Church Life | Opinion

The church outside the gates

The legacy of St. Gertrude and the apostles.

Gates offer protection. They also imprison. Gates are entrances and exits, transition points. Scripture celebrates the gates of God’s Kingdom. “Lift up your heads, you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in” (Ps. 24:7,9). Ezekiel envisioned God’s presence returning through the east temple gate (Ez. 43), and John in Revelation sees the 12 gates of the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21). Jesus invites us to the narrow gate leading to new life (Matt. 7:13-14).

There are gatekeepers narrowing the gate, protecting those on the inside. They see danger and close the gates. Gatekeepers cut off the way. They are schismatic. In Acts the Jewish gate-watchers of Damascus seek to catch and kill Paul (9:23-25), and when Paul is later arrested, the temple gates were closed (20:30).

Outside or inside the gates? Entrance or barrier?

St. Gertrude’s

My mother disliked her name: Gertrude. I now like the name, after encountering three St. Gertrude churches while traveling – in Utrecht, NL (where my great grandparents were married); in Riga, Latvia; and in Kaunas, Lithuania. St. Gertrude was a 7th century abbess in Nevilles, Belgium. She became the patron saint of travelers, pilgrims, merchants and cats. Churches in her name were built just outside a city’s gates. When visitors arrived too late to enter the city, they could stay safe.

St. Gertrude’s was the church outside the gates.

The Gate

The beggar Lazarus lay outside the rich man’s gate (Luke 16:19-31). He is the only named character in any of Jesus’ parables. Lazarus was Greek for the Hebrew Eliezer, Abraham’s servant. Jewish tradition said that Eliezer of Damascus would still come to the people of Israel to see if they were practicing the hospitality of Abraham’s children in the world. Clearly the rich man failed to listen to Moses and the prophets. The gate was a barrier.

In Acts 3, Peter and John meet the lame man at the temple gate. He was not allowed in because of his deformity. Peter healed him in the name of Jesus and then entered with him into the temple. With this testimony Peter proclaims from Moses and the prophets the restoring healing. The gatekeepers tried to silence Peter and John.

The gate remains until Acts 10. As Peter reflected on his vision, men from Cornelius are at the gate. They called out because as Gentiles they could not go into a Jewish house. Yet Peter invited them in and then went with them into the outsider Cornelius’ house.
God pushes us through the gate.

Outside the Gate

The writer of Hebrews addresses an exiled community and concludes, “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore” (13:12-13). This gives the historical truth of the place of Jesus’ death a theological meaning and life application.

The writer reflects on the practices of the Day of Atonement where the animal bodies were brought outside the camp (Lev. 16) and maybe on the Moses tradition that the Tent of Meeting was outside the camp (Ex. 33). Jesus was killed outside the gate to atone for those outside. His followers meet him there to live as outsiders.

Going Outside

There is no fear outside because even the gates of Hades – death – cannot imprison these pilgrims (Matt. 16:18). They are protected by the gate and shepherd of the sheep as “they will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9). The pasture is outside.

Bringing Out the Dead is a Martin Scorsese and Calvin-graduate Paul Schrader movie about a paramedic in New York City who goes into horrific scenes to bring the injured to the hospital.

That’s the church – going outside the gate to Lazarus, the lame, the outsider, to Jesus, that all may be brought in.

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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