A devout old shepherd lost his favorite Bible while he was out looking for a lost lamb. He searched everywhere but couldn’t find it. Three weeks later, a sheep walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The shepherd couldn’t believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the sheep’s mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, “It’s a miracle!” “Not really,” said the sheep. “Your name is right here inside the cover.”
Baaaaaa. Sheep, shepherds, gates … what is this all about? Today is Good Shepherd Sunday - every year a couple of weeks after Easter, we have similar scriptures about sheep. We need some context for what Jesus is saying in this reading so let me go back to John, chapter 8:
Early on the Sabbath morning, Jesus is at the temple, teaching, and preaching. His message is that he is the Messiah and that isn’t going down well with the leaders of the temple. For quite a while, Jesus goes back and forth with them about his true identity. They contest everything he is saying. The situation degrades until the Pharisees are fed up and start throwing rocks at Jesus.
He leaves the temple and encounters a man who has been blind from birth. Jesus spits in the dirt, makes some mud and spreads it on the man’s eyes. He tells the man to go wash in the Pool of Siloam. After doing so, the man can see for the first time in his life. He is brought to the Pharisees in the temple who aren’t impressed that his sight is restored. Oh no, they are focused on the fact that Jesus sinned by healing on the Sabbath. They finally kick the blind man out of the temple where he meets up with Jesus again and declares his belief that Jesus is Lord.
Here come the Pharisees and here we start today’s reading. Jesus is VERY annoyed at how these religious leaders have treated this poor blind man and how they kicked him out of the temple. He starts talking about sheep, gates and thieves and bandits… he is essentially telling the Pharisees that they are the thieves and bandits who are crawling over the walls of the sheep pen and hurting the sheep, while he is the good shepherd who loves and cares for the sheep.
The Pharisees are confused. So, Jesus clarifies, saying; “I am the gate. You are thieves and scum. I am the gate. With my help, the sheep will come in and go out and find tasty grass and cool water. The thief is all about killing but I am all about life, abundant life.”
Now all this talk about shepherds is familiar to the Pharisees. They intimately know the 23rd psalm as they sing it every single Saturday afternoon at the third Sabbath meal. They are also very familiar with scriptures from Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel which all refer to good and bad shepherds. There are 118 references to shepherds in the Bible, 23 of them in the New Testament. These scriptures predict the coming of another shepherd, one like David, chosen by God, to love and care for his people.
But Jesus realizes that they are still not really getting his point. So, he changes his imagery: “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” Back in the first century, shepherds high in the hills could lead their sheep into pens, usually built of stone. This shelter provided safety and sanctuary for the sheep. There was no door, just an open area. The shepherd would sit right there, blocking the way, keeping the sheep safe. On a quiet night, the shepherd would sleep, laying prone across the open area, blocking the entrance.
Now for years, I didn’t like this gospel reading - I thought that this was a very exclusionary statement by Jesus. I thought he was saying that “I am the only door, and without me, no one can get to the good place.“ This very gospel has been used for centuries to encourage people to think that the only way to heaven was through Jesus. Furthermore, the only way to heaven was through the right version of Jesus as determined by your particular sect of Christianity. I grew up with such beliefs hammered into my little head by my priests in “the one true church.”
Listen closely: Jesus is the gate, not us. While there is a supremely human impulse to gatekeep who is in and who is out of our communities and churches, that is not the role of the sheep. Jesus is clear: “I tell you; I am the gate for the sheep.”
Christians over the centuries have argued and even spilled blood on the “right” ways of thinking, believing, and behaving. And those who did not align with the “right” way were cast from the community, just as the blind man was cast from the temple.
We are seeing this today with the vilification of the LGBTQ community by certain churches, politicians and cable channels. It kills me when I see churches that should provide loving sanctuary in the name of Christ, instead choosing cruel exclusion of those they deem different. But if we believe that Jesus is the gate and the shepherd, we understand that it is not up to us to go around slamming gates shut.
The purpose of the gate is not to keep out other sheep. The gate opens to let sheep in and closes to keep sheep safe. Remember the key message of John’s gospel: that God SO loved the world. The whole world. Following our reading today, in verse 16, Jesus continues, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
Jesus was a living gate, a door who invites us in, who shows us the way to an abundant life. He says, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” What is the purpose of the gate? It is precisely to create an opening in the fence. It is precisely to allow travel through the wall. It is a means of liberation, not a means of exclusion.
When Jesus says, “I am the gate,” it is his way of inviting us both in and out. He is telling us that he is our way to safety, to entering a restful place, a sanctuary, where we know we are loved and protected. But he is also telling us that we will need to go back out through that gate into the world. It is his invitation to leave safety and security and go back out into a world of challenges where, with his help, we are strengthened to do his will.
Let us pray:
O God, whose goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, you have made Jesus, whom you raised from the dead, the gate through which we, the sheep of your flock, may enter the sheepfold of abundant life. Pour forth upon us the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that amidst the corruption of this age and over the voices of those intent on leading us astray, we may learn to recognize the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd, who came that we may have life, life in all its fullness. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.