross is not nails but love. He reigns over us as the king of love, a kingship that is not from here but from another place  entirely. This is where we recognise glory, full of grace and truth, love’s endeavour, love’s expense, love to the very end.
Therefore, this finished work, this end is also a beginning. It’s a threshold across which a new horizon is glimpsed. It’s the door "held open to us that no-one can shut, the gateway to possibilities we only dared to dream about. The story of the crucifixion ends with Jesus’ body being laid in a tomb by those who loved him – in a garden, precisely where the resurrection story begins, at the break of day, on the first day of the week, like the garden that God planted at the beginning of time when he created this good earth and placed our first parents in it. Beyond the full stop of today’s “it is finished”, another sentence is launched, a new one whose words open up for all humanity a paradise of promise, healing and reconciliation. 
“In my end is my beginning” was the motto of Mary Queen of Scots which she embroidered on a cloth just before her execution. Perhaps she was inspired by the salamander, the symbol of her grandfather-in-law Francis I, the creature that in myth was supposed to self-ignite at death in order to be reborn out of the ashes, young and new and strong. T. S Eliot plays with that motto in his great poem East Coker. It starts out as a pessimistic reversal of Queen Mary, “In my beginning is my end”, an echo perhaps of the Prayer Book funeral sentence, “In the midst of life we are in death”. Yet from there Eliot finds his way to a place of expectation and hope, as if to affirm: in the midst of death, we are in life. St John would recognise it that way round. “In my end is my beginning.” If Good Friday is an end, then it is pregnant with hope and possibility. For love is not eclipsed by suffering, nor its glory by death. And if Jesus’ death is both the end but not the end, then the grave has lost its victory and death its sting. 
This Holy Week in the Cathedral, we have been looking at the seven sayings of Jesus in St John that begin with the words I AM: “the door”, “the resurrection and the life”, “the light of the world”, “the bread of life”, “the true vine”, “the way, the truth and the life” and “the good shepherd”. Those words “I am”, so emphatic in the Greek, take us back to the book Exodus. There Moses is confronted by the sight of a bush that burns but is not consumed. He is overawed. Then he hears a voice addressing him out of the fire. “I am that I am” it says mysteriously. It’s nothing less than the sacred name of God whose nature can only be explained in terms of itself, for God will not be likened to anything we can see or handle. “I am”, that is, the ground of all existence, all life, all consciousness, all thought. And this is the divine name with which Jesus associates himself in St John. “Before Abraham was, I am” he declares, the eternal One who is in the world yet beyond it, the great I AM who is the source and end of all that has been, and is, and ever shall be. So the risen Christ says of himself in the book of Revelation, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”.
This is how St John portrays the majestic figure who is enthroned in the cross at Golgotha. How can God suffer and die? we ask ourselves. Other faith communities find this the most baffling question Christianity poses. If you want to see a display of naked power, a crucified God makes no sense. If you want to hear fine wisdom, a messiah nailed to a cross is not for you. There are many for whom Good Friday is a real stumbling-block. And yet... there is power and there is wisdom at the cross, a divine wisdom and a divine power that change lives, heal brokenness and bring great hope. Faith takes us to a place where we see how love drives God to embrace the cross and in doing so, embrace his whole creation in a supreme act of self-giving, what Jesus calls laying down his life. If God is not crucified, there is no God as Christians understand him and no Christianity worth following.
I imagine the cross as St John’s burning bush. It’s the place of transfiguration where we take off our shoes because we are on holy ground. We turn aside today to look into this sacred fire, and open our ears so that we can hear the divine voice that speaks to us. What do we see? The flame of love, its glory and its light blazing with divine passion for the world, for the human race, for each of us. And what do we hear? The word that says: here is the essence of all that it means to be God. Here at Golgotha we see his nature and his name. I AM utters that voice, I am all that love means, all that meets our hungers and hopes, that than which nothing greater, nothing more glorious can be dreamed or conceived, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the origin and destiny of all that is, our light, our life, our love. 

“It is accomplished.” In my end is my beginning. We gaze on the burning heart of God. We sense that in these holy days of the paschal season, the sun is rising upon us. There is a new creation. The day breaks and the shadows flee away. After a long and gloomy winter, spring has come at last. 

Holy Week in Chester 7: “I am the Good Shepherd” (Good Friday)

