Fling Wide the Gates
This brief sermon was delivered at the Tuesday Lenten worship service held in partnership with First Presbyterian Church of Beaufort.
In addition to these words from the book of Acts, I would like to share with you a verse from Psalm 118 which the lectionary assigns for the upcoming Palm Sunday. It is the verse I have been meditating on these last two days. The psalmist writes, “Open to me the gates of righteousness that I may go through them and praise to the Lord.” As I walked my dog on Monday morning, I pondered these gates of righteousness and wondered what they might be a metaphor for among modern Christians. (I did check to make sure there was no literal “Gate of Righteousness” in ancient Jerusalem. There was not.) As I walked I pondered what it means to live righteously and prayed that God might set my feet on that path. I usually think of righteousness in terms of either following the rules (obedience) or more generally in terms of moral and ethical living. As I walked, I wondered how I might be more obedient and more genuinely moral in my own life. I could imagine each step in the life of obedience moving me continually nearer to the gates of righteousness until I at last pass through.
Another verse of Scripture crossed my path yesterday morning, one that is quite related to the Acts reading we have before us today. It is a verse from Luke: “The Pharisees and scribes grumbled against Jesus saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’” Like the Pharisees and scribes, the church council in Jerusalem called Peter to the proverbial carpet, grumbling against him because he had been received in the home of the unclean Gentile Cornelius and had presumably eaten the man’s unclean food. According the religious authorities of their day, Jesus and Peter had departed from the way of obedience, the way of righteousness, and the gate keepers had to hold the two accountable.
Reflecting on these two verses a bit more, I began to think about St. Francis whose story I recently read anew in Richard Rohr’s book Eager to Love. Rohr describes Francis as one who lived “on the edge of the inside.” In other words, Francis – as a monk – belonged to the institutional church; however, he was never too comfortable with the center of power. Instead he preferred to live on the edges where he could connect with nature and with people on the outside.
In the reading from Acts, we can likewise think of Peter as one who, led by the Holy Spirit, moved from the center of power in the early church toward the edges. In visiting and eating with Cornelius, he experienced how God’s table extended beyond the boundaries of the early church’s rules and expectations.
Returning to our verse from Psalm 118 and the metaphor of gates of righteousness, might we not do well to remember that in any walled city the gates are likewise located at the edges? Perhaps among those of us already in the church, opening the gates of righteousness and going through them might have less to do with obedience and moral living and more to do with moving to the edges of our institutions and becoming less comfortable with the power structures that exist to determine who is in and who is out – who is righteous and who is not. Maybe, instead of imagining ourselves walking step by step toward the gates of righteousness, we should instead fling wide the gates to see who is standing just outside, hoping not only to invite them to our table but that we might join them at theirs.
Our reading for today does not include the very end of Peter’s encounter with the church council in Jerusalem. If we keep reading, though, we hear Peter testify that God gave Cornelius and the Gentiles the same gift (that is, the Holy Spirit) that he had given to the Jewish followers of Jesus. “Who was I,” says Peter, “that I could hinder God?” Hearing this, the church council responds first with silence. But then they decide to follow Peter to the edges, fling wide the gates of righteousness, and go through them praising God.
May it be so in the church today. Amen.