Tuesday, 27 March 2018

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.
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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.

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