Reading: John 10.11-18
The good shepherd is perhaps the best-loved of all Jesus’ I AM sayings in St John’s Gospel. There isn’t a more tender image in the gospel than this, linked as it always is in our minds with the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd; therefore shall I lack nothing”. It’s the kind of language that elicits our trust and confidence. We feel we could go anywhere, do anything with the Good Shepherd by our side. 
Of all the sayings we have been looking at in Holy Week, this one brings us closest to Good Friday and Easter. No fewer than five times in these few verses, Jesus speaks about “laying down” his life. He lays down his life for the sheep, just as later on, in the upper room, he will speak of laying down his life for his friends. It’s important to catch the decisiveness inherent in these words. Jesus’ death is not an accident, not even something that happens to him. He is in control of events, and his dying is an act of will, in obedience to his Father. “No-one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” 
This saying is closely linked to one we looked at earlier this week, “I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.” I said then that we need to imagine the sheepfold as a circular stone enclosure with an open gap on one side for the sheep to pass in and out. It’s said that shepherds in Jesus’ day would themselves lie across the gap at night to close the circle and protect the sheep by keeping out bandits and wild animals on the prowl for the precious sheep. This was, in an almost literal sense, to “lay down” your life for the sheep both as gate and shepherd. 
Like all the other images we’ve explored this week, the good shepherd has a long history in the Hebrew Bible. We need to know that the shepherd was a familiar way of speaking about authority and kingship, both human and divine. God is called “the shepherd of Israel” in the Psalms, while the kings of Israel and Judah who ruled on his behalf were also familiarly known as shepherds. (Given the disdain with which shepherds were regarded in ancient times, this is a title worth pondering.) The shepherd’s role was to tend the sheep, feed and nurture them, and above all protect them from harm. 
And these were precisely the things that the kings of Israel did not do. The people were likened to sheep that had no shepherd: uncared for, undefended, wandering about as easy prey for predators and villains. The prophets roundly accused the kings of being self-serving in scattering God’s flock and driving them away. By contrast, God himself would come as the true shepherd who would search for his sheep, gather them up, protect them and look after them. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” Which is to say, that where human kings had failed, God himself would come as the king and lord whose just and gentle rule would mean, at last, the freedom and flourishing of his beleaguered people.
This is why Jesus has so much to say about the thief who comes “only to steal and kill and destroy” – and the hired hand who sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. Beware of false messiahs, he says elsewhere, establish the credentials of those who claim authority over you, who promise good things without the power to deliver them, who are, in his own words, “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. What is the test of the true shepherd? How would we recognise the one who has our interests in his heart? That he is willing to do anything to keep you safe, even if it means laying down his life for you. 
This is what we commemorate on Good Friday. No, I want to go further and use an even stronger word. This is what we celebrate today, this “greater love” with which the Fourth Gospel overflows. For into our world of fantasy and illusion, false hopes and failed promises, into our midst to live and die among us the Good Shepherd comes. We hear his voice and we recognise him, for even if he comes to us as one unknown, we sense that he knows us and loves us and asks us to know and love him in return. We gaze at the cross today and viewing it through the lens of St John, we see not the helpless victim of human cruelty, not the subject of a terrible tragedy, not bright hopes dashed against the rocks of abject failure and calamity. What we see is the shepherd-king who has chosen to lay to down his life because that is what he came to do. And precisely because he was obedient to his calling to love the world in all its chaos and confusion, we say of him that he reigns there on the cross of Golgotha. We acclaim him as our king, and as the world’s king enthroned in glory. We behold his glory, full of grace and truth, the truth and grace of the only power that he knows, the power of a life laid down, the power of self-giving love. 
Celebration, not lament, is the tone of a Johannine Good Friday. You could not get it more wrong than the hymn we used to sing when I was a child, “O come and mourn with me awhile”. At least, not when we read John’s passion narrative. There is a kind of piety that makes us feel sorry for Jesus in his suffering. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t walk a via dolorosa today, or sing a Stabat Mater in recognition of the pain that lies at the heart of mercy. Love is always costly because it demands so much of us. For God who so loved the world that he gave his only son, it cost not less than everything. 
But I think we need to look deeper into the movement of divine love that we honour on this holy day. What strikes us about St John’s vision of the cross is its sheer generosity. Its scope is nothing less than global. “Other sheep I have that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Who are these other sheep? Our companion Christians from other traditions? That gives us a ecumenical vision of a church brought back into union through the shepherd’s tender care. Jesus prayed that we might all be one. 
But we should think in even larger ways, I believe. When Jesus says of his death that “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself”, it is all humanity that is at least potentially in his mind. So here. As the Good Shepherd exercises his rule of love and peace, it has a benign effect on all who feel after God, all who long to find happiness and contentment – which, at some time or other, surely means the entire human family, each of us. So the cross has the whole of humanity in its sights, because God’s love is offered without limit. The only constraints we put on it are of our own making. The shepherd’s arms extended wide on the cross are an invitation to all humankind to recognise love, embrace it, receive it, a summons to find there a hope and a promise that is global in its scope. If ever our world needed to hear good news like this, it is now. 
Can we glimpse today, with the help of St John, that Golgotha really is a place of promise and hope for the world? Because love is its meaning, and Amor vincit omnia, love overcomes all things. “King of love my shepherd is.” And it is this hope and this promise that carry us safely through Good Friday towards Easter. For the power of love does not end with death. Listen again to the words of Jesus. “I have power to lay down my life, and I have power to take it up again.” Our perspective on this day is from the other side of Easter where we already know that it is the risen Jesus who walks among us and knows us, who calls us by our name, whose voice we recognise and whose love is shed abroad in our hearts. He speaks to us of a shepherd’s tender care. He tells us that we can have a good hope because of his word. He inspires us with the prospect that one day humanity will be healed and reconciled because he laid down his life. As the human family gathers before the cross today in all our need and pain and brokenness, we cry out to him: “restore us; call us back to you by name, / And by your life laid down, redeem our shame.” And the good shepherd replies: “You are my friends. Be of good courage: I have overcome the world”.
Here is a final sonnet by the poet Malcolm Guite.

When so much shepherding has gone so wrong,
So many pastors hopelessly astray,
The weak so often preyed on by the strong,
So many bruised and broken on the way,
The very name of shepherd seems besmeared,
The fold and flock themselves are torn in half,
The lambs we left to face all we have feared
Are caught between the wasters and the wolf.

Good Shepherd now your flock has need of you,
One finds the fold and ninety-nine are lost
Out in the darkness and the icy dew,
And no one knows how long this night will last.
Restore us; call us back to you by name,
And by your life laid down, redeem our shame.

(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission.

Holy Week in Chester 6: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Good Friday)

