Easter 6C - Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 5:1-9
Sunday, May 26, 2019
The Rev. Hannah Hooker
It is possible to use a word so frequently that we forget what it means. I discovered this over the last week as I pondered our scripture passages for today, which all mention doors or gates. This strange repetition nagged at me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the spiritual significance of a door. I decided to take my query back to basics. I challenged myself to explain the concept of a door to someone unfamiliar with the word - without using a dictionary. The best I could come up with was that a door is a portion of a wall that is cut out and then re-connected to the wall on hinges so that it can swing open and closed. I fear this explanation may invite more questions than clarity.
I shifted my approach, and examined how we use the words “door” and “gate” colloquially. Here’s a very brief list of common English door and gate idioms: a foot in the door; crashing the gates; at death’s door; at the pearly gates; broad as a barn door; when one door closes another opens; you make a better door than window; behind closed doors. What these idioms all seem to suggest is that in our culture, doors are barriers, permeable barriers, meant to control who or what gets from one side to the other.
Finally, I turned to the internet. As it turns out, the word “door” or “doorway,” as well as the word “gate,” all come from an Old Norse word that means “pathway,” or “opening.” How strange that words which once indicated openness, a freedom to pass, have, over time, come to mean the opposite - an impediment to passing. While doors may be for opening, more importantly these days, they’re for closing. Now, call me nitpicky, but I think this subtle and unspoken shift in a door’s purpose is something that Christ spends his life, death and resurrection undoing.
In our Gospel passage this morning, we find Jesus healing a sick man at the pool of Bethesda. Although this is a relatively short story, it has a lot to tell us. The gospeler locates us near the sheep gate. In Jesus’ time, the entire city of Jerusalem was surrounded by a wall, and the sheep gate was where people from the surrounding countryside brought in their sheep for sacrifice at the temple. The pool was actually a manmade structure around a natural spring, of which there are many in and around Jerusalem. The pool often bubbled, and the people believed it was angels stirring the water. The first person to enter (or in the invalid’s case, be lowered into) the bubbling water would receive healing. Today we suspect that the spring sat on top of a volcanic crack which caused the occasional bubbling.
As Americans in 2019, we cannot miss the significance of the wall and gate in this story. We know that walls go up around communities, and even whole countries, when there is fear of the people on the other side of them. Jerusalem was a city in constant fear of outsiders, and it’s gates served as entrances only to those deemed safe and acceptable. With such literal division between who was in and who was out, Jerusalem was not a hospitable community. We see evidence of this in the man who has been waiting by the pool of Bethesda, and not once in 38 years has anyone put their own needs aside to help him into the pool. Like its gates, everything about Jerusalem in this story is closed.
But in our passage from the Revelation to John, we see an entirely different Jerusalem. Now, it is a holy city, with no need of a temple, with no sun or moon, but the glory of God for its light. Nothing accursed will be found there, no one in need of healing, and no one who ignores those needs. In this Jerusalem, the gates are never shut. Our lectionary skips a few verses in the middle of this passage, and in the portion that we missed, John describes the city in even more detail, including its walls, which, although they are made of gold, are crystal clear and transparent, welcoming and hospitable. Like its gates, everything about the New Jerusalem in John’s vision is open. The message is clear. In God’s Kingdom, no one is locked out; no one must earn or prove worthy of entry; no one is considered dangerous or suspect. In the God’s Kingdom, love and security come not from building up walls, but from opening doors.
What a beautiful vision, and oh, how we are drawn to it. The desire to exist in a place where all doors can be open and there is no fear of what’s on the other side is magnetic. But until that Kingdom comes to be in all its fullness, I would prefer to wait safely inside my own home and community with the doors and gates locked for protection. I’ll build a fence between my house and my neighbor’s. I’ll install a security system. I’ll padlock my back gate. I’ll forego hospitality to preserve my life as I know it. Once the world outside it safe, then I’ll come out and participate. I’ll open my door...later.
Does this sound familiar? Perhaps many of us are stuck more deeply in the old Jerusalem than we realize. We wait for the Kingdom like we wait for a storm to pass: hunkered down, isolated, and afraid. We assume a helplessness that leaves us paralyzed, when the truth is that the Gospel calls us to action. As disciples, we don’t just believe in Christ we are members of his Body. We don’t just appreciate the resurrection we practice it. We don’t just wait for the Kingdom, we make space to create it. Just look at Lydia. Her heart was open to hearing the Word of God, and so she opened her doors to Paul and his companions. She opened her doors, and the Kingdom of God spread, not the other way around.
Delightfully, Christ Church strives to embody “Open Doors.” We keep our red doors open every day for anyone and everyone who seeks the love of God, and the security and hospitality that this space offers. And we do so at the risk of losing the kind of security that old Jerusalem clings to, characterized by isolation and fear. But how can each of us, in our own lives, channel Lydia and open the doors of our homes and offices and communities, so that the Kingdom of God and it’s holy and relational security can get in? What would it take for doors and gates to symbolize openness again?
I’d like to end with a story about a good friend of mine. Years ago, we shared an apartment a block from here, and as you can imagine all kinds of folks walked by our door and windows every day. It was the most urban place either of us had ever lived, and it was our instinct to be vigilant about safety. But one spring afternoon, it was so lovely outside that my friend opened the kitchen door and window to let the breeze in while she cooked dinner. A few minutes later, she looked up to find a man standing near the corner of our building, looking longingly toward the window. Although slightly unnerved, my friend offered the man a peanut butter sandwich. They ate sandwiches together in silence, and she never saw him again. When I got home later that evening, my friend was bursting at the seams to tell me about her open-doored adventures. When I asked what happened, she replied, “exactly what I feared most, and it was glorious.” In the Kingdom of God, security and love come not from building up walls, but from opening doors. Amen.