One of the most common images we have of Jesus is as the Shepherd. However, in our lesson from John’s gospel we find Jesus referring to himself as the Gate. How can this image help us discover more about Jesus? If Jesus is the Gate, then what side of the threshold do we stand on and what are the implications for our lives?
Text: John 10: 1-10
I Am the Gate
I once read a story about a woman from Missouri who was startled out of a dead sleep one night by some desperate cries of “Help! Help!” You know how it is when you awake to some sound: you are not at all certain whether you really heard something or if it was just a dream. At first she thought perhaps her husband had cried out, but he was sleeping soundly next to her. Then suddenly she heard the cries again: “Help! Help!” Finally she threw back the covers and headed downstairs toward their living room. “Help!” went the plaintive voice yet again. “Where are you?” the woman replied. “In the fireplace,” came the rather shocking answer.
And sure enough, dangling in the fireplace with his head sticking through the flue was a burglar, upside down and quite snugly stuck! The police and fire department got him out eventually, though not before having to disassemble the mantle and some of the masonry. Perhaps the best part of the story was what this woman did in the meantime. She flipped on all the lights and videotaped the whole thing. I don’t know what the two talked about while waiting for the police and company to arrive, but had I been she, I think I would have hauled out a Bible and given the crook a pointed reading of John 10: “Verily I tell you, anyone who does not enter by the door but climbs in another way is a thief and a robber!”
We put doors and gates on things for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is to keep things out, other times it is to keep things in. Depending on the time of year the reasons could change. What we know for sure is that we have what we think are appropriate ways for people to enter in. For our houses it is the door that we expect people to enter through, not the windows and certainly not the chimney.
Our gospel reading this morning is full of conflicting and interesting images. However, it points towards recognizing Christ and the promise of life abundant that comes with life in Christ. Within short order John has provided us with three rich images of how we view Jesus; images that include ways to enter in or out of a structure. We have the gate, the gatekeeper and the Shepherd. It is the image of Shepherd that we most commonly associate with Jesus. Psalm 23 which we read this morning says, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” In the verses of John’s gospel which come after our reading today Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
So it is really easy to get caught up in the image of the Shepherd. However, if we jump right to the Shepherd then we pass over the rich images of gate and gatekeeper. It is rather easy to skip these two images. The passage that follows what we read this morning is where Jesus announces that he is “The Good Shepherd.” Knowing what is coming it is easy to skip ahead or to not read as closely as we should about what Jesus is saying in today’s passage.
However, there might be another reason why we skip right to the image of the Shepherd, aside from it being so familiar. That reason is simply that what Jesus is saying in this passage is confusing. Let’s break down what Jesus is saying to us in this passage.
First Jesus tells us that the one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. This seems to affirm the notion of going in via the proper channel. The shepherd might be able to hop over the wall, but the sheep probably can’t. So the Shepherd goes in through the gate. Here we have two of those three images.
Jesus follows this up by saying the gatekeeper opens the gate for the Shepherd. This implies that there is a second person present and also provides us with the final image in our gate, gatekeeper and shepherd analogy. So the gatekeeper has opened the gate and the Shepherd calls the sheep and because they recognize his voice they follow him, presumably through the gate that the gatekeeper is holding open.
I’m going to be honest, the first time I read this passage I skipped right over the gatekeeper. I moved right to Jesus (the Shepherd) calling the sheep (us). How we (the sheep) recognize Jesus’ voice and we follow him and not the voice of strangers. That’s what leaped off the page at me on my first read through this passage as I prepared for today. It is a familiar passage and I think because it is so familiar it is very easy for us to skip the gate and the gatekeeper.
Now, if you are confused don’t worry. You aren’t the only one. Theologian Scott Black Johnston points out that there is some irony in John 10 considering that Jesus makes a big point to say that the sheep know and follow the recognized voice of the shepherd. They don’t listen to a stranger’s voice but they do so to the familiar voice of the shepherd. And yet given all that, how ironic to note that in John 10:6, right after Jesus says all this, we are told that those listening to Jesus that day “did not understand what he was telling them.” Those that were present were disciples, Pharisee’s and likely other interested parties. So apparently even when we recognize the Good Shepherd’s voice, we don’t necessarily always understand what he is saying to us!
Now, if you were confused before or were wondering what Jesus was going on about hold on to your pew. So far Jesus has not said that he is the Shepherd, we are making that assumption based on what Jesus says in verse 11 which we did not read this morning, we stopped at verse 10. However, because we know what comes next we assume that Jesus is the Shepherd whose voice the sheep hear and know.
However, Jesus has not said that yet.
Instead, Jesus says to them “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” He repeats that again a few sentences later, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
So Jesus is a gate. However we also know that he is the Shepherd. Is it possible for him to be both? Of course Jesus is talking in the language of metaphor here. But what does it mean to enter in by the gate that is Jesus Christ?
So let’s break this down and try to make some sense of the story.
First we have the gate, which Jesus tells us is what he is. Jesus represents a gate to life in abundance.
Then we have the gatekeeper who opens the gate for the Shepherd.
Then there is the Shepherd who walks through the gate, which the gatekeeper has opened.
In this story and the verses which follow Jesus identifies as the gate and as the Shepherd. The question that remains is: who is the gatekeeper?
I think that the answer is perhaps very simple. The gatekeeper is God who sent the Son to show the way. To be the gate that people would enter into life abundant. They find the gate by following the Shepherd whose voice they know and trust.
There is a story about a pastor who ran across an Arab shepherd. This shepherd was not a Christian and did not know the Bible. But he was a keeper of sheep and so was showing off his flock as well as the penned-in area where his sheep slept every night. “And when they go in there,” the shepherd said proudly, “they are perfectly safe.”
But then the scholar noticed something. “Your sheep sleep in that pen and yet I just noticed that the pen does not have a gate on it.”
“Yes, that’s right,” the shepherd replied, “I am the gate.”
“What do you mean?” the man asked in startled wonder.
“After my sheep are in the pen, I lay my body across the opening. No sheep will step over me and no wolf can get in without getting past me first. I am the gate.”
This story helps explain how Jesus can fill those dual roles of gate and Shepherd at the same time. It’s actually a rather comforting analogy. That we know and trust the voice of Jesus and that by entering through the gate that Jesus represents we are kept safe.
However, friends there is something that I find troubling about this image of the gate. Something that needs further exploration. Gates normally represent separation. We put gates up to protect ourselves. So if we enter through the Gate that is Jesus Christ what are we separating ourselves from? What are we keeping out?
Is it the world, are we exclusive? A private members only club?
Or read in the light of Easter are we separated from our own brokenness, our own imperfections, the violence of our world, the petty indifference’s and insults. John’s gospel is rooted in the Word made flesh and our passage today read from a post-Easter perspective forces us to ask questions about what it means for Jesus to be the gate. Indeed reading this passage from a post-Easter perspective is the only way that we can read it. For we are Easter people it is where we live. We travel to Jerusalem with Jesus. We confront ours and societies sin on Good Friday, and we celebrate on Easter the resurrection of Christ. We recognize just what God through Christ has done for us and creation.
Gates represent separation. So let’s take a careful look at what Jesus says about the gate we walk through. We read “whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
We will come in and then go out and find pasture. The wording here implies to me that it is a really big field that we get access to in Jesus Christ. I think it is easy to read this passage and assume that we enter the gate into a field where we are safe and secure. Which is true, but I think that such a reading is limiting. It limits the power of God. It puts God in a box and I don’t like that.
Imagine if you will a small square field. The walls of the field are made of stones and there is one solitary gate. We live in that field, society lives in that field. It is small, we are hemmed in. We are uncomfortable, jealous of the elbow room our neighbour has. Wishing we shift over a little and get out of the mud. This is the field we are in, it is small and it limits us.
Then we hear a voice. The voice of Christ and the voice says come here, there is another field. In this field there is life abundant. So we struggle against everyone and everything we know to get closer to the voice, to gain sight of the other field, recognizing the glimmer of hope that we hear in the voice. We grasp hoping to see this other field, but always our vision is obscured. Always we are distracted. So we attempt to move towards the voice, to move towards the gate.
We get to the gate and there is Jesus. He says enter by me, follow my ways and my teachings and you will know life abundant. We hear the truth in his voice and we enter through the gate. It is then that our eyes are open to the truth. We have entered into a large pasture. A pasture so large it completely surrounds and engulfs the tiny field that we were once trapped within.
Jesus does not lead us into a pasture to trap and keep us. Rather Jesus invites us through to a pasture that liberates us. Jesus invites us through to a pasture that saves us.
Reflecting on this passage it seems to me that the gate is the cross on which the Shepherd our Lord Jesus Christ died upon. In doing so Jesus opens the gate for all. We find life and we find it abundantly. This is represented in the reconciling of our relationships, the forgiveness of our sins. Discovering the purpose for which God called us into being.
This is the message of Easter. We need the gate. We need the cross. We need to understand its burdens. We need to understand how it shames us, how it make us feel guilty. However, we also need to understand how it liberates us towards new life in Jesus Christ.
Only by accepting the burden, responsibility and challenge of the cross can we fully move to understand the gift that God has given us in Jesus Christ.
As a community of faith, we are celebrating 184 years. 184 years of serving God, of following the teachings of Jesus. 184 years of opening the gate, of welcoming strangers, feeding the hungry. 184 years of service and worship.
Those doors back there, they are gates. On one hand they keep us in and allow us to worship. But soon they will open. Do we walk back out into a small field where our vision is dulled and we are distracted by the lures of society? Or do we walk through the gate of life that is Jesus Christ and if we do what does that mean for us and how are we called to share this message of life giving love? Amen.