Reading: John 13.36-14.7
“I am the way, the truth and the life.” In the last address, we met Thomas the doubter who would not, could not, believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Here he is again, in the upper room on the night before Good Friday. Jesus has been telling his disciples that he must go ahead of them to his Father’s house, where there are many mansions. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 
Thomas, interjects. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” You can hear the rising anxiety in his voice, the panic of anticipated separation and loss on the part of a man who had once said, “let us go with him, even if we must die with him”. But now that the hour has come, the disciple panics – and who is to say that he wasn’t feeling for them all, giving voice to the fears that the others dared not utter? 
So the theme is the way: the way to the place Jesus will prepare, the way home, the way to the Father. It’s been introduced by another disciple’s anxious question. Simon Peter has asked Jesus, “Lord, where are you going?” And once more, Jesus replies enigmatically, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterwards.” “Why can’t I follow you now?” demands Peter, always impatient. Impetuous too. “I will lay down my life for you.” “Oh yes?” replies Jesus. “I tell you, before cock-crow, you will deny me three times.” Already, it seems, the way is announced as problematic, beset with difficulties and temptations. The coming night will defeat Peter. How can he, how can any of them not stumble on this hard road of loyalty and faithfulness that it will take to reach the destination?
This clear focus on the way suggests to me that we haven’t got the translation of this famous saying quite right. Truth and life are, indeed, among the great themes of the Fourth Gospel. But here, right now, the focus is not on them directly but on the way. I think we have a Greek figure of speech here (called, if you want to know, a hendiadys). The second and third words are adjectival, describing the first and principal epithet which is way. A better version is, “I am the way that is true and living”. And that makes the dialogue clearer. To the puzzled question, “How can we know the way?”, Jesus responds by pointing to himself. Let’s paraphrase. “You ask how to find the way? Let me show you. It is I myself who am the true and living way. Choose this path, walk in and through me, and you will assuredly come to the Father. You have come to know me already. Therefore you will know my Father too, for in me you have seen him and touched him and begun to learn how to love him. And when you reach that point of finding and knowing him, you will realise that it was by me that you made this journey all along – whether you realised it or not”
Like light, the way is one of the great words you find in all the world faiths. I suppose this is because the idea of travelling, making the journey, walking the pilgrimage is such a basic metaphor of human life. You could say that the entire faith of the Hebrew Bible is founded on the image of the way, the journey made by the Israelites when they were led out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, out into the desert, and then over the Jordan into the land of promise. Some of the prophets said that this was the Hebrews’ golden age, when they were a people on pilgrimage, unencumbered by the burdens that go with occupying land, building houses, shrines and institutions, and living the settled life. On that journey, Israel, God’s child, came to know God as their king and be bound to him with an intimacy they would never know again. Maybe Jesus is recalling that era when he spoke about the true and living way which, when we walk it, leads us to God. 
It’s significant that he should use this image as he approaches the cross. We are familiar with the idea of following Jesus on the way of the cross: the via dolorosa in Jerusalem expresses this journey in which pilgrims accompany Jesus in his passion. A progress through the Stations of the Cross imitate this pilgrimage in every Roman Catholic church (and some Anglican ones), not least on Good Friday. To walk with Jesus on the road to Golgotha is to try to empathise with his loneliness and pain, share in his suffering, not because we can add anything to what he is carrying for humanity, but so as to glimpse the infinite cost of self-emptying love. 
This perhaps reflects an aspect of how the wisdom teachers of the Hebrew Bible spoke about the way. To them, life came down to the choices we make about which way we intend to follow in life. There is the way of folly that is enticing and seductive and offers easy pleasures but which ends up diminishing and eventually  undoing human character and virtue, what the psalms and proverbs call destruction. Then there is the way of wisdom that looks hard, narrow, steep, exacting. Yet this is the way that leads to enduring reward and satisfaction. that builds people up so that they realise their true humanity. “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” says the Book of Job. On Good Friday, we feel particularly starkly the force of the choices we must make between falsehood and folly on the one hand, and truth and wisdom on the other. It’s a life or death decision, in the terms the gospels put it.
To many people, the cross looks more like folly than wisdom. Why spend today gazing at the crucified Messiah when we could be out playing football or going shopping? Is this immersion in suffering good for us? That very question is faced head-on in St Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. He plays with what wisdom means, what folly means, and concludes that on the cross, we see both the power of God and the wisdom of God shown forth to the world: power in the powerlessness of the victim, wisdom in the folly of a crucified God. “The foolishness of God is wiser than men” he says, “and the weakness of God is stronger than men”. And that’s precisely the paradox of the way of the cross that we are walking today. By any human criteria, it makes no sense. But turn towards the crucified Lord and follow his way – and the journey of this season brings its own understanding and its reward. For this is not just any path but the true and living way. 
Because on Good Friday, the invitation is held out to find in him the answer to our human quest. This path of wisdom, this path to God is what every seeker after truth is drawn to. Carl Gustav Jung had a saying from classical antiquity placed over the lintel of the door that led his patients to his consulting room, “whether he is recognised or not, God is present here”. When we feel after God and find him, a voice tells us that we are walking this true and living way, this path of wisdom that pilgrims have proved trustworthy and life-changing. Like Israel of old, we experience the journey as asking of us everything we have, for as the hymn says, “love so amazing, so divine / demands my life, my soul my all”. It tries our resolve and tests our resilience. Of all the days in the year, today is the one when we recognise the cost of discipleship.
But we believe that this path we tread, this cross-shaped life we live, will open our eyes to wisdom and truth, and lead us to the Father. Through the cross and into the resurrection, we discover how God’s movement is always from dying to living, from imprisonment to release, from despair to deliverance, from the portal of the grave to the joyous gateway of resurrection and life. On this day we stand before “the wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.” Here, at the cross, the fugitive pieces of our lives are put back together once more, and new worlds open up before us. And if the path is rough and steep, and we wonder if we have the strength to complete the journey, nevertheless we willingly walk it for the sake of the One who will be our true and living way till travelling days are done.
Malcolm Guite’s sonnet on these words.
“We do not know… how can we know the way?”
Courageous master of the awkward question,
You spoke the words the others dared not say
And cut through their evasion and abstraction.
Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.
Because He loved your awkward counter-point
The Word has heard and granted you your wish.
Oh place my hands with yours, help me divine
The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.

(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission. 

Holy Week in Chester 5: “I am the True Vine” (Good Friday)

