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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 05/07/2017

Remember the man born blind, one of Jesus’ Lenten encounters?  It’s been over a month now so you may have forgotten the story.  In the story, Jesus heals a blind man and then following that, in a sequence of scenes, the neighbors, the Pharisees and the man’s parents are all involved in what amounts to an investigation concerning who did it, how did it happen, when did it happen, did it really happen?  At the end of the story, the religious leaders expel the formerly blind man from the synagogue mostly for not agreeing with their assessment that Jesus was a sinner because he did this healing on the Sabbath.  The blind man refused to denounce Jesus and so they expelled him, thus making him an outsider.

Today’s gospel text is what immediately follows this story and because of that placement it may well be intended as commentary on what comes before it, especially commentary on who is an insider and who is an outsider. 

With that in mind, in today’s reading, Jesus announces himself as the gate of the sheep.  It’s one of his several “I am” statements in John with I am the Good Shepherd probably being the favorite of those statements but on this Good Shepherd Sunday that’s verse 11 and today’s reading only goes to verse 10.   All of the “I am” statements are significant though, because they connect Jesus with the God of the Old Testament.  Remember in the Moses story, when Moses asks for God’s name, the response is “I am who I am,” so any of the early Christians with a Jewish background, which was most of them, would have noticed and paid attention, when they heard or read those words “I am” being connected to Jesus.   

I am the gate though, is part of John’s sheep, shepherd imagery, imagery that he takes from the Old Testament.  In Old Testament tradition the imagery is familiar; it shows up in several places including a number of Psalms in addition to the beloved 23rd that speak of God’s people as sheep which implies that God is the shepherd.  In today’s gospel, the imagery is a little different as Jesus is identified as the gate of the sheep but then he’s also identified as the gatekeeper.  According to John, one then enters God’s sheepfold or becomes part of God’s people by listening to the voice of the gatekeeper, who is Jesus, and then entering through the gate, which is also Jesus.  Having Jesus be two different things in the same image is a little confusing, but it emphasizes how central Jesus is for John.

 In the man born blind story, when the man is expelled from the synagogue, it appears that he is made an outsider.  However, using the gate, gatekeeper imagery, John reverses that judgment.  The blind man listened to the voice of Jesus, the gatekeeper.  His listening to Jesus then makes him an insider; he has entered through the gate that leads to God’s sheepfold and in verse 9 it says that those who enter by the gate of Jesus will be saved.  Using the gate/gatekeeper imagery to interpret the man born blind story, John is offering hope to those who the religious insiders, the Pharisees, consider to be outsiders. 

For the Pharisees, the synagogue with its laws and rituals was central to salvation meaning that to be expelled from the synagogue was to be condemned.  If today’s verses are interpretation of that story, for John, in a major reversal, the Pharisees who enforced those laws and rituals are not insiders at all but are among the thieves and bandits who have come to steal and kill and destroy.  They represent voices that one ought not pay attention to.  Now that’s a harsh assessment, an insulting assessment among people who would most likely have viewed the Pharisees as leaders to be admired for their faith.  It’s a harsh assessment of the Judaism of that time and it brings to light the accusation that John’s gospel has promoted anti-Semitism.

I’m not going to deny that an anti-Semitic tone can be found in John.  I especially notice it every year at the Good Friday Tenebrae service when I read John’s Passion story and “the Jews” are quite clearly and repeatedly depicted as the bad guys in the crucifixion of Jesus.  I don’t want to defend or excuse that tone but it’s also evidence of why scripture needs to be interpreted, not just read at face value. 

I don’t know what was going on in John’s community at the time this was written, I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but I would suspect that there was conflict within the Jewish community with Jewish Christians who John is writing to, being expelled from synagogue worship because of their proclamation concerning Jesus.  I tend to think that John’s anti-Jewish tone has more  to do with how Christ centered his gospel is which causes him to make this stark contrast between the voice and words of Jesus as opposed to any voices that don’t proclaim Jesus.  As he says toward the end of his gospel, his purpose in writing is to bring people to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God.  He’s not trying to be even handed or objective; he’s proclaiming what he believes to be true. 

In the man born blind story and in today’s reading that follows it, John is identifying with and bringing a word of hope to those who were being made outsiders by the religious community they had been part of because they were now professing faith in Jesus.  What “the Jews” as John repeatedly calls them, were apparently saying was that there was no salvation outside the synagogue and its traditional practices and beliefs.  A sympathetic interpretation of John would say that his primary intent was not to condemn anyone but to offer hope to those who were being expelled. 

A less generous interpretation however, could say that with his judgmental statements John is just setting up another version of the same kind of insider/outsider exclusion, saying that only those who hear the voice of Jesus can enter the sheepfold and become insiders, part of God’s people, meaning no hope for anyone else.  For us as Christians, that is a question and an issue that persists.

Is there salvation outside the church?  It’s a very relevant question in a world where we can easily come into contact with people of other faiths and where we most certainly come into contact with people, most likely including family members, who profess or practice no faith at all.  John offered hope to those viewed as being outside the religious establishment.  Can we offer the same kind of hope to those outside our religious establishment?

Kurt Hendel addressed this issue from a Lutheran perspective when he was here the week before last; it was part of what he said in Munising.  First of all, he acknowledged that Luther himself would have said that there was no hope, no salvation available outside the church.  In his time he wrote about heathens, Turks by which he meant Muslims, and Jews.  For all of them Luther would say there was no hope because they didn’t have Jesus, Jesus who was made known in Word and Sacrament in the church.  For that reason Kurt said, Luther didn’t have hope for those outsiders apart from their converting to Christianity.  He viewed hell as a much busier place than heaven.

But Luther also talked about what he called the hidden and the revealed God.  If I understand it correctly (and I might not), the revealed God has to do with how God is made known in the majesty and wonder of creation and also in qualities like virtue, wisdom, justice, godliness and goodness, the glory of God in other words.  For Luther what was more important though was the hidden God, the God made known in what seems to be God’s opposite, most notably the humiliation, suffering and death of the cross.  If you talk about a hidden God though, can you then place limits on where God might be hidden, perhaps even being hidden in other faiths?  Luther was quite comfortable in placing limits and thereby making many outsiders with no hope for salvation, but does that then become a contradiction in his theology of God’s hiddenness?

Dr. Hendel’s conclusion was that we can say the following:  #1, salvation is found inside the church.  We can say that with confidence.  #2, we don’t have to say that there is no salvation outside the church because there is much that God has chosen not to reveal and, in Luther’s own words, “we have no right to inquire.”  So then, #3, we can’t say with certainty that there is salvation outside the church but we don’t have to; it’s not for us to judge.  But…we can’t put limits on the hiddenness of God, we can’t put limits of the grace of God.

What we are called to do is to proclaim what we know to be true, during this Easter season to proclaim that He is Risen!  It’s always a message of hope because even when we talk about judgment, as Luther himself learned during his faith struggles, the judge isn’t a wrathful, angry God, the judge is Jesus who went to the cross for us.  We are called to proclaim Christ crucified and risen not for the sake of excluding others, but to welcome them into the joy that we know, the joy of being in relationship with him, the joy of knowing that we are acceptable to God.  Similar to what I think John was doing in his gospel, we are called to proclaim and live out the hope that is within us.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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