The Gospel of John has a special feature the other gospels do not. In John Jesus makes a number of theological statements that begin with the phrase “I am”: “I am the light of the world”; “I am the Bread of Life”; “I am the true vine”; “I am the resurrection and the life”; “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” There are seven “I am” statements in all. Two are found in John chapter 10, part of which serves as the lectionary text for this coming Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter also known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The “I am” statements of John 10 are: “I am the Good Shepherd,” and “I am the gate for the sheep.” I have heard many sermons and sung many hymns about the Good Shepherd. I have never heard a sermon or sung a hymn about the Gate, good or otherwise. So let’s talk about the gate!
It’s easy for me to understand why the Good Shepherd would get all the attention. The Good Shepherd invokes the romantic images of the “green pastures” and “still waters” that “restore my soul” in Psalm 23. The Good Shepherd feels accessible and relatable and comforting. The Gate seems a little weird: The gate for the sheep? What does that mean? However, my experience in life and in reading the Bible is that it’s often the overlooked things that bring the biggest insights. So this Sunday we’ll sing songs about the Good Shepherd, but we’ll reflect on the Gate and our own calling to open the way to abundant life for all during this time of pandemic.
It’s difficult to know what the lessons of the week will be on Monday morning. This is always true. Human beings have a notoriously mixed record in the future-predicting business. Last week was a great example. The first part of the week was what has become “normal schedule.” Monday: get “to do” list from Sue, start at the top with creating Zoom links for the week’s program schedule, write “What’s Up with Pastor Todd,” do the Monday “Daily Devotional,” create staff meeting agenda, write worship for the coming Sunday, and so on.
By Thursday all my plans for the weekend had been blown out of the water. My oldest daughter, Fiona, got a message from her boyfriend, Riku, that his building was under emergency evacuation. Within 30 minutes Fiona and I were driving to Chicago to pick him up and bring him to Connecticut. This circumstance changed meeting plans, worship plans, sleeping and eating plans. What was up with Pastor Todd on Friday was very different from What was up with Pastor Todd on Monday. Here I am today facing yet another Monday and asking, “What’s Up with Pastor Todd?”
I suppose one solution would be to wait until Friday to write my column, but I’ve found it a helpful discipline to begin the week with a self check-in. And the truth is, even in an unusually disrupted week like the last one, parts of what I had written on Monday were still relevant when it came time to preach the following Sunday. My Monday self check-in ended up being a gift to my very different reality seven days later.
There’s a common principle of spiritual practice that encourages us to “be here now.” Mindfulness teaches us to “stay in the present moment.” But I find that this doesn’t exclude looking forward and looking back. Rather, it includes both and gives a stable place from which to reflect on the past and anticipate the future.
On the church calendar this is the first week of the Easter Season: 50 days between Easter and Pentecost. Pentecost is the Sunday we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers. Jesus had ascended to heaven following his resurrection, but had promised his followers the Holy Spirit, who would empower them to carry on his mission even though the physcial form of the historical Jesus would no longer be present in the world. The 50 days of the Easter Season was an intense time during which Jesus prepared his followers to be his hands and heart for the world.
This preparation begins with appearances of the resurrected Christ. This week’s Scripture, John 20:18-31, recounts two appearances of Jesus to the disciples who had gathered the week before to celebrate Passover with Jesus in the “upper room” they had rented for the occasion. The text–like all of the stories of Jesus’ appearances–raises two big questions: “Who is this resurrected Jesus?” And “How should we respond to him?”
The John 20 account is famous for the story of a disciple named Thomas. As I mentioned above, Jesus appears twice in John 20. The first time Thomas is absent. His fellow disciples tell Thomas that they saw Jesus, but he doesn’t believe them. He says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Jesus appears to the disciples a second time. This time Thomas is among them. Jesus invites Thomas to examine and touch his wounds–just as Thomas had demanded–and Thomas believes. The scene ends with Jesus saying to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
If you were in Thomas’ shoes, how would you respond to reports that Jesus was alive? I grew up in a very conservative Christian community that understood faith to be a kind of “belief without proof,” a kind of “take my word for it.” The Bible says God raised Jesus from the dead, so we should accept it as fact even if it seems like a fairytale. To doubt or question was understood to be antithetical to faith. While I definitely had my questions and even as a young child asked them, more than that, I wanted to be a good Christian, so I accepted what my parents and Sunday school teachers and pastors said even if not everything made sense.
As a young adult I studied at a divinity school where we learned to question and critique Biblical texts and church doctrines. As an middle-aged adult I have pastored more liberal churches in which folks tend to wear doubt as a badge of pride–a sign of intellectual rigor and freedom of conscience. And as I have gone deeper in my studies I have noticed yet another turn: a practice of doubting one’s doubts. A comedian once put it this way: “You say there is no God. Are you sure? Have you looked everywhere?”
I invite us to consider stepping beyond faith and doubt as intellectual exercise. The significance of Christ’s resurrection for me is the reality it points to: following Christ’s way moment to moment makes new and abundant life possible for me, for you, for all of creation. Try it yourself and see!