Reading: John 15.1-11
This Holy Week we’ve been exploring the I AM sayings in St John’s Gospel: “I am the door”, “I am the resurrection and the life”, “I am the light of the world”, and last night, at the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, “I am the bread of life”. 
Today I want to take the three sayings that remain and reflect with you these pictures, these metaphors help us approach the cross of Jesus on this solemn day. But at the outset I want to remind us of one of the insights we have been learning from St John that makes a real difference to how we observe this day. It’s that as St John sees it, Good Friday and Easter belong together, are of a single piece. Throughout the forty days of Lent we have been preparing for this celebration of the Lord’s Passover, the festival that marks how we have passed from death to life. It’s not that today is for mourning a terrible disaster while Easter is the happy ending. St John would say that in Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, God is glorified because his Son has finished his work and is going to the Father. 
So I invite you, in this first part of our Three Hour observance, to join me in meditating on this great mystery that lies at the heart of Christian faith, We shall be reflecting on Jesus’ words “I am the true vine”, “I am the way, the truth and the life” and “I am the good shepherd”. Finally, during the liturgy of the day, when the gospel reading records Jesus last word from the cross, “It is accomplished”, I  shall draw together these seven I AM sayings by one that is found in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end”. 
********
“I am the true vine.” We are back in the upper room at the last supper. It is the night of betrayal. Ahead lies Golgotha and the cross. Judas has already gone out into the night to do his work. And yet, this is a beautiful feast, this intimate gathering of Jesus with his disciples whom he now calls friends. The talk has been all about service after the example of Jesus who has washed their feet, about loving one another as he has loved them, about the peace he will bequeath to them when he has gone away. And then Jesus introduces this new image. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.” 
I said it’s a new image. It isn’t, really. We are meant to recall how the Hebrew Bible plays with the theme of the vine. The vineyard was a familiar picture of God’s people. Isaiah tells a parable about a vineyard that should have produced a rich harvest, but instead proffered only shrivelled up “wild grapes” good neither for man nor beast. What had the owner not done to make sure the beloved vineyard flourished? But it proved to be fit only for destruction. “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel” says the prophet. One of the psalms we sing in Passiontide takes up the picture of the vineyard in trouble. “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it…Why then have you broken down its walls? Turn again, O God of hosts, look down from heaven and have regard for this vine that your right hand has planted.” 
So when Jesus speaks of himself as the vine, he is drawing on a long history of disappointment and failure. But what a contrast he brings! Where once, the vine was a symbol of judgment, on the lips of Jesus it’s become a sign of life and love, promise and renewal. As the true vine, he fulfils all that was expected of God’s vineyard; where once, the people failed their God (a powerful theme in St John’s Gospel), Jesus is the obedient Son who perfectly fulfils the vocation God has laid on him. It’s true that the vine-grower must act decisively, harshly even, if branches of the vine prove unproductive. But that is only so that it may bear more fruit. And that happens as we “abide” in him, says Jesus, live in the closest possible relationship with him, hide ourselves in him if you like. We are to abide in his love as intimately as he himself abides in the Father’s love. In that way we become organically joined to his life among us, just as the branches draw their life and fruitfulness from the root and stem and sap of the vine. We draw the very life of God into ourselves at the same time as we ourselves are taken into the heart of his divine life.
Why am I telling you all this on Good Friday? Because of how the symbolism of wine poured out and blood shed runs right through the Fourth Gospel. The vine and the branches take us straight back to where Jesus began his public ministry and performed his first sign. At Cana of Galilee, he was a guest at a wedding, and turned water into wine. It was there, says St John, that he “revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him”. Jesus goes on say in the passage about the Bread of Life, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink”. To “abide” in him, to receive into ourselves his flesh and blood is to become one with the crucified and risen Lord, just as the vine and the branches are one organism. 
This is why the end of John’s passion story makes so much of what happened when the soldier pierced the side of the crucified Jesus. “At once, blood and water came out. He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.” The Christian spiritual tradition sees a universe of meaning in those words. It sees in them how the salvation of the world was achieved at the cross, our race reconciled to God because of the blood and water that flowed out to embrace every human child. Water of baptism, blood of communion, together bearing witness that in Jesus, God so loved the world. “Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide, / wash me with water flowing from thy side” says the passion hymn based on the prayer Anima Christi. It goes on: “Deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me, / so shall I never, never part from thee’. That’s what it means to “abide” in Christ and find in his cross the source of all that it means to be truly alive. In one of his poems, “The Agonie”, George Herbert concludes a reflection on the cross with a marvellous couple of lines: “Love is that liquor sweet, and most divine / Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine”. There’s nothing we can add.
Except this, perhaps. Today sets before us what our next hymn is right to call “the wondrous cross”. We come to Golgotha to contemplate what it means to respond as best we may to this emblem of the love that loves to the end. The blood that is shed there is our invitation to come back to Christ the true Vine, to find in him our forgiveness and salvation, our lives healed and mended, reconciliation promised for all the world. We abide in his wounded side because our lives depend on him, for he is our life and love. 
But that is more than the truth of Good Friday alone. It’s the truth of Easter too. When in Eastertide, Jesus came to Thomas the doubter and invited him to place his hand in his wounded side, it was to affirm that abiding in him is how people of faith are to be, who believe that he is risen from the dead and who entrust their lives to that truth. On the other side of Easter, it’s the risen Christ we hear promising us, reassuring us that “I am the true vine”. In him we see God’s love summoning us, beckoning to us to find the place of safety and sanctuary where we can “abide” forever in him, find in him the eternal life he promises throughout St John’s Gospel. As we abide in the cross and resurrection, we see the fulness of God’s glory that tells us that all along, “love was his meaning”, “such rich love as makes the poor heart glad”.
Seen this way, Good Friday calls us back from a religion of duty to a living faith in which we discover how our lives are hidden with the Christ in God. This is what the risen Christ the true Vine wants of us and all who follow him: that we bring to the cross our hunger and our thirst, our longing for contentment and happiness, our wish that if only life could begin again. Golgotha proclaims that this is precisely what is ours in this Love laid down, this water and blood that flowed from the side of this life-giving Vine of God. We have only to reach out, drink from the cup that is held before us, and be thankful.
A sonnet by Malcolm Guite once more.

How might it feel to be part of the vine?
Not just to see the vineyard from afar
Or even pluck the clusters, press the wine,
But to be grafted in, to feel the stir
Of inward sap that rises from our root,
Himself deep planted in the ground of Love,
To feel a leaf unfold a tender shoot,
As tendrils curled unfurl, as branches give
A little to the swelling of the grape,
In gradual perfection, round and full,
To bear within oneself the joy and hope
Of God’s good vintage, till it’s ripe and whole.
What might it mean to bide and to abide
In such rich love as makes the poor heart glad.

