A sermon by Dr Paula Gooder, Theologian in Residence to the Bible Society.
The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
If I asked you to imagine a gate – I wonder what it might look like? It might a glamorous, ornate and elaborately decorated; it might be made of serviceable grey steel, with spikey tops to repel intruders; it might be a homely garden gate welcoming us homee. It might stand open or be shut tight; it might stand ajar suggesting hidden delights beyond; it might be padlocked shut with a keep out sign firmly affixed to it. Gates come in many guises and with many uses. They can keep us in or keep us out. They can keep us safe. They can constrain us, or open and set us free.
As I reflected on the readings for this morning’s service, I became fascinated by the theme of gates that lurk behind the wider context of the passages we are looking at, inviting us to stop, for a moment, and reflect on their meaning and significance.
In our first reading, Genesis 28, the slumbering Jacob saw a vision, not of a gate, but of a ladder upon which angels from heaven were ascending and descending. This was why when we woke he declared that place to be the gate of heaven – a place from which it was possible to enter directly into the presence and dwelling place of God. What he had seen in his dream was a place in which heaven touched earth. Those of us who know and love this Cathedral, may at some point in our lives have echoed, however silently, these words of Jacob ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’.
There are some places on earth where you can’t help feeling that God, in heaven, is simply closer than in other places. The Jewish tradition terms these places ‘ the gate of heaven’; the Celtic tradition calls them ‘thin places’ but the point is the same. In some places the cavernous divide between us and God, earth and heaven, simply feels narrower, thinner, more possible to traverse. Whether it is because they are particularly beautiful, or because they have been prayed in for years and years, or as in this place – both. In these kind of places it feels just that bit easier to catch a glimpse of glory, to feel the gossamer light touch of divine presence; to feel wrapped in the loving arms of God; to enter into wonder and praise.
The challenge we face is what happens when we leave this place, as even the most devout of us must do. When we go do we leave behind our sense of God tucked up in a dark corner waiting to be re-discovered the next time we return? John’s Gospel picks up Jacob’s theme in a fascinating way, in John 1, not the reading we heard today but right at the start of the Gospel, we encounter almost the same image as you find here: angels ascending and descending but this time they are not ascending and descending on a place but on a person, Jesus the son of Man. This is hugely significant. What John is implying through this image is that in Jesus there are now, no longer, any absolutely thick places. There are no places where in principle it would never be possible to encounter God, to catch a glimpse of glory. Wherever Jesus is, there is a gate; there is a thin place. Every place on earth no matter how apparently God-forsaken can become a thin place in the transformative presence of Jesus.
When we leave thin places we go in the love of Jesus, taking our memories of the thin places with us. What we are called to do is not hanker back forever to the thin place of our nostalgic memory, but to look forward onwards and upwards for signs of Jesus’ presence in the place where we find ourselves, in our work and homes, in the supermarket, at the school gate, in the country-side or in the city places take our memories with us so that we can recognise those times and places in our everyday lives where heaven touches earth – so that we echo Jacob’s words ‘How awesome is this place, this place where I am find myself! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’
But John’s gates do not stop there. Our Gospel reading ends a long passage in which John has, in his inimitable style, been roaming through an extended image of sheep, and shepherds and gates and recognition. Until we arrive in the temple with Jesus’ conversation with the Jews and his statement that his sheep hear his voice and he knows them. On one level John here answers a question we have remaining from the previous gate – how will we recognise those places where heaven touches earth? The answer is because our loving shepherd knows us and we know him, as we get to know him more and more, we learn to recognise his voice and simply become more adept at noticing the things of God all around us. How can we see thin places in the midst of the hurly burly of our everyday lives? We learn to hear and recognise the voice of the shepherd.
But that is not all – there is more. Earlier in John 10, in the midst of the reflections about Jesus as a good shepherd to his sheep we find, slightly to our surprise the statement ‘I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.’ Hang on a moment, we may be forgiven for thinking, weren’t you just a moment ago a shepherd how now do you get to be a gate? The answer is because he was a shepherds. In the ancient context, sheep pens were roughly constructed from brambles or stones, shepherds coming along with their sheep would mend an old sheep pen when they stopped for the night and then would lie down at the gap through which the sheep had entered, to keep them safe for the night. They would be the actual gate to the sheep pen, laying down their lives at the entrance, to ensure their flock was safe. Jesus, the best of all shepherds, is truly a gate, he provides us with all the safety and security we need in the midst of a bemusing and terrifying world.
Jesus, the gate, opens the way to heaven, he is also the gate that keeps us safe, that provides us with refuge and welcomes us home. So Jesus is a gate of all gates. He is a grand and ornate gate; he is a steel and secure gate; he is a garden gate that stands open waiting to welcome us home.
As we celebrate the dedication of the beautiful and glorious place, may this cathedral stand for us as a reminder of Jesus the gate. May it be for us a thin place that opens into heaven itself; may it be for us a harbour, a place of refuge and peace, and may it be for us a homecoming in which we find rest and peace. And, when we go from here, may we go in the knowledge and love of Christ, taking with us Jesus the gate to every place and every person that we meet – so that they too may learn to hear the voice of the best of all shepherds.
‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven; I am the gate, Jesus says, Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. ’