Easter 4A Sermon (2011)

4th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 10:1-10;
Acts 2:42-47

JESUS THE GATE — ‘WE’VE GOT TO GO THROUGH IT’

 [The beginning portion of this sermon was the Children’s Message at our family service.]

“Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Oh, no! We’ve got to go through it.”

Do you recognize that refrain from reading to your children or grandchildren? It’s from We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen. Each portion of a family’s adventure begins with:

We’re going on a bear hunt.
We’re going to catch a big one.
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.

Then, the family encounters different obstacles in nature and must find their way through to continue their hunt. The family meets and describes each location using sensory descriptions such as; long, wavy grass; a deep, cold river; thick, oozy mud; a big, dark forest; a swirling whirling snowstorm; and a narrow, gloomy cave. In each instance the children decide,

“Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Oh, no! We’ve got to go through it.”

In John’s Gospel, the way for Jesus to the glory of God’s life-giving power is through his self-giving death on the cross. He can’t go over it, or under it, or around it. He’s got to go through it.

What about us sheep? Can we follow? Or is it that, at the difficult times in our lives, we find Jesus, the Good Shepherd, there leading us, so that we can make it through? Not over, or under, or around, but through.

Not only that. In this passage, Jesus doesn’t yet identify himself as the Good Shepherd, but instead as the Gate that the sheep go through. And he contrasts those who are shepherds to the sheep and those who are thieves and robbers. There are those in life who take away from other peoples lives, and there are those who add to other peoples lives. Those shepherds, those who add to other people’s lives, go through the gate of Christ.

I have in my mind and heart this week, for example, children who are abused. Those who abuse them are thieves and robbers, taking away from a child’s life — and not just at that moment. No, they can take away from the richness of that child’s life for a long, long time. Because when a child suffers abuse, they don’t have the personal and spiritual resources to deal with it, so the parts of themselves become split off from each other. Their emotional and rational minds get split so that they are either ‘in their heads,’ cut off from feeling, or they are drowning, overwhelmed, by their emotions and can’t reach understanding. Or maybe they just numb themselves through addiction.

It’s generally only later in life that they find a Good Shepherd — a therapist, a spiritual director, a friend who has been through the same thing and found healing. The Good Shepherd can help them through the terrible feelings of being abused and help them into a wiser mind of understanding and healing. The way to healing can’t take shortcuts over or around those experiences of loss. The only way to healing is through them. And because Jesus went that way through the cross to healing and new life, he is the Gate.

I finish with a story:1

It was seven o’clock on a Sunday morning. The phone rang. The woman’s voice on the other end was panicky. “Tom died,” she said. “How am I going to get through?”

She was a woman whom the man on the other end of the phone had been seeing for spiritual direction or, depending on how you define it, pastoral counseling. She had cancer and it had metastasized to the bone. She was to undergo a bone marrow transplant in about two weeks. He knew her, but he did not know who Tom was. Was Tom her husband, brother, friend?

“Tom?” He asked.

“My doctor, Tom,” she said, with urgency and exasperation. “He was killed in a boating accident on Lake Michigan yesterday. How am I ever going to get through? I have to see you.”

A half hour later she walked in and sat in her usual chair. She went through what she knew of Tom’s death, punctuating it every so often with, “How am I going to get through?” He was not quite sure what she meant by that. Did she mean her own illness? Did she mean the upcoming bone marrow transplant? Did she mean that this loss, given everything else, would break her courage and resolve? He decided not to pursue it.

He said, “Do you want to try a text?” She nodded.

They had done texts before. He had taken her through a psalm, the fear of persecution texts in Matthew, and a few others. He would run through a text and together they would try to wrestle it into a blessing. She told him that she liked this because it creatively engaged her and got her to see things differently.

So he tried to center himself, and he began to talk.

“When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Mark 15:33). And he told her how darkness can come upon the earth when you least expect it, in the middle of the day.

“At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” (Mark 15:34). And he told her how in this darkness we can cry out the absence of God, even as we assume the presence of God, and both can be held in the same mind, knowing and not knowing together. Darkness and light are pairs. The three o’clock cry of Jesus participates in both.

“When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down” (Mark 15:35-36). And he told her how not all people are capable of living with both darkness and light. They can only hope for miraculous relief, and so they stay alive and keep others alive in the hope of a sky rescue from human exceptions like Elijah, who in legend was taken into heaven on a chariot and did not die.

“Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last” (Mark 15:37). And he told her how this one who shows us our true potential enters into diminishment with a loud voice, engaging the darkness and not shrinking from it. Jesus shows us not a way out but a way through, not an escape but an engagement.

That is what he told her. It took three to four minutes. During the telling, she never looked at him once. She had her head in her hands. After a good minute of silence, she looked up and said, “I’m going to the wake and funeral service.”

“Good,” he said. So that was it, he thought. That’s what she meant, “How am I ever going to get through it?” She was not going to get through the wake and funeral of her doctor.

Then the biblical text that filled her mind for a moment faded, and the old tapes returned. She rehearsed and shared with her spiritual director all her feelings of vulnerability, loss, and helplessness. She pined for a sky rescue, but Elijah had sunk beneath the waves of Lake Michigan. Then suddenly her “loud voice” emerged, and, as it often does, it expressed itself as a small conquest.

“I don’t care if I break down. I’m going to the funeral,” she said.

“Good,” He said.

She got up to go. As she walked out the door, she turned. “I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you. Calling and barging in at this hour,” she shook her head in a “How could I?” gesture. “I apologize,” she said.

He wanted to tell her there was no inconvenience, only feast. He wanted to tell her that he would rather be here than any place on earth. He wanted to tell her that when the hardened terrors of her mind relented and the subtle Spirit emerged with its meek unyielding strength, he shared her aliveness. He wanted to tell her that in the world of the Spirit, giving and receiving turn mutual and the “sower and reaper may rejoice together” (John 4:36).

But he said, “No problem. I’m an early riser. I was up anyway.”

As for his role as teacher, he felt neither pride nor usefulness. Instead, he was humbled in a way that was far more thrilling than any moment of inflated ego. On reflection, he became convinced that he had entered into her life through the gate of Christ. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, May 15, 2011

1. The remainder of this sermon is an edited version of a story from John Shea’s The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: On Earth as It Is in Heaven – Year A, the essay for Easter 4, pp. 178-81.

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