(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Holy Week in Chester 4: “I am the Bread of Life” (on Maundy Thursday)

Reading: John 6.32-40
In these Holy Week addresses we are looking at Jesus’ I AM sayings in St John: I am the Door, I am the Resurrection and the Life, I am the Light of the World. On Maundy Thursday, we come to “I am the Bread of Life”. The words are from St John’s story of the feeding of the crowd with the five barley loaves and two fish from a young boy’s basket. “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world’.” Just as Jesus the bread of life feeds the crowd, “as much as they wanted”, so tonight, Maundy Thursday, bread is our focus we celebrate this sacrament, this supper of the Lord that feeds the faithful until time shall end. 
St John’s account of the last supper focuses on how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and taught them about service and self-giving love. He doesn’t give us Jesus’ blessing over the bread and wine and the command to “do this in memory of me”. Instead, the author gives us the feeding of the five thousand and the teaching that follows it. Jesus explains how those material loaves that satisfied the people’s hunger represent “the bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives light to the world”. He tells them not to become enslaved to the sign itself, but to focus on what it points to. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life which the Son of Man will give you.” “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” That’s St John’s way of reframing the words of the institution narrative in the eucharistic prayer: this is my body, this is my blood
When Jesus fed the crowd, it reminded them of how God had fed the Hebrews in the desert. “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’”. One of the Psalms recalls the Hebrews complaining, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Yet he commanded the skies above and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. Mortals ate the bread of angels; he sent them food in abundance.” So St John imagines Jesus as a new Moses responding to the people’s need and giving them the food they craved. “I am the Bread of Life” – I am to you what Yahweh was to your ancestors in the desert. I give you what you ask for. Even if you do not know what to do with the truth that comes with this gift, for you have not yet learned how to recognise the Giver, not yet recognised that the bread with which I nourish you is nothing less than “God’s presence and his very self, and essence all divine”.
St John tells us that the feeding of the crowd took place near Passover time. The blessing and breaking of bread played a central part in the Passover meal, as did the sharing of wine. So when Jesus feeds the five thousand, he is symbolically reaching back to that Passover story of deliverance and redemption. Which is why he speaks repeatedly about God raising the dead and giving them eternal life, no longer coming under judgment but passing over “from death to life”. 
Maundy Thursday is inextricably linked in the calendar to the season of the Jewish Passover. These three days of the Triduum, Maundy Thursday evening to the Vigil eucharist when we greet Easter only makes sense if we grasp how the Passover underlies them and gives them meaning. For this journey from death to resurrection has its origins in that story our Jewish brothers and sisters recount every spring time, how an enslaved people were redeemed, given back their lives, were brought out into freedom as new possibilities opened up before them. 
All these layers of story and association are embedded in those simple words “I am the bread of life”, or as I think it’s better translated, “I am the living bread”. To eat of that bread is to be taken directly to the where Jesus’ body is broken on the cross, laid down for his friends, for us here tonight, and for all humanity. Tomorrow will take us to the place of the skull where we shall gaze once again on the spectacle of sacrificial love. But throughout the Passion, whether it’s tonight in the upper room or tomorrow at Golgotha, resurrection is always in view. “This is the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” Which is why this meal is not only a last supper but a first. Even though it is overshadowed by the cross, it nevertheless looks forward to the banquet of God’s kingdom when the whole creation, liberated from bondage and pain, will feast before God in glad celebration. 
We have the symbol, but not yet the reality it points to. In a thousand different places of famine or warfare, the hungry still cry out for their food, just as the Hebrews did. “Where to get bread?” Will God, can God spread a table in these wildernesses? The answer this eucharist offers is, yes he can, and he will, but it is we human beings who must be the agents of his tender mercy. “Give us this bread always!” is the plea from that day to this. Our paschal celebrations that begin tonight only have integrity if we hear their cry. “Bread for myself is a material question” said Nikolai Berdyaev; “bread for my neighbour is a spiritual question.” The word Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum, a command. The command is that we love one another. At this last supper with its washing of feet, the risen Jesus is among us as one who serves. We eat and drink together, and he calls us his friends. But not without asking us what it must mean for us to be friends to those who still cry out for daily bread. 
Malcolm Guite puts it like this.
Where to get bread? An ever-pressing question
That trembles on the lips of anxious mothers,
Bread for their families, bread for all these others;
A whole world on the margin of exhaustion.
And where that hunger has been satisfied
Where to get bread? The question still returns
In our abundance something starves and yearns
We crave fulfilment, crave and are denied.
And then comes One who speaks into our needs
Who opens out the secret hopes we cherish
Whose presence calls our hidden hearts to flourish
Whose words unfold in us like living seeds
Come to me, broken, hungry, incomplete,
I Am the Bread of Life, break Me and eat.

(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Holy Week in Chester 3: “I am the Light of the World”

