I Am: The Shepherd and the Gate

Scripture: John 10:1-21

If you’ve been here over the past couple weeks, you’ve probably seen the colors up front here changing a lot, both what we use on the altar and on my stole here.  I’m wearing green now – can anyone tell me what it was before that?  (It was white for Christmas and Epiphany.) How about before that? (Purple for Advent.)  I know the colors might be easy to overlook, so sometimes I just like to see if you all are paying attention.

I’m wearing green now for the season in the church year we call Ordinary Time, which is not because it’s boring but because we’re counting the weeks between one season and the next.  There are actually two stretches of Ordinary Time in the church year, and this is the first, which takes us from Epiphany – the visit of the wise men which we celebrated on January 6 – to Lent, which begins in March this year. This time is a chance to continue the theme of revelation that begins with Epiphany.  It’s a time for us to get to know and understand just a little better who this baby in a manger – by now a grown man in the midst of his earthly ministry – really is.

That’s why, during this time between Epiphany and Lent this year, we’re asking the question of who Jesus is, and letting him answer for himself.  Specifically, we’re looking at the Gospel of John, which features seven “I am” sayings of Jesus in which he uses different images – like light, bread, vine – to describe to people who he is.  Last week, we heard Jesus tell us that he is the light of the world.  He allows us to see the world as it is and ourselves as we are, and we are presented with a choice: to follow in that light or not.

Last week I told you about how this image of light and darkness arose out of a conflict in the Temple during the festival of Sukkoth, in John 7-8.  Some people hear Jesus teaching and believe him.  