by Dr. Lani Wilson
Greetings to you who pray and fast for our church and God’s world. How faithful you are to give up time and deny yourself to petition God on our behalf! It is not a small thing, ever. Every era of human history seems to have had what seemed like extinction-level events, as scientists call them: World Wars, global infectious disease pandemics, nuclear weapons, comets, earthquakes. The stakes are higher and due to technology, seemingly more real. But, in reality we humans may well be the cause of such an event as opposed to natural disasters. And then we have Easter…
The word given this week is enter; so heady, so ‘meta“ in scope and consideration. As we approach another Easter/Resurrection Sunday, the word seems seriously strange. Lent, the religious tradition focusing on self-denial as part of an identification with the sacrifice of The Christ, is mostly an observation rather than a rule in Protestant churches. Lent is the religious ramp-up to Jesus’ submission to God on our behalf. Observances are good. We enter into the Lenten Season. We enter into a relationship with God through Christ. We “enter into His gates with thanksgiving.” We enter the House of the Lord. We enter at “our own risk.” So, in general entering is a positive thing for we Christians, right?
But there is something interesting, even strange, about one particular part of a well-known verse in the New Testament.
I am the door. If anyone enters through me, he will be saved, and will come in and go out, and find pasture.21
John 10:9 (NET)
21tn Since the Greek phrase εἰσέρχομαι καὶ ἐξέρχομαι (eiserchomai kai exerchomai, “come in and go out”) is in some places an idiom for living or conducting oneself in relationship to some community (“to live with, to live among” [cf. Acts 1:21; see also Num 27:17; 2]
I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for-will freely go in and out, and find pasture.
John 10:9 (TMB)
We all recognize the significance of Jesus’ words about He being the door to salvation. But, what about the words “will come in and go out?” The Greek translation of the Bible (or the Septuagint) was created for Greek-speaking Jews. There was purposeful interpretation of Hebraic scripture in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC to suit the audience in exile in Africa - Egypt (Apple Online Dictionary) to keep the Hebrew scripture and the Mosaic Law alive for an exiled people. Later, the early Christian churches adopted it and the inferences of translation, making it more acceptable to this particular audience: Jews who were living in a pagan, Greek society. The Gospel message of Christianity had to make sense to the audience to whom it was presented. Footnote 21 above says that “in some places” the meaning of this phrase was to set someone in the context of a community. But what about the “other places?” Is it possible that there are other meanings for “freely go in and out”?
It is ironic that we usually pray to God to come into, as in spiritually anoint, our houses of worship. One doesn’t invite the owner of a home to come into his/her own home, especially if you are the guest. If we extend this metaphor a bit to this particular verse, it is even more interesting. When did we Christians decide that God had to be invited to enter into His/Her own House? If we tack onto this the idea of coming and going freely, we might question exactly to whom was the verse referring: Us or The Spirit of The Nazarene? If, after we are saved by the acceptance of the gospel message, the Holy Spirit (the essence of Christ that He left with and for us) lives in us, might it also mean that as we come in and go out, so might He?
It is not uncommon in 2017 to have a discussion with someone about the presence of the Holy Spirit and in the same conversation, dispute the presence of unholy spirits. If and when we talk about invisible things like spirits, we reference them entering into our minds, souls and/or psyches. We are sometimes redirected to the fact that these references to spirits and Jesus during His earthly ministry are 2000 years old and part of the fabric of the culture in which He lived. Thus, Jesus used stories and images that His culture would and could accept and the stories about Jesus and His own stories derive out of Ancient Palestine. Yet, we teach that the truths that The Christ taught us in those stories are relevant and applicable to us today, 2000 years later. It is most certainly a matter of belief. Thus, the “coming and going” in John 10:9 could mean more than being accepted into an ancient Hebrew community as cited in Numbers 27:17.
In a sermon titled, “The Door is Open, You’re Free to Go” Bishop Talbert Swan infers that when Jesus frees you, He opens the door; i.e., you are free from whatever bound you, imprisoned you, held you captive.