Reading: John 9.1-12
In our Holy Week journey through the I AM sayings of St John’s Gospel, we have looked at the Door, and at the Resurrection and the Life. Tonight, we come to “I am the Light of the World”. 
Light is a universal word we find in all the world’s religions. And like last night’s life, light is one of the great words of St John. The two are linked together in the very first paragraph of the gospel that we read at Christmas time, “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”. That passage in turn looks back to the creation story in the Book of Genesis where the first words God speaks are “Let there be light!”  “And there was light” the text says, “and God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. The light he called Day, and the darkness Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
In Genesis, light and darkness, day and night aren’t yet distinguished by moral or spiritual values. Light is to see by, and the daily rhythm of light and darkness is given in order to structure time. But in St John it is very different. Night time and darkness are dangerous and risky. When Judas left the upper room to hand Jesus over to the authorities, he “went out”, says John, “and it was night” – an observation left hanging in the air as its own commentary on the darkness that had overtaken the betrayer’s soul. “And this is the judgment” says Jesus earlier, “That the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Or as he says on the very threshold of Holy Week, “the light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light so that you may become children of light.”
All of which heightens the significance of Jesus’ saying, “I am the light of the world.” He has already spoken these words in the previous chapter and added: “whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life”. But now, Jesus embeds those same words in the important story of the healing of the man who was born blind. Like the raising of Lazarus last night, this sign is another disclosure of God’s activity in the world, his “works” as John calls them. “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 
But light has its different aspects. In St John, the Light of the World enables us to see in things in new ways. C. S. Lewis famously said that he believed that the sun had risen, not because he gazed directly at it but because by its light he could see the world, other people and himself. Illumination is a key stage in the classic spiritual path. Not for nothing did our eighteenth-century forebears speak about enlightenment as an event (God-given, some said) in the journey of scientific method and intellectual self-awareness. But if you were the poet William Blake, you would describe looking into the sun as gazing at angels. So you did that with great care, knowing how risky it is to expose yourself to such a fierce, unforgiving light. Indeed, one of the Psalms talks about God wrapping himself in light as in a garment, an idea taken up in the hymn Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes. ’Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee it goes, verses rich in theological wisdom. The paradox is that light conceals as much as it reveals. Moses prayed, “Lord, show me your glory”, but is warned to protect himself in the cleft of the rock because if he so much as glimpses Divinity as he really is, it will kill him. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality” says T.S. Eliot, least of all when that reality is God. 
St John plays with some of these themes in the course of his gospel. In particular, he takes us back to Moses in the prologue we keep returning to. Where Moses had asked to behold God’s glory but had needed to be shielded from experiencing its fulness, John tells us that in the Word made flesh who lived among us, “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”. His claim is as high as it could possibly be. And to underline it, as he embarks on telling the story of Jesus’ works among humankind, the great “signs” he performs, John says that he “revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him”. 
And it is not long before Jesus begins to speak of the destiny that awaits him, his own suffering and death. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” he says; and later, in his prayer on the very threshold of his passion, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do”. We know where it is that Jesus finishes his work, for he tells us so in his last word from the cross: “It is accomplished”. If you had asked St John, where do we see God’s glory most clearly, where do we see his light shining most steadily, he would answer, at Golgotha, at the cross where love’s work is completed, where the crucified Lord lays down his life for his friends, where the Son of Man is enthroned as the king who is lifted up so that he may draw all people to himself. In the Fourth Gospel, the cross, the last and greatest sign of glory, represents not defeat but God’s work achieved, completed, victorious.
It’s worth lingering on this point about the Johannine cross. It seems perverse to use words like light and glory of that darkest and cruellest of places, Golgotha, the “skull”. But that paradox, seeing glory in a place of ignominy and shame, light in the midst of darkness and desolation, is precisely John’s point. “There is in God a deep and dazzling darkness” says one mystical poet. It’s not far from St Paul’s language about seeing God’s wisdom in the folly of the cross, his power in its weakness. “It is accomplished” proclaims Jesus in the last word from the cross in St John. Throughout the gospel, he emphasises how Jesus has come into the world to do the work of God and complete it, or as he says of Jesus in the upper room, to love to the very end. So tetelestai, “it is finished”, is the most important word in the Passion narrative. 
On Good Friday, Bach’s St John Passion will be performed in the Cathedral. I wonder how Bach’s setting of that last word will be sung by the bass who takes the part of Christus. It’s a falling line in Bach’s music, Es ist vollbracht.  I hope it will be with firmness and confidence, not resignation and defeat. I have a theory that just as the last words from the cross in the other gospels are quotations from the Psalms, John’s “it is finished” refers to the conclusion of the Passion Psalm 22. Matthew and Mark tell how the dying Jesus quotes the first line, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Could it be that St John alludes to the triumphant last line of that Psalm that moves from utter despair to gratitude and praise: “future generations will proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it”. He has performed it. All is done. Tetelestai. That’s glory.
And because it is done, the cross inevitably points beyond itself to the new day that begins at Easter. As we saw last night in the story of the raising of Lazarus, throughout John’s gospel, resurrection seems to be enfolded into the passion and crucifixion in a single movement that the author describes as Jesus’ “going to the Father”. When the Easter story begins and Mary goes to the tomb, it is still dark. I think it’s meant to point up the contrast between what she and the disciples don’t yet know, can’t yet grasp about the empty tomb, and what the emerging light of day will reveal to be the dawn of a new glory, that Jesus is risen and is present to his people until he returns to his Father. 
So the Light of the World gives sight not only to the man born blind, but to the whole of creation, for “the true light which enlightens everyone was coming into the world”. For St John, the incarnation, the signs, the crucifixion, the resurrection are like the seamless robe for which the soldiers cast lots in his passion story. They all disclose the glory that is revealed as the Light of the world that he loves, says John, “to the end”. This Holy Week we celebrate the great light that shines into the shadowy places of life, brings warmth and vitality to a cold dark world, and shows us the way back to him so that we can learn to be God’s people once again.
Here is how Malcolm Guite puts it in his sonnet on the Light of the World.
I see your world in light that shines behind me,
Lit by a sun whose rays I cannot see,
The smallest gleam of light still seems to find me
Or find the child who’s hiding deep inside me.
I see your light reflected in the water,
Or kindled suddenly in someone’s eyes,
It shimmers through the living leaves of summer,
Or spills from silver veins in leaden skies,
It gathers in the candles at our vespers
It concentrates in tiny drops of dew
At times it sings for joy, at times it whispers,
But all the time it calls me back to you.
I follow you upstream through this dark night
My saviour, source, and spring, my life and light.
(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission 

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Holy Week in Chester 2: “I am the Resurrection and the Life”

