[Jesus said] “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. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)
Who is Jesus? That’s the question that was on everyone’s mind. The question of identity permeates nearly every episode of John’s Gospel. And I’m thinking that maybe this question, “Who is Jesus?” is the question that’s on your mind this morning.
In many places in other gospels, Jesus is indirect. He doesn’t say upfront who he is. “Who is this?” was a frequent question, but Jesus doesn’t respond directly. This morning, it’s different. Jesus casts off the veil of subtlety.
He answers the “Who is this?” question. And yet he does so with two poetic stories. The next portion of this story, which we don’t hear today identifies Jesus as the Shepherd, but in our text today…He is the gate.
A thief rarely walks in through the front door but rather sneaks in through a window. When you enter your own home, of course you walk through the door; there’s no need to sneak through a window. And when you arrive, if another member of the family is already at home, they ask, “Is that you?” Your identity can then be confirmed by only the sound of your voice.
Jesus is known by his voice. Nobody knows for sure what Jesus looked like: how he dressed, his height, his weight. He is known to us by what he said. The gospels record the most important of his sayings. Have you ever asked yourself, “I wonder what God thinks about?” You can look in scripture, and you can hear what God says. In Jesus Christ, God elected to be known to us, not to be vague, obscure or coy. It is the nature of God to speak to us, to reveal, and to disclose.
God is known to us by what God says. The speech of Jesus, his self-revelation, is not limited to the fixed words on a page, even if those pages are scripture. As we celebrated here four Sundays ago, he is raised, alive, and present. The cross did not silence Jesus. In his resurrection, the Jesus talk resumes. He continues to speak, to reveal, and to disclose.
Many churches will read this passage on what has become known as Good Shepherd Sunday. And yet, there is no mention of Jesus as a/the good shepherd! That comes in the next verse after the lectionary reading ends.
The good shepherd is part of a separate parable making a separate point. So, what is this week’s gospel reading telling us?
First, we must look at the context: John 9 is the story of Jesus healing the man born blind, and the difficulty some Pharisees had in reconciling that someone who made mud on the Sabbath could be the man who performed this ultimate sign of giving sight (9:30-32). While some Pharisees sided with Jesus (9:16), others couldn’t see past the violation of traditions that had come to be associated with Sabbath-keeping. The man who had been cured testified that only someone sent by God could open the eyes of the blind (9:32-33). Some Pharisees responded by throwing him out of the synagogue. Jesus tells his parable in the context of this failed leadership (that being the religious leaders who should have celebrated the empowerment of one of their flock instead threw the man out for not following their traditions).
The central point of Jesus’ parable is that he is the gate and gatekeeper by which all true shepherds have access to the sheep (John 10:7). To make sure that we get the point, he said, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep” and “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (10:7, 9). Jesus isn’t the shepherd in this parable. He is the gate who keeps the sheep safe from robbers, thieves and false shepherds. In fact, “the door of Jesus” seems to have been used to describe Christ so frequently by the early Christian community in Jerusalem that even those who persecuted his Jewish followers knew of this term.
Jesus pointed out that true shepherds accessed the sheep by that gate and the sheep followed them. But false shepherds and thieves tried to steal sheep.
Happily, in Jesus’ telling, the sheep are sophisticated enough to know the difference between true and false shepherds (10:5). Jesus is critiquing religious leaders who don’t make his presence and leadership central. They are false shepherds who can’t hope to lead the flock well, and John makes an editorial comment to make sure we know that (10:6).
It seems to me that, in light of COVID-19, Jesus has opened the gate to his beloved sheep and asked us all to be good shepherds. How will we take care of the people whom God has asked us to take care of? Our neighbors, our vulnerable relatives and fellow members, our folks facing financial struggles and unemployment, and those who are losing loved ones? Make no mistake, Jesus is the gate who protects the sheep from thieves and robbers. Will we be good shepherds of those Jesus has entrusted to us?
The tenth and final verse of this passage is one of my favorites in Scripture and, in many ways, sums up John’s distinctive take on the ministry and mission of Jesus: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly!” Abundant life.
- Not just getting by, but flourishing.
- Not just eeking out an existence, but thriving.
- Not just prolong one’s existence, but living life to the fullest.
Abundant life – what a promise!
Some may wonder if this confidence is misplaced. Jesus’ disciples—again, both then and now—have a history of falling short, of abandoning the way of discipleship when things are hard and slipping into a dangerous triumphalism when things are going well.
But note, again, that this is less about the sheep’s innate or acquired abilities and far more about confidence in the relationship forged between the shepherd and his sheep.
This is Jesus’ version, I think, of “You’ve got this,” rooted in the prior, crucial affirmation, “I’ve got you.” And it feels like an important word, as Jesus makes a promise both about what he is doing for us—protecting, providing, caring, sacrificing, and giving life—and also a promise about how we’ll respond—trusting, listening, embracing, thriving. I suspect it came as good news to a community adrift, afraid, and unsure about the future in the first century… and I suspect it will come as good news to our communities who are adrift, afraid, and unsure about the future in the twenty-first century.
Father Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, reminds us that we spend the first half of our life figuring things out, self-differentiating, accumulating, and striving to achieve. And then, not surprisingly, most of us turn around and ask, “Is this all there is?” We then spend the last half of
our life deconstructing our carefully curated selves in a quest to embrace who we truly are meant to be. Or, as Carl Jung said, “The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.”
This Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, and wow, do we need the real deal Shepherd right now! Whether you look at Maslow’s hierarchy or other updated list of needs, it’s pretty clear that a lot of folks aren’t having their basic needs met right now. People who are sheltering alone in place are longing for human connection and touch. Many are hungry, have lost jobs, or are unsure whether they’ll have a roof over their heads in months to come.
Friends, we’re going to see the fallout from our current world situation for a long time, and it will be scary. But, we have this amazing opportunity to emerge from this crisis to become who we truly are and all that we are meant to be.
Of course, Jesus has been there all along.
- He’s been suffering with medical personnel making excruciating decisions about patient care.
- He’s been with the sick, the dying, and the grieving.
- He’s with and among the church dispersed.
There is nowhere that Jesus is not, yet whether we see the Christ at work in the world depends largely on the lens through which we view life.
- If we’re looking through lenses of greed, control, power, or even inconvenience, we may not have many Jesus sightings.
- If we’re rushing to get back to life as usual, we may miss some beautiful moments.
Yes, this situation is serious, and there’s still a lot of suffering, inconvenience, and hardship on the horizon, but Jesus is with and alongside us, always aiming us toward real life. This good news gives us hope and challenge. We have hope in a better way that leads to abundant life for all, and we are challenged to roll up our sleeves, drop our pretenses, and make that hope happen through the love of Christ.
So I leave you with this to ponder this week:
- Are we are ready to follow Jesus, the real deal Messiah, into a radically new way of being?
- Or, will we settle once again for the false comfort of our own limited constructions?
I can ask the question, but you have to be the one to answer it. I pray, whatever our answer is, that you never forget God wants us all to have life abundantly. We just all need to do our part.