August 01, 2008

Jesus, Gates, and Sheep

by Brian E. Volck
In preparation for this year’s Triduum, the three solemn days leading into Easter, those in my parish chosen to proclaim scripture were expected to attend at least one group practice session. In that sense, at least, my parish takes “performing the Word” seriously. We received our texts well in advance in order to prepare, and our practice consisted of reading aloud while a woman from the parish, well known for her attentive, moving readings, offered helpful suggestions. One gentleman read a brief excerpt from John 14, including the familiar passage, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” Upon saying these words, our normally laconic coach interrupted, saying, “That’s something I don’t believe by the way. I know Buddhists and Hindus who are far holier than most Christians.”

She spoke with a sense of urgency, as if we desperately needed to be wakened from dogmatic slumbers. I never inquired about the motives behind her micro-lecture; we had much to do that day. It seemed, though, that – for her, at least – John 14:6 admitted but one interpretation, and that so patently false as to demand immediate negation. I’m sure we would have had a rich and profitable conversation had I questioned her then, but the moment passed, and I’m the poorer for my reticence.

What I’m left with is conjecture. Were her comments the mirror image of biblical fundamentalism, interrogating the text not in search of truth but to castrate the word? Perhaps. I know too well the sort of smugness and arrogance she may have been reacting against, mining Paul or Augustine to justify some of the more crabbed forms of theological speculation, such as the damnation of infants who die unbaptized or supralapsarian double predestination. On the other hand, I’m just as wary of squishy Christologies where Jesus is a happenin’ dude with a profound but in no way unique “connection to the spiritual realm.” My heart cries out for the God of Israel’s mercy and truth to meet, not for Creator of the Universe to dissolve into a warm fuzzy.

So, when Jesus, in John 10, explains to the Pharisees that he alone is the gate through which his sheep must pass, I wrestle with the text. Not, however, because there are good Buddhists and Hindus for whom I have to provide an account of salvation; the appalling wideness of God’s mercy trumps all my feeble arguments. On the contrary, I tremble at the cost of coming to the Father through the Son, of nearing the one gate, of being among the Good Shepherd’s sheep.

Five years on the Navajo Reservation taught me that sheep are extraordinarily stupid creatures with an inexhaustible talent for finding trouble and an invincible ignorance of what’s good for them. And recently, my son, a freshman in high school, paused in studying for a test in his year long scriptures course to remark, “I’m beginning to think that being God’s chosen people isn’t such a good deal. It never works out the way the people expect.” (I may never again hear so succinct a summary of salvation history.) So, when I’m told the gateway to salvation is an obscure peasant nailed to a wooden torture machine, is it any wonder I search frantically for another exit?

Jesus, like the prophets before him, directs his harshest words at those among the chosen who thought themselves righteous yet failed to live in righteousness. Jesus, like the prophets before him, is rejected and made to suffer. Yet Jesus, unlike the prophets before him, triumphs over death, his glorified body still bearing the deep, bloody wounds of his suffering. No one comes to the Father except through such a person? Small wonder I work to soften the blow, lower the stakes, finesse the demands Jesus makes upon me in claiming that he alone is the one gate.

How God effects the salvation of Hindus, Buddhists and others is not for me to know. The question for me is whether I love the Shepherd enough to follow him when the gate – at least from this corner of the pasture – looks a painful passage.

(Originally published Friday, April 11, 2008)

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