Reading: John 11.17-27
This Holy Week, we are studying the great I AM sayings of St John’s Gospel. Last night we began with “I am the Door” in chapter 10. That saying is so closely associated with “I am the Good Shepherd” that you might expect us to come to it next. However, I want to save that for Good Friday for reasons that will make sense then. This evening we are going to move into the next chapter of the gospel and “I am the Resurrection and the Life”.
The raising of Jesus’ friend Lazarus in Chapter 11 of St John is a kind of preamble to the passion narrative. Already, Passover is drawing near. At the end of the chapter, the talk about arresting Jesus and putting him to death suddenly becomes more serious. “It is better for you to have one man to die for the people” says wily Caiaphas “than to have the whole nation destroyed”. In those days as in ours, leaders know all about “expediency”, never mind who suffers on its altar. Someone who goes around proclaiming himself to be God’s Son and bringing a dead man back to life is bound to subvert the good order of a well-regulated Roman province. The threat is, in the words of the authorities, that “the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” Jesus is already regarded as dangerous. The raising of Lazarus at Bethany raises the stakes considerably. No-one knows this better than him.
What St John sees in this beautiful story of a death and resurrection is a foreshadowing of the imminent events of Holy Week and Easter. It’s an analogy, a visual aid, if you like, of what will shortly come to pass. The pre-echoes of the resurrection story are unmistakeable: the woman weeping, the question “where have you laid him?”, the rolling away of the stone from the tomb, the details about the grave clothes. Why does John need to tell the story at all, so close to Jesus’ own passion and resurrection? Maybe it’s to allow some of the deeper meanings to emerge as a kind of commentary, so that when we come to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, that narrative can speak for itself without too much elaboration or interpolation. I’m thinking of when Jesus speaks about seeing in this sign the glory of God, and how he thanks his Father for having heard him so that everyone “may believe that you sent me”. And of course the saying we remember best of all from his dialogue with Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life”. 
We must have heard it at every Church of England funeral we’ve ever attended, the first of the sentences that are read as the coffin is processed into church. In the church service, I suppose we inevitably hear it in the way Martha replies to Jesus’s questions. To “your brother will rise again” Martha replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”. And this matters to us who instinctively want to keep death at bay, protest against its cruel extinction of all that it means to be alive. When we hear the words of committal at the end of the funeral rite, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, when we throw soil on to the coffin of a loved one or imagine it consigned to fire at the crematorium, we are faced with the brutality of death. We do not, most of us, want to “go gently into that good night”, at least not when we feel glad and grateful to be alive. Our faith is stretched on these occasions that confront us with our own mortality. The confidence of affirming “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead” isn’t always echoed in our own hearts.
What do those words mean to us? I can only say what they mean for me. I hear them in the light of the passage we are looking at tonight. It seems to me that Jesus is not asking us to base our faith on what will happen to the dead at the end of time, what will happen to me. Rather, the focus is on Jesus’ own resurrection, and its consequences for all of us in the present, here and now. The key is in the words believe and live. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus did not say only, “I am the resurrection” (which is what Martha hears) but “I am the living resurrection, the resurrection and the life. This is about life now, God’s life that transforms us, irradiates even our darkest times with life and love. We need to recall, even in Holy Week, the Christmas gospel, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people”. And in last night’s passage about the gate, “I have come that they may have life, life in all its fulness”. And in the best-known verse in the Bible, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” That means the abundant gift of God in our present experience. This is the sense in which believers “will never die”, for this eternal life transcends the worst that even physical death with all its terrors can do to mortals like Mary, Martha and Lazarus, like us. Death, where is your sting? Death, where is your victory?
This is what Jesus wants Martha to understand. But in St John, words by themselves aren’t enough. A sign is needed, the raising of Lazarus from the grave. I said that it’s a metaphor, like the feeding of the crowd or the healing of the blind man. What happened then, what John bears witness to has a significance infinitely greater than the event itself. For what it symbolises is nothing less than that death will no longer hold power over us, for Jesus has overcome it. In him, a new world is becoming a reality by virtue of his own death and resurrection; there is a new humanity already risen from the death our condition had brought upon us. And all this, I think, is what we are meant to draw from the resurrection and the life text when we hear it at a funeral. We do affirm it for the dead, of course, because we believe that God does not stop loving human beings when they die. But I think we affirm it even more for ourselves, who for now are still the living, and who, for as long as we live, will go on hoping and yearning and praying to be born anew as the children of God’s reign of grace and truth.
In these Holy Week addresses, I want to remind us that at its heart, Lent is the season when we prepare for the paschal celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. For centuries, we have tended to separate Passiontide from Easter, as if the empty tomb were somehow the “happy ending” of the story of suffering and death. I think St John would point us back to the raising of Lazarus and remind us that death and resurrection – Jesus’s dying and living, our dying and living - belong together in the story of that first Holy Week and in the experience of believers. 
When we renew our baptism vows as part of the Easter liturgy, we are taken right back into the memory of passion and suffering, and enact ritually what St Paul meant when he spoke of being “crucified with Christ” and being “buried with Christ in baptism, so that we might rise to newness of life”. The Easter liturgy is the most powerful event of this Great Week precisely because it celebrates Jesus’ passion and resurrection, not simply as an event in the past but in its present reality, its extraordinary power to gather us up in the God-given movement from death to eternal life. As the cycle of the seasons brings us back once more to Holy Week, it reinforces our sense that this is where we experience being human in the most profoundly life-changing way. This is where we begin to understand ourselves as those whose lives are forever enfolded in the all-encompassing love of God.
For if Christianity is not about transformation, if it doesn’t touch our lives and make a difference when we most need to be ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, why are we here tonight at all? The raising of Lazarus is St John’s parable of what it means to cross the chasm from death to life in every dimension of human living. The whole gospel of Holy Week and Easter is here in this story. 
Here is Malcolm Guite’s sonnet on this saying.
How can you be the final resurrection?
That resurrection hasn’t happened yet.
Our broken world is still bent on destruction,
No sun can rise before that sun has set.
Our faith looks back to father Abraham
And toward to the one who is to come
How can you speak as though he knew your name?
How can you say: before he was I am?
Begin in me and I will read your riddle
And teach you truths my Spirit will defend
I am the End who meets you in the middle,
The new Beginning hidden in the End.
I am the victory, the end of strife
I am the resurrection and the life.

(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission.

Holy Week in Chester 1: “I am the Door”

Reading: John 10.1-10.

