Gatekeepers

guard
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/vincealongi/1546867380/">Vince Alongi</a>

Acts 10:44-48

Before Peter finished talking, God’s spirit came over everyone who heard the news.

The orthodoxy police who had come along were shocked that God’s spirit had been given so easily, even to these heathen. But they heard with their own ears how in many languages they were giving props to God.

So Peter asked, “Since these folk obviously have God’s spirit, are you still going to bar them from admittance?” He gave orders that they should be baptized in Jesus’ name, and they invited him to hang out with them for a few days.

Every community has its gatekeepers. They’re the ones, often self-appointed, who take it upon themselves to say whose in and whose out.

The trouble is, especially in religious communities, when the gatekeepers start using the wrong criteria for making decisions about people. The original Greek in this passage is more specifically about circumcision: “The circumcised believers who came with Peter.” That was their litmus test. But it could be any litmus test that depends on the sacred cows of the gatekeepers.

Instead, the right question to ask when deciding whether someone is eligible for membership is, “Does this person get what God is doing?” Another way to ask it: “Does this person share the spirit of the community?”

The answer to that question will nearly always, as in this case, be obvious. Chances are, God is much more ready to extend the spirit of the community than we gatekeepers are. Truth is, those who have the spirit will have a good time with it, even if the orthodoxy police are shocked by it.

The sad irony is the ones who end up self-excluded are the gatekeepers.

Did Jesus Make a Mistake?

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Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ben_haines/2648400778/">Benjamin Haines</a>

Mark 1:40-45

A contaminated man came and knelt in front of him. “You can purify me if you dare.” Enraged, Jesus took him by the hand and said, “Of course I want you to come clean.” And so he was. Then Jesus told him in no uncertain terms, “Go back to the priests and pay the legal fee for the certificate of reinstatement they refused to give. There’s spit in their eye!” But instead he went out and blathered it all over town, so Jesus couldn’t go into town openly. People had to come out to the boonies to see him instead.

[See also, previous comments on this passage.]

Leprosy isn’t about Hansen’s disease. It’s about contamination. It’s about designating certain people as unacceptable. Who’s in and who’s out. Today, we have lots of leprosy tests. We’ve just changed the name of the test slightly to litmus test.

There are the biggies that churches and politicians love to argue over: divorce and remarriage, gay and lesbian, liberal and conservative, sprinkling and immersion, infant and believer. On and on it goes.

This little snippet in Mark, though, isn’t about any of those. It’s about someone who is just plain difficult. Starting with his attitude, “If you dare,” and ending with his refusal to follow orders. Is it any wonder he’s been branded a pariah by polite company? He’s got an attitude problem and a problem following directions. He’s the loud, obnoxious guy at the party that nobody wants to talk to, who’s ready to tell you everything he knows but doesn’t want to listen. He’s the one, who when you see him coming you say, “Oh, God, not him!”

He’s been so obnoxious that he’s been thrown out of the party altogether. Now, he’s coming to Jesus. Maybe he can tell Jesus a thing or two. Maybe he wants to see if Jesus is everything everyone has been saying about him. Responding to this challenge, Jesus’ response is right to the point: “Of course. Be clean.” It’s simple acceptance of who he is. “Yes, you can be in my company.”

There is a second part to Jesus’ answer, though. Jesus refuses to let his movement become sidetracked by any competing agenda. Jesus says, in effect, “Sure you can be with me, and here’s what it involves. Go back and tell those who’ve excluded you that you’re not going away. You’re back in.” It’s here that everything goes wrong, because instead of getting with the program, he misuses his encounter with Jesus as a license to be all the more obnoxious, to the point where Jesus isn’t able to go into town any more either. In effect, Jesus has become contaminated. This man’s “leprosy” has infected Jesus.

So, what to do about the obnoxious people? Did Jesus make a mistake? Yes and no. From a public relations standpoint this encounter is a disaster. It is, however, a typical result of offering a genuine welcome to everyone without exception: there will be some who just don’t get it and will make your life harder. The good news is that, if you don’t allow your mission to be sidetracked by the temptation to go into “damage control” mode, there will continue to be others who do get what you’re about, who will go out of their way to be a part of what you’re doing, like those who had to go out to the boonies to see Jesus.

Not everyone will understand what you’re about. Not everyone will be receptive of it. Some may even spread misinformation about it to claim some status for themselves. None of that is as important as being true to your mission.

Not Just a Three-Hour Tour

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Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/yunir/5863220426/">Abdul Rahman</a>

Mark 4:35-41

That day, when evening came, he said to his students, “Let’s cross to the other side.”

So they left the crowd and took him in the boat, just like that, with other boats following. A gale arose, and the waves crashed over the boat, swamping it, but Jesus slept on a mattress in the stern. So they woke him up and said, “Teacher, aren’t you worried about going down?”

He got up and told off the wind, saying to the sea, “Settle down and be quiet.” The wind stopped, and a dead calm set in. And Jesus asked them, “Why are you worried? Where’s your confidence?”

At this, they were afraid, and they wondered, “Who is this? Even the wind and sea take orders from him.”

You can find the story of the perilous sea crossing in many ancient traditions. Jonah and the Whale. The Odyssey. St. Patrick’s crossing. King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake. Beowulf and Grendel. The Native American legend of Lelawala. The great flood legends of Gilgamesh (Assyria), Manu (Hindu), and Noah.

But they’re not confined to ancient times. Some of them are fairly recent. The Old Man and the Sea. Life of Pi. Gilligan’s Island.

Even (on the West side of the Atlantic) the myth of American formation is replete with perilous crossings. Christopher Columbus. The Pilgrims. The Middle Passage.

And, while all of these have some historical geographical connection to the sea, none of them is really about the sea. They’re about people’s perilous journey to become what they’re meant to be. Jung identified the journey with an individual’s journey into the discovery of the subconscious. But, beyond the psychology of individuals, these myths also have a meaning that impacts the cultural character of the communities that share them.

In Jesus’ and the disciples’ case as told by the Mark tradition, they’re about integration of Jewish and non-Jewish people into a single community, and more broadly, the universal scope of the gospel’s invitation. Jesus leads the disciples to “the other side” of humanity, not to convert them, but to include them. And the disciples’ resistance to radical inclusion is the storm that threatens to sink the boat (which in the New Testament is always a symbol of the church). Then and now.