May 7, 2017
“The Good Gate”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
John 10:1-10 (NRSV)
10 “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
As a community of faith we are returning to the Revised Common Lectionary after many years of absence. I am told that churches that use the RCL year in and year out know to expect Jesus’ words about sheep and shepherds on the fourth Sunday of Eastertide.
So perhaps you didn’t know that this Sunday is often referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday.
We’ve spent a good bit of time with the writer of the gospel of John during Lent this year.
You might remember back to the third Sunday in Lent when we see Jesus cross almost every boundary imaginable to have a conversation beside a well with a Samaritan woman.
During that conversation, the woman says, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”
And Jesus replies, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” (John 4:25-26)
These “I am” statements form the backbone of John’s telling of what God is up to in and through Jesus Christ.
The “I am” statements give us glimpses of Jesus. Each statement opens up a new world for us to understand God.
Can anyone name some of the “I am” statements?
Depending on how you count there are seven, or eight or even nine of these statements:
I am the bread of life,
I am the light of the world,
I am the resurrection and the life,
I am the way, the truth and the life,
I am the vine.
And the one we remember for today, I am the good shepherd.
Let’s look at the text for today and it is really important for us always to locate whatever we are reading inside the bigger picture of what is happening in what John is writing but also in the whole of the Bible.
Jesus says these words about walls and gates and sheep and shepherds right after he heals a man born blind (we read this account in Lent too). The man is interrogated by the religious leaders, and eventually they drive him out of the synagogue, the place, supposedly, where you could find God.
Jesus hears that he has been kicked out of his spiritual home and goes to find him.
Some commentators argue that the story of the blind man and Jesus’ words that we read this morning are not separate things, but are all part of the same story.
We pick up this story this morning with Jesus describing for us (I encourage you to follow along in your Bibles) pasture land and a wall that surrounds the sheep.
In the wall there is a gate where a gatekeeper stands guard, opening the door only to the shepherd.
The sheep know the shepherd, they hear his voice, they know that he is safe and familiar unlike thieves and bandits who have come in to do harm.
The shepherd feeds the sheep, holds the lambs, leads them out to good water and good grass. The shepherd walks ahead, he knows the way, and the sheep follow behind confident and secure.
The sheep will not follow strangers, but they will follow the shepherd because he has known them since before they were born.
And the people listening to Jesus tell this story do not understand what it means.
So Jesus explains further and we expect him here to say something like, “I am the Good Shepherd, the familiar one, the one who will keep you safe, you know my voice and you should follow me.”
The people hearing Jesus say these words would have been steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures.
They would have known by heart, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want,” from Psalm 23.
They would have lived long with the words of Isaiah 40, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
This depiction makes complete sense, but it is not what Jesus actually says.
In the verses we are given today by the Revised Common Lectionary, Jesus doesn’t call himself the Good Shepherd, he calls himself a door.
He is not the shepherd and he is not the gatekeeper, he is the gate.
Jesus says, “I am the gate.”
As I was looking for art for the bulletin cover to depict the text for today it is very hard to find a picture of Jesus as a gate.
There are so many tender pictures of Jesus holding lambs and hugging sheep.
The closest I could get was this William Dyce painting where Jesus is sort of standing in front of the opening (but still holding a lamb).
What do we make of this image of Jesus as a gate?
So I’ll speak for myself, when I imagine a door or a gate I imagine something impassable. Something meant to keep something out or keep something in.
A gate is a divider. A gate can be locked.
You are either on one side of a door or the other, an outsider or an insider.
If you have small children in your life you may have watched the animated movie Frozen once (or seventeen times) and the first part of the movie features Princess Anna standing outside her sister’s door and knocking and never being let in. What if you knock at the door, and it never opens?
Thankfully, as we keep reading this text and as we read the whole of the Bible together, we discover a different way to imagine this gate.
Jesus says, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and destroy. I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
So when Jesus calls himself “the gate,” he is talking about a gate that stands wide open. As the poem by Ann Weems in the bulletin puts it, “the latch is not on.”
Jesus the Good Gate does not keep people out or keep people in.
Jesus the Good Gate is all about giving people freedom to come and go – this is not about dividing up the world, this is about abundant life.
And John the writer tells us about this gift of abundant life throughout his account.
From the very beginning John writes about Jesus, “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (1:4). And the passage that we know so well, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:1). Jesus tells about life in the eternal sense, “I am the resurrection and those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (11:25). And Jesus tell us about life right now, “But these are written so that you may believe… and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
What does it mean for us that the gate stands open?
Growing up in Northern Virginia I could walk to my high school. There was the long way which took about twelve minutes and there was the short way that involved going through a neighbor’s fenced backyard and through some greenspace at the back of a couple other people’s backyards and a cut through a park. When school started at 7:25am, every minute of extra sleep in the morning was essential. And even though it meant a trail of teenagers wandering through his backyard at an early hour, the neighbor always left his gate open.
If we heard at some point in our lives that God could be angry and hateful, we are reminded that angry and hateful people do not leave gates open.
What does it mean for us that the gate stands open?
At its core this is our salvation story. Once we were separated from God, we were outsiders and there was nothing we could do to get inside – no loud knocking, no saying the right thing or doing the right thing.
But in Jesus Christ, God opens the gate wide and tells us that it will always be open. We cannot be thrown out of God’s presence like the healed blind man. We don’t have to beg a gatekeeper to let us in. This is grace for us.
What do we do now?
We tell other people the gate is always open.
When we want to exclude or divide, we are reminded that God does not.
We are reminded that we are not only saved from something, we are saved for something – life in all its abundance that God alone gives.
And for each of us this abundant life looks different.
What is abundant life for you, something which God alone can give? What is it?
Peace, freedom, joy, companionship, grace for yourself and the grace you offer others, forgiveness whether you are giving or receiving it, hope, a life lived near God, a chance to serve and be served, leaving shame behind, restoring dignity for others.
Here is what we hear in this passage – salvation is more than just forgiveness, it is about being saved for something, for abundant life, and this life will look different for every one of us.
So we are invited not just to hear these words today, but to live into these words from Jesus.
To hear these words as an invitation to us – to take part in this abundant life and to make sure that nothing is robbing others of this abundant life as well. Amen.