This Holy Week, I want to explore with you the famous I AM sayings in St John’s Gospel. They are among the most characteristic utterances of the Gospel, associated as they are with the words and signs that, St John says, proclaim Jesus as the incarnate Word, the Son whom God sent among us to bring about the salvation of the world. So he feeds the hungry crowd and speaks of himself as the Bread of Life; he heals the man born blind and announces that he is the Light of the World; he raises Lazarus from the grave and tells the onlookers that he is the Resurrection and the Life. 
The words I AM are a golden thread that runs through this Fourth Gospel. To us they sound simple enough. But the way they are highlighted by St John tells us that to his ear, tuned to every nuance of the Hebrew Bible, they carry deep significance. They originate in the deepest layers of the Old Testament. In a defining narrative in Exodus, God reveals to Moses his sacred and mysterious name YHWH. It’s derived from the verb to be. So when Jesus speaks the emphatic ego eimi, I AM, he is consciously recalling that holy name, and associating himself with it as if to say, here is the Eternal Word of God who has come among you to reveal the Father’s glory, the fulness of his light, life and love. The legacy in St John is these sayings that are among the most significant and best-loved ways we have for speaking about Jesus. How could we now think about him other than as the Good Shepherd, as the Way, the Truth and the Life, as the Bread of Life or as the True Vine? 
What has this got to do with Holy Week? you ask. My answer is that the whole of St John, from the prologue we read at Christmas to the concluding stories of the appearances of the risen Jesus is pointing to the events of this great week. For John, this week’s paschal celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus is the essence of his good news. Nearly half of the gospel concerns the final week of Jesus’ life – and what came next. And even in the earlier chapters of St John, what is sometimes called the Book of Signs, it’s clear that the author is constantly anticipating – foreshadowing – the cross and resurrection. 
In the I AM sayings, the evangelist offers us a series of unforgettable images that speak about God, his coming among us in Jesus and what these might mean not only for us who follow him, but for the whole cosmos, our world, his world, the whole human family. They urge us to look beneath the surface of familiar texts into the larger ocean of meaning that imagery, symbol and metaphor open up to us. As poetry comes into things, at the end of each address I shall read a poem by Malcolm Guite, an Anglican priest and poet, who has composed sonnets on all of the I AM sayings. Poetry can awaken our imaginations in ways that cold prose can’t always achieve. And that is what I hope these addresses may help to do – awaken our spiritual imaginations as we walk the way of the cross and resurrection, and celebrate again love’s work during these days of awe.
...........
In this first address, this gateway to Holy Week, it seems apt to take Jesus’ saying in the tenth chapter of St John, “I am the door”, or as the modern version has it, “the gate”. In this section of the gospel, Jesus introduces a new idea, that of the sheepfold. The gate is introduced first, closely followed by the shepherd. Unlike the thief and the bandit, the shepherd does not climb over the wall or enter secretively by some other hidden means, but comes and goes through the open gate, followed by the sheep who know his voice. “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” So not only is this saying closely linked to the Good Shepherd whom we shall come to on Good Friday, but also to another saying, “I am the way, the truth and the life”, or as it’s better translated, “the true and living way” that leads to salvation. 
We need to picture an ancient near-eastern sheepfold to catch the force of this image. It would look familiar to a shepherd on the high fells of Northumberland where I come from: a space enclosed by a round drystone wall high enough to keep out not only human predators but wild animals in search of prey. On the sheltered side there would be a gap in the wall for the sheep to go in and out. It would be narrow enough for a man to lie across it, thus closing the circle and protecting the sheep. This is likely to be what Jesus means when he speaks about himself as the gate – both the opening itself and the deeply symbolic action of lying down to safeguard the flock, or as he will go on to say, laying down his life for the sheep.
The thing about a door is that it marks a threshold, defines the spaces that are either “outside” or “in”. It looks both ways, like the Roman month of January, the door of the year that was pictured as a double face that looked backwards to the old year and forwards to the new. A threshold is a limen, from which we get the world liminal. It implies a crossing over into a different space. Very often we are one person on this side of a threshold, and someone else on the other. For instance, our front door marks the transition from the public and visible world to the personal and intimate environment of our own homes. The door of this cathedral symbolises the transition from what we call “secular” space to the sacred. The rites of passage at birth, marriage and death are our familiar examples of liminality, but it’s everywhere.
So what is the threshold Jesus alludes to when he speaks of himself as the door or the gate? It’s the passage to safety, to a space we can call home where we can be unafraid and flourish and find life in all its fulness. A space to be safe in, to grow into and inhabit is not far from what the Hebrew scriptures mean by salvation. At this paschal season, we tell the story of how the Hebrews left their Egyptian slavery behind and undertook their journey across the wilderness towards the land that had been promised them. They were not to know that it would be forty years before they crossed the Jordan and entered Canaan. More than a generation in that liminal state of being between places and between times, one life behind them and another life before them. You could picture the Jordan as a threshold, a gateway, a door to a new and at first utterly strange way of life as a settled people. I don’t think it’s over-speculative to wonder whether this isn’t part of the background to Jesus’ saying “I am the gate of the sheep”, when we remind ourselves how the people of Israel were likened to a flock whose shepherd was none other than the Lord himself. The promise of a land, a home to call their own, was to the wandering tribes their sheepfold, their safety, their salvation. 
In Northumberland, shepherds talk about sheep being “hefted” to the hill where they were born. It’s the place they belong to, that gives them their identity, that part of the landscape from which they will never willingly stray. So the sheepfold, and the gate through which the sheep go “in and out to find pasture” is, I think, a far richer image than we might think. For safety, in the way I’ve been speaking about it, is much more than merely the absence of need or hunger or pain. It means knowing the place we call home, knowing where we belong and where our hearts are hefted. rediscovering the lost domain we spend our lives longing for, that Eden from which we were banished, that paradise garden where our humanity is given back to us again. It’s the destiny for which God made us. “I came that they might have life, and have it in all abundance.”
And if you asked St John where he saw this door opened wide and the invitation given to cross over that threshold to abundant life, I think he would not hesitate to say, at Golgotha, at the cross where the world’s salvation is achieved and God’s work accomplished. And beyond it, at the place where the stone was rolled away, and a door opened on to an empty tomb, and a new day dawned, and the kingdom of heaven was opened to all believers. For as we travel through the events of Holy Week, as we go with Jesus to the cross, Easter is the goal that lies ahead, for which we have prepared all though Lent with eager longing. “Behold, I have set before you an open door which no-one is able to shut” says the risen Lord in the Book of Revelation. And now, in Holy Week, we are nearly there, close to the portal that’s the culmination of our great journey. The doorway through which God beckons us stands open. Through it we see our promised land where we know we are hefted and will always belong, that place which is to all pilgrims happiness and home. 
Here is a sonnet by Malcolm Guite on Jesus as the Door. 
Not one that’s gently hinged or deftly hung,
Not like the ones you planed at Joseph’s place,
Not like the well-oiled openings that swung
So easily for Pilate’s practised pace,
Not like the ones that closed in Mary’s face
From house to house in brimming Bethlehem,
Not like the one that no man may assail,
The dreadful curtain, The forbidding veil
That waits your breaking in Jerusalem.

Not one you made but one you have become:
Load-bearing, balancing, a weighted beam
To bridge the gap, to bring us within reach
Of your high pasture. Calling us by name,
You lay your body down across the breach,
Yourself the door that opens into home.


(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission.