Andrew and I visited Los Angeles several years ago, in the late winter. One afternoon we found our way to Hollywood Boulevard, and walked past the Kodak Theatre. It was Oscar season, and though we enjoyed no brushes with fame, it was fun to see all the equipment set out for the big night. In my memory there were rolls of red carpet, but I might have embellished them into the scene. I do know there were rows and rows of folded bleachers, and a cluster of chain-link fences, and barricades like the ones they use to close highway exits. I imagined the street filling with people on the bright Sunday afternoon in late February, and the hundreds of workers it would take to corral and control the mobs. By the time the stars stepped out of their limousines, all the fences and barriers would be in place, along with security personnel, and there would be no way that you or I could get close, no way for us to touch the illuminati. They would be safe, enclosed in a pleasant land of exclusive glamour.
“I am the gate,” Jesus says, and this is where my imagination goes: fences, barricades, walls and locks and guys in black suits to keep the Wrong People out. Most cities now have a few gated communities, exclusive neighborhoods that you can’t enter without knowing the code. Federal buildings since 9/11 lurk behind elaborate fortresses of security. We build gates everywhere: gates that regulate who’s in and who’s out, who’s safe and who’s not.
This building has a gate. It is an unusual one. It provides no physical security, and can’t stop anyone from coming in or going out. All you have to do is walk around it, and you’ll be fine. If a disturbed person with a gun burst through the door, our gate would not protect us. Our gate is a big pool of water, right at the entrance. And it is big: an adult can be fully immersed in it, if she kneels down. We sometimes plunge babies into the pool, and they emerge soaked and bewildered. Many of us, when passing by the pool, dip our fingers in it and make the sign of the cross. If someone who knew nothing of Christianity saw all of this going on, I’m not sure what they would make of it. They would probably not see this pool as a gate. A few of their first questions might be, “Why is that pool by the entrance? Why isn’t it in the main room? And what’s it for, anyway?”
Here’s my answer: we put our pool of water by the entrance because it is a sign of our savior, a savior who compared himself to the gate of a sheepfold. And so our savior is someone who can be found at the entrances and exits, the edges and the borders, of our lives—the places at the boundary where we encounter one another, and the stranger … and the place at the boundary of our hearts where we encounter the dreadful stranger within ourselves.
That’s why we put our pool of water near the entrance.
I’ll say more. It probably doesn’t make much sense yet. Christianity is like that. Ours is an odd religion.
Here’s some background on why our pool, our holy bathtub, is by the door: in the time of Jesus, in the Palestinian countryside, nobody had elaborate gates on the low walls that bracketed a portion of land for sheep to spend the night. No, the shepherd herself would sometimes be the gate: if her employer didn’t provide a gate, she would lay herself down in the gap in the wall and camp there, so that the sheep couldn’t easily get out, and their enemies would have to contend with her first if they attempted to come in.
That’s the kind of savior we follow.
We do not follow a savior who constructs a mighty barricade to protect us from our enemies. Many of us bear deep scars on our hearts and have experienced dreadful losses. We are not protected from wrenching emotional pain, in this life.
We also do not follow a savior who sets us high atop the battlements of a castle, and trains us to shoot down our enemies in triumphant battle. He did nothing to defend himself when the forces of empire came for him, and he rebuked his followers when they wanted to take up arms. Our savior is not a boy king determined to prove how tough he is.
We also do not follow a savior who rolls out a red carpet for us and keeps all the anonymous crowds on bleachers, behind chain-link fences, where they can’t be seen, and can’t draw attention away from our fame and importance. His followers were all ordinary women and men, folks from the country, people not known or revered.
No, this is the savior we follow: we follow a savior who lays his vulnerable body down in the gap of a low wall and camps there, so that everyone can rest for the night. And often enough, throughout each day, the gate is gone, and we are free to move in and out, for good or for ill. But our shepherd is still alongside us.
And so it is that we have constructed our pool at this same spot, and we call it a baptismal font. This pool is our gate, a sign of our savior’s body, camped at the entrance of our enclosure, a savior who laid down his life for us. If you would like to find your way into this pasture, we invite you to pass through these waters, and thus take on our savior’s task. We are all invited to take on our savior’s vulnerability, to lay down our own bodies in the gap in the wall, to be a soft, fleshy barrier at the border of friend and stranger, kinfolk and enemy, sheep and wolf. We do this not only in this room, but in all the places we inhabit day by day.
Today we hear these words from the first letter of Peter: “When [Jesus] was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross—[the cross: another gate, I think]—so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
Christ the gate, Christ the shepherd, Christ the savior who lays down in that little gap in the wall.
People who lay their bodies down to form a barrier of protection run the risk of being trampled … from both directions.
We are soft, fleshy, fuzzy creatures. We are blessed with delightful gifts, and many of us have stout hearts and strong spirits. But we often feel vulnerable and scared, and we should, for we have few protections in this hard world. And one day we will all die. But our shepherd died, too, because he laid down his body at the entrance to our enclosure. He was trampled and killed by the savagery that lurks not only in those we call our enemies, but within us, too. Sometimes he lays down his body between us and those we might harm, for their sake.
But we rejoice, because life rises up in this death, at this boundary, in this pool that drowns but is also a womb. Life rises up in the form of a loving community with our savior at the center; a loving community where all are nourished, all are embraced; a loving community that breaks and shares bread with glad and generous hearts. Here—and in all the places we wander, and in all the people we meet—we find ourselves in the house of God. We find ourselves at the gate of heaven.