When Jesus says to the thief that “Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise” He is saying that no life is beyond the love of God. No one is beyond redemption. No one is permanently locked into their circumstances because I am the door…..and if I open it, you’re free to go….He didn’t say SOUTHSIDE. He didn’t ask if he was down with the Crips or the Bloods…He just said…this day you will be with me in Paradise! I’ve opened the door, you’re free to go!!!Bishop Talbert Swan “The Door is Open, You’re Free to Go” February 17, 2014, sermoncentral.com
This allusion is to coming out from inside of some place or position of imprisonment. The question we might consider is the possibility that when The Nazarene takes hold of us, when he enters therein, we are free to come and go, both literally and metaphorically. Is John 10:9 what the 21st century church is experiencing? Is that what “freedom in Christ” means? And where are we going-to and coming-from? No one human is able to predict what the church will look like in 10, 20 or more years. What is obvious is that people feel empowered to come and go as they please: Entry, re-entry; mainline, non-denominational. Does this mean that the Body of Christ Jesus is irrelevant, dying or dead? If we believe what Jesus taught, then we know that the church will never die. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t change and not just because it’s culturally responding to the world. The Nazarene’s teachings were myriad-ic. In other words, they were proven more firm than concrete but simultaneously reflected the billions of experiences of all the billions who have ever lived.
To enter into an agreement with someone is to cooperatively decide to work together. As Christians, our relationship to God through Christ is not an agreement at all. By definition we cannot enter into a relationship with God as if we are equals, and yet, Jesus states in that all-powerful verse on He being “the door,” that we are free to come and go (if we use the “other places” metaphor). It seems to me that these fine distinctions are dependent on a critical point that modern African Christians understand intuitively.
For many Africans, we suspect that because a person is defined by his relationship within the community, the idea of who that person is in himself or herself would not be part of how we should think. This would apply to Jesus too. One can contrast this with the christological preoccupations in the early centuries of Christianity with issues connected with the substance of Jesus Christ; whether his physical essence was human or divine or both. The question for Africans is not so much “who is Jesus?” but “who is Jesus to us?”
Chigor Chike (2008). Proudly African, Proudly Christian: The Roots of Christologies in the African Worldview. Black Theology: An International Journal, 6(2), pg. 234
Whether we understand John 10:9b to mean living in relationship with a particular community or whether we think it means the literal coming-and-going in a relationship or the freedom to leave an imprisoned place or position, the implication is clear. Jesus as The Door means we have been given options. How we view and exercise these options rests on the question Chike sets as central to African Christianity: “Who is Jesus to us?” Will anyone ever really know who Jesus the man was as The Jesus Seminar (late 20th century) seeks? Outside of hubris on our part, will it ever really matter?
The influence of the African concept of time can also be seen on this Christology. The emphasis lies not so much on the titles used for Jesus, as in the aforementioned, but rather, in the way in which the memory of Jesus is brought into the present. The fact that Africans, traditionally, do not understand time in the linear way could explain why they find it so easy to bring the events of Jesus’ life, which occurred around two thousand years ago, into the present. Although Jesus’ victory over death is still seen in terms of the binding up of the “strongman” at that time (along with Mk 3:2), its real significance lies in the opportunity it provides for the memory of that victory to be used today as a weapon by the Christian. This is why the song we looked at previously, moves easily from Jesus being “winner” to the Christian being “winner.” This is not that dissimilar to the way Africans historically remember their ancestors, and through that, make them participants in their present life. For the African Christian, the memory of Jesus Christ nourished by the constant reading of the Bible makes him an active participant in the present. No tortuous, hermeneutical process is required for this. The suggestion that Jesus be seen as “the Ancestor” also makes sense from this perspective. Since Africans focus on events, to many of them Jesus’ earthly life and his death could feel as recent as that of their ancestors who have died recently.37
37. Will Coleman’s discussion of the stories of the immediate descendants of enslaved Africans in the USA show that they also retained this “non-linear” time-space cosmology. W. Coleman, Tribal Talk (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 112.
For African Christians the earthly Christ has power, but it is not this attribute of His character that is the plenipotentiary Jesus whom we worship. He is not just the Giver of the Light: He is the Light who enters in.
Therefore see to it that the light in you is not darkness.
