In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “This is my commandment -- that you love one another.” Whether you are a follower of Jesus, or simply someone seeking to live as a decent human being, it is a challenge worthy of our very best ongoing efforts.
Now, more than ever, our world stands in need of the healing balm of such all-encompassing, welcoming, accepting love. But it is not always easy and we frequently fall short of the mark. There is usually lots of room for improvement. A sign on my office door asks the question, “Which part of ‘love one another’ don’t we understand?”
It seems as if there are always those who want to act as gatekeepers -- deciding who is acceptable and who is not, who is worthy of love and who is not. Sometimes such gatekeepers are acting in an official capacity and sometimes they are self -appointed. Sometimes they claim to be acting with religious authority and sometimes they are purely secular. Sometimes “they” are “us.”
But regardless of who such gatekeepers are, or where we find them, those of us who would seek to live ever more fully as compassionate and loving human beings have a clear mandate to stand up and challenge narrow, exclusive attitudes whenever, wherever, however they present themselves.
In the early days of the Christian Church the issue was whether or not you had to be a Jew in order to be a Christian. All of the first Christians had spent their whole lives being Jews, so that was “normal” and provided the framework for what was considered acceptable. For the Apostle Peter it took a vision from God to shake him loose and provide him with a broader and more inclusive perspective that allowed him to proclaim, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” Once he began to see this reality more clearly he was then in a position to challenge the gatekeepers of his day. He began advocating for full acceptance of non-Jews who wanted to become Christian. And the circle of love grew larger and more inclusive.
Of course, this process needs to be repeated over and over again, because every time we push past one barrier to inclusivity it paves the way for us to discover a new barrier we didn’t even know to look for. Peter realizes that God’s love is open to all, but then has to come to terms with just how radical that notion is. The Apostle Paul tells the church in Galatia that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” But then he falls back into old patterns of seeing the world and tells the church in Corinth that a woman is only acceptable if she has her head covered.
Challenging the gatekeepers is tricky business because it is so easy to fall into the trap of being a gatekeeper without even realizing it. Again and again we have to come face to face with what it means (what it really means, in practical, down-to-earth, real-life terms) for God to show no partiality. And we have to find the courage to stand up to those who would say otherwise (even when it means standing up to ourselves). Once we catch even a glimpse of this larger, more expansive, more inclusive reality it is incumbent upon us to speak out.
In the history of my own faith tradition, there is an example of this kind of courage. In the early 1800s, in the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, there was a practice known as “fencing the table.” In order to participate in communion, you first had to be “approved” by the leaders of the church. You then received a token that you presented at the table in order to receive the bread and cup.
Alexander Campbell, who later become one of the founders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), was standing in line with his token in his hand, when it became clear to him that there was something seriously wrong with this system. The good news of God’s welcoming love had become distorted. There were literally gatekeepers standing guard at the table, deciding who was acceptable and who wasn’t. So he put his token on the table and walked out. He would no longer participate in such a practice.
In Germany in the 1940s, when the Nazis were in power, a minister named Martin Niemoller penned these words about what it means when we fail to challenge the gatekeepers. “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up, because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.”
The truth is that there is no such thing as “us” and “them.” There is only “us.” We are all in this life together. We are all connected. We are all created, loved, and accepted by God. And living into that truth is a full-time, all-the-time, lifetime job. We dare not be silent. There is simply too much at stake.
Who are the gatekeepers in our world today? Who are they trying to keep out? Which part of “love one another” don’t we yet understand? May we continue to have the wisdom and the courage to speak the truth to power. May we continue to have the wisdom and the courage to speak the truth to ourselves.
Roger Lynn is the pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ.