As One Door Closes …

Easter 6

Acts 16:6-15, John 14:23-29

‘As one door closes, another door opens…’

To most of us, I imagine that’s a pretty well-known phrase.

Although it’s usually meant to reassure, for me this little proverb raises a number of difficult questions, such as:

Just who is it that is opening and closing those doors?

Are the main points of entry and exit in our lives controlled entirely by ourselves and other human beings?

Do they function randomly?

Or are they under the remote control of a supreme being;

Are our doors indirectly opened and closed for us by God?

Does God have ‘a plan’ just for people of faith, or for every human being,

And where is God when everything seems to be going wrong?

I’m aware that last question sounds more than a bit melodramatic,

And I can’t help recalling ‘ Where there’s life, there’s hope’ – another helpful proverb I learned at some point in my distant past.

But somehow, knowing that does not necessarily prevent normally sane human beings from becoming susceptible to what counsellors call ‘catastrophisation’ when one or more doors seem to slam in our face within a short period of time.

Catastrophisation, in a nutshell, means assuming that the worst possible outcome will inevitably happen, and it often involves believing that you’re in a worse situation than you actually are.

For many of the people with whom I work as a counsellor, that seems to be a perfectly reasonable response to a world in which so much is beyond their control and so many of the things which would normally give shape and structure and meaning to life are damaged or missing;

For young people in particular, facing another year of disruption to their current and future study plans thanks to the global pandemic,

For their parents and grandparents,  struggling to provide a sense of sanity and stability in a world which seems at times to have gone quite mad.

Whether it’s footage of the latest atrocities being committed in the Ukraine as part of Vladimir Putin’s so-called ‘military operation’

Or yet another report on the impact of pollution or climate change or domestic abuse, or online bullying,

There is ample evidence of catastrophic failure almost everywhere we choose to look in our world.

Years of working in pastoral care and counselling have taught me that people who habitually catastrophize are not often helped by invitations to ‘look on the bright side’ because generally they cannot see it.

I have also learned that it’s not useful to tell people that things will work out all right when as far as they’re concerned everything is going dead wrong.

The most useful thing to do in the first instance is simply to empathise:

Show the other person that whilst you cannot feel exactly what they are feeling, you are there for them and with them in their suffering;

And stay with them in that space until you’ve built the trust required together to move on.

People who do that consistently and well have been and continue to be my role-models as a minister and counsellor,

And I’ve been reminded of their example as I’ve been reflecting on the scripture readings prescribed by the revised common lectionary for this week.

As you know, I very much appreciate any invitation to join this congregation in worship,

And I was particularly looking forward to being with you in person today.

After having to isolate twice during the first school term when our two sons caught COVID separately I thought my wife and I had successfully avoided catching the virus,

And after enjoying some cycling and sight-seeing during the holidays I was by last week well and truly launched on what was shaping up to be an even busier than usual second term.

Whilst we were still required to wear masks at school and I continued to take all reasonable precautions to avoid infection wherever possible,

The virus had largely faded from my active awareness – until last Sunday, when I found myself struggling for breath to reach the high notes when rehearsing with my barbershop quartet.

I woke up on Monday with a sore throat and headache,  feeling too unwell to go to school, and then a RAT test that  evening confirmed what I suspected.

I had COVID, and would have to go into isolation for a week.

Whilst I didn’t go into full catastrophisation mode, I did briefly indulge in something else that counsellors and ministers tend to be quite good at: a bit of creative denial.

If I couldn’t go to work, then surely I could work from home!

I’d done it several times before, how hard could it be?

Quite hard as it turns out – I soon found I was in no condition to concentrate on anything for most of Monday and Tuesday.

Simply writing and sending emails to cancel and reschedule appointments was exhausting for me.

And then there was the matter of this Sunday’s service at St Ninian’s.

Thankfully I had already drafted and sent an order of service, but on Monday evening the sermon consisted mainly of some disparate thoughts rattling around loosely in my head.

Amidst those thoughts, I couldn’t help noticing the irony of the theme-line I’d chosen several weeks earlier.

‘As one door closes’ seemed strangely relevant as I found a metaphorical door being forcefully closed to an activity which I have come increasingly to value,

The more so since being involved in the celebration of worship is no longer something I do as part of my job every week.

Thankfully an email exchange with Hugh Perry and Pam Syme opened the door for me to write a sermon which Lois Dalton very kindly offered to deliver – so I am grateful to be able to be with you in spirit if not in person through my words today.

I am also mindful that my experience of COVID has been significantly less traumatic than that of many millions of others for whom the virus has literally been a killer.

And I’m aware that for all of us it has been a constant threatening presence, hanging over our heads for what feels like the longest time.

Whilst living in a state of constant stress can promote resilience, it can also provide a fertile breeding-ground for fatalism,

Which some people use as a way of coping with the big uncertainties in life.

I remember encountering this quite often among personnel in the Defence Force:

The belief that when your time is up, it’s up, and your life is over;

That there is a bullet or a bus or a heart attack or something, somewhere, with your name on it;

There is nothing you can do about it, it’s all in the hands of God/luck/fate.

Whilst I don’t know many people who believe that we are all entirely the masters of our own destiny,

I can’t accept the opposite assertion either.

Apart from the fact that it renders the concept of human free will and agency almost meaningless,

It produces an image and understanding of God quite unlike the God we meet in Jesus.

A fatalistic, deterministic God just doesn’t fit what the gospels tell us of the liberating, compassionate, caring spirit of Christ.

That’s the conclusion I’m drawn to after reflecting on this week’s reading from John’s Gospel,

A short passage in which the Jesus of John’s Gospel offers some advice to his followers, knowing that the door of his life with them is about to close.

To a group of bewildered and soon to be grieving people, Jesus promises a spiritual advocate, or comforter, or helper, one who will teach them all they want to know and give them all the peace they could ever need.

Of course there is ongoing debate among biblical scholars about what Jesus actually said to his first disciples.

We cannot know precisely how much of John’s Gospel is history remembered, and how much is history metaphorised, to borrow terminology used by one of my favourite biblical scholars, the late  Professor Marcus Borg.[1]

But does it really matter?

Does it matter whether Jesus said these exact words to his followers,

Or is it enough to know that people responded as if he did?

Is the reliability of the words the most important factor in this and any reading,

Or should we be more concerned with the spirit of what the writer was trying to say?

Whilst reliability and factuality clearly do matter a lot in some situations, in this case I think the spirit of what’s intended matters more.

And the spirit of what’s intended here has to do with reassurance;

It has to do with comfort.

It has to do with reminding people in a stressful situation, some 40 years after the physical death of Jesus,

Of what his life and teaching were really all about.

It has to do with reassuring people that when God is involved, death is not the end of the story;

That when the various doorways that punctuate our human lives close or open,

God’s Spirit is there to help us find a way through;

God is in the other place,

God is on the other side.

So how does that work in real life?

Our second reading provides a fascinating  example of what happens when God turns out to be well and truly active in a place where God wasn’t expected to be.

In the opening verses to this morning’s second reading, we’re told that after a promising start in Phrygia and Galatia, the door to Christian expansion into Asia appears to slam closed.

Paul’s life – and the lives of his travelling companions – are temporarily put on hold.

Paul thought he knew what was happening next after his triumphant tour of Phrygia and Galatia.

He thought that he and his companions would continue their westward journey through Asia, sharing their message about Jesus as they went.

But according to Luke, the Holy Spirit stopped them.

And according to Luke, the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go into Bithynia either.

Precisely how the Spirit prevented their progress Luke wasn’t willing to say.

Perhaps it was the first century equivalent of some kind of strike closing down the local airport;

Perhaps somebody in their group lost a passport

Or was denied entry on religious or political grounds.

Perhaps the Spirit spoke to them through the advice of a trusted friend or mentor;

Perhaps Paul and his companions suddenly experienced misgivings about this particular part of their plans.

We don’t know what caused them to call off their visit to Asia;

We only have Luke’s conclusion: the Holy Spirit intervened,

Like a divine travel agent cancelling one part of their journey,

Then booking them on the next boat leaving Troas to cross the Aegean sea.

When they got to the other side, the city of  Philippi in Macedonia, they were all set to go on their preaching, church-planting way.

But another surprise was in store for them, in the form of Lydia,

A seller of purple cloth, Luke tells us

– In other words, a businesswoman of independent means.

Although not originally from that area, Lydia had formed a link with the local Jewish community,

Such that Luke was able to describe her as a worshipper of the Lord God.

What follows is often described as Lydia’s conversion – which is true to a point,

Since with the baptism of Lydia and her household they officially became the first Christians in the neighbourhood.

But the trouble with the word ‘conversion’ is that it tends to deny or devalue whatever faith or experience of God was there beforehand –

And in Lydia’s case the existence of such faith or experience of God is made abundantly clear.

It wasn’t that Paul and the apostles brought God with them when they arrived in Macedonia;

It was rather that in sharing the message of Jesus, they expanded an experience of God that was already there.

Lydia went on to become a mother-figure to the Macedonian Christian community,

So from what Luke tells us, it should be fairly obvious that the Spirit of God is not limited to any one class or gender of person;

Neither is the Spirit bound by any place or culture or context or time.

From what John tells us, it should be equally obvious that the same Spirit is available to all who love and follow Jesus,

To give them a sense of peace in an often conflict-riven and frightening world.

And from what both writers tell us, Christians believe in a God who is both inside and outside human beings, going with us and before us,

Our creator, our guide, our challenger, our home-maker, and our constant friend.

In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted by Marcus Borg in his book The God we never knew, ‘God is the beyond in our midst.’

God is both immanent and transcendent, because everything is in God.

The technical term for this is panentheism, not to be confused with pantheism, which says that everything is God.

Panentheism, according to Borg, says that God is all around us and within us, that we are within God.

And that means that when people face what feel like even the most catastrophic of setbacks and challenges,

When door after door slams shut and new ones seem to take forever to open,

We can rest assured that God in Christ will help us through it,

That ‘God is in the other place,’ wherever that happens to be.

I have to confess that during this last week it took me a while to encounter God in the other place of COVID-enforced isolation.

For a couple of days my heart was quite deeply troubled, and I did at times feel afraid.

Then an email with some practical advice and good wishes from a student who had recently had COVID reminded me of some truths that can be easily forgotten when we’re stressed and fearful – and in the spirit of mutual encouragement and discipleship I want to close by sharing those with you now.

First, that we’re all in this together;  we are not alone, no matter how overwhelmed and isolated we may sometimes feel, and second,

That the peace that Christ offers does not imply the absence of suffering, danger or conflict,

But rather the ability to be truly present, regardless of circumstances, embodying to the best of our ability Christ’s spirit of compassionate care.

Geoff King : 22 May 2022



[1] Marcus J. Borg:  Reading the Bible Again for the First Time:  Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.