Luke 11:35 (NET)
Keep your eyes open, your lamp burning, so you don’t get musty and murky.
Luke 11:35 (TMB)
What seems to be important in these words Jesus speaks to us in Luke 11:35 is not so much the quantity but the quality of light that emanates from us after He has entered in. It is so human to want to measure how much, how far and/or how often we demonstrate our Christianity to each other and to God, as if God doesn’t already know. It is a Western, neo-European, American ethos of life to compete and command, and it is killing us.
Nothing is too mundane to be conceived in spiritual terms. This essentially spiritual worldview explains why for many Africans, Jesus’ healing work is all important. Illnesses, Africans believe, are not usually without a spiritual cause. It is not enough to simply use medicine. In traditional African practices, in addition to the use of medicines, one would attempt to appease aggrieved “good” spirits whilst attempting to defeat the malevolent ones. In terms of Christian thinking, this is where Jesus’ entry point is essential. Since he has supernatural power he quells these troublesome spirits and paves the way for medicines to work. Even when one experiences hard times, this is rarely seen as merely bad luck or poor planning. It is usually seen as either the work of earthly detractors or the evil “Poverty Spirit.”
We may not believe that our illnesses are spiritually inspired or caused, but we certainly believe that God in Christ is working in our healing, whatever the result. That light He spoke of as recorded in Luke 11:35 never dims, never changes, never dulls, but the vessel that contains it can. Therefore, we know that the never-changing Spirit of Jesus the Christ Who enters in never leaves us or weakens but resides and burns brightly in our living, in our healing, and in our physical dying.
In these last few days of Lent, it is so easy to think in terms of regaining what we consider our sacrifices: Sweets, coffee, habits, anything we consider personally dear. What we miss is the bittersweetness of Jesus’ last days on earth. He knew He was going to leave these impoverished human beings He loves so much. He knows He is going to go through an unfathomable physical and spiritual hell. Yet, He still enters into Jerusalem day in and day out. He still enters into His ministry home in Bethany with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus morning and night for that last week. He continues to enter into people’s souls by healing, teaching, and touching.
Jung also asserts the religious nature of the soul, maintaining that it contains within itself the faculty of relationship to God, which is, in psychological terms, the archetype of the God-image. He points to the Bible as a “soul-book,” for he said that “the statements made in the Holy Scriptures are also utterances of the soul.… [T]hey always go over our heads because they point to realities that transcend consciousness.”
Michael W. Newheart. (1999). Soul 2 Soul: A Post-Modern Exegete in Search of (New Testament) Soul. Journal of Religious Thought 55/56(2), 1.
Jesus the Christ enters in and never leaves. It is we who go out – from Him. It was inconceivable to those early Jews who were to be known as the People of the Way that their Jesus would leave them – so soon! But Jesus knew He had but a few days to watch them, laugh with them, tease them, teach them, touch them, hold them. And, oh, how He loved them. How He loved us. How He loves us. We can picture Him leaning on his side, looking at them over candlelight, eating a meal, crowded into that little house just a few miles from the coming passion of His torture and crucifixion. We can see the warm, poignant, deeply comforting smile as the corners of his mouth quiver in sadness as He watches over this confident flock whom He will soon leave. It wasn’t called Lent then because if we were there in that little house, we were in celebration: He would enter Jerusalem in triumph! Only the Christ, Mary’s “Yeshua,” knew that after the inevitable horror, there would be unbelievable joy and renewal and forever-comfort: Emmanuel, God with us.
LORD Jesus, thank You for entering in and never leaving. Forgive us when we come and go, come and go in doubt and fear and sometimes, hypocrisy. Free us to see Your world as always new, always promising even when we can’t see through our own fog. Make us mindful of others’ entrances and lead us to each other to find our way back to You when we get lost out there - or inside your church. Sometimes, it’s hard to know the difference. We confess the joy of Resurrection but help us viscerally live Your path to the cross in these last few days of Your life on Your planet. We haven’t given up much of anything, but You gave it all. These are the last days of our Lent and Your life. We submit and enter into those precious hours, minutes, and days with You.
And we will be forever thankful.
We are forever thankful.