04/30/2023 ~ Fourth Sunday of Easter ~ *Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10 ~ VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/823062269
“I am the gate. / Whoever enters through me will be safe— / you will go in and go out and find pasture. / The thief comes only to steal / and slaughter and destroy. / I came that you might have life / and have it to the full.” — John 10:9-10.
I have mentioned from this pulpit when my wife Bonnie and I met I was on vacation in Maine at a property owned by her family in the Stonington area. What I have not mentioned is a key factor which led to our mutual interest.
If you’ve spent any time with either of us you know we both have a fondness for jokes and puns. The unkind call it a warped sense of humor and we are, by the way, proud of that. And so what I noticed when I first met Bonnie is she was beating me to all the punch lines. From my perspective this was an very impressive person, someone to be reckoned with.
Hence, this should be obvious: I do not ignore bad jokes. So this one is from the Rev. Dr. Martin Copenhaver. It’s not only a bad joke— it’s a shaggy dog story and a joke with a little theology, religion. It’s about the unity and differences between denominations.
Marty sets up the joke by saying small differences, not great ones, stand in the way of religious unity and tells a story of two men who had just met. Both notice a cross in the lapels of their sports jackets. So they try to discover their religious backgrounds.
One starts with the obvious question: “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?”
The other one replies: “Protestant.”
The first one cracked a little smile and said, “Me too! What franchise?”
“That’s great! Me too!”
“Well,” said the second one also smiling just a little now, “we all know there are many of flavors of Baptists. Are you a Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”
A little wary but certainly more hopeful the first one replied “Southern.”
“Oh, gee! That’s great. Me too!”
The first one then asked, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”
With a cautious tone the second one replied, “Why, I am Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912 and proud of it!”
The first one’s eyes lit up as if they were on fire. “I knew it! I knew it! Die, you heretic!” (Slight pause.)
This kind of thing is not limited to Baptists. My bet is we’ve all heard about places where both First and Second Congregational churches reside and the two buildings are less than a mile apart. And while we Congregationalists tend to pride ourselves on openness to other faith traditions, there are times we can be, if not critical, at least less than knowledgeable about other traditions.
Indeed, it seems to me whether we’re talking about churches or nearly any other topic, most of the time people want to and like to distinguish themselves as different, even if those distinctions are sliced very thin. Sigmund Freud called this phenomenon, “the narcissism of small differences.” Of course, that applies to areas other than church but I won’t go there this morning.
Perhaps when we do this thin slicing what we are protecting is our turf, our territory. And perhaps some insecurity or even pride is involved. Let’s face it, too often it seems what we all we want to be is simply… tribal. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the Gospel according to the School of John: “I am the gate. / Whoever enters through me will be safe— / you will go in and go out and find pasture. / The thief comes only to steal / and slaughter and destroy. / I came that you might have life / and have it to the full.” (Slight pause.)
The “I am” statements of Jesus appear only in John. And more than any other Gospel John addresses Christology.
Now, let me unpack that $64 word. Christology is the study of the nature and person of Jesus, especially as that relates to the nature and person of Yahweh, God.
Indeed, when Jesus asks “who do you say that I am” in the Gospels those who first heard that question understood the real question being asked was this: “how does the person Jesus, who we claim to be the Christ, the Messiah of God, fit into and fit with the concept that God is One.” (Slight pause.)
Well this is a simple idea: monotheism is the primary premise of Judaism. God is One. So, if you are a Jew living in the First Century, how do you explain Jesus? Is Jesus something extra, another god? Is Jesus simply a wise Rabbi, a great teacher?
I think this passage helps us understand how to think about Jesus and understand Jesus and it probably helped those who first heard it think about and understand Jesus. You see, Jesus is not making a self-comparison to the gate— I am the gate.
Nor is Jesus making any other kind of comparisons in the “I am” descriptions— comparisons to Bread, Light, a Door, a Good Shepherd, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Vine. The important part of these statements is not the object of the sentence. It is the subject and verb— “I” and “am.”
You see, if we listened to these words with First Century ears, we would recognize right away that with the words “I am” Jesus is referring to Yahweh, God. Yahweh, the name of God in Hebrew, is a form of the verb “to be”— “I am.”
Indeed, Jesus claims “the gate” as a metaphor of self description but then says (quote:) “I came that you may have life and have it to the full.” Therefore, we also need to realize the way the people in the First Century within the Jewish tradition would understand that statement.
Jewish tradition says God gives life and gives it to the full. Put another way, Jesus is here addressing a relationship with God and also says God gives life.
That brings me back to what Freud called this phenomenon of “the narcissism of small differences.” As far as I can tell a lot of churches get caught up in what might loosely termed doctrinal differences. One of my favorite kind of things that happens is when someone asks you: “Have you found Jesus?” I want to say, “I did not know Jesus was lost.”
I also want to say, “We Christians claim God is Trinity. Did Jesus somehow become detached from the Trinity? Has the Holy Spirit also gone AWOL?”
In all seriousness, if someone asks about finding Jesus that’s narcissism. The question does not point to Jesus nor does it point to the individual this person is trying to engage.
The question is self referential. The question points only to the person asking the question. The person asking the question is seeking affirmation of what they believe. More troubling— the question, itself, separates Jesus from the Trinity.
Here’s where I stand: the claim that Jesus is the Messiah does not separate Jesus from God or from the Holy Spirit. The point of Trinity is that Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit are inseparably intertwined. That is, you see, both an impossible reality and an incredible and wonderful truth that we Christians claim: God is Trinity. (Slight pause.)
So, Jesus— Who is a part of Trinity— Jesus clearly taught God is inclusive, taught everyone is loved by God. The God of Trinity makes no claim that some are unwelcome, unclean, unacceptable. Therefore, the narcissism of small differences has no place with the God of Trinity. (Slight pause.)
True story: I recently heard someone say one person was directly related to them by blood but another person who had married into the family was not directly related by blood. Now, in this day of DNA testing, being related by blood and not being related by blood is meaningless. DNA testing proves we are all related in some way. (Slight pause.)
To quote John 17:21, we are all one. And so we believe God treasures each of us. We believe we that are all one together. And we all rely on the mercy of God— God Who is Trinity. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Since Steve mentioned Millard Fuller I have to follow up on that because I heard him speak once and he addressed differences. He said the difference between us in the South— he was from Georgia— and you folks in the North is we know the way to say the name is Jesus. On a more serious note, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the narcissism of small differences with these words: ‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly… We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.’”
BENEDICTION: Let us rejoice for Christ is risen. This service of worship is over but our service in the name of God continues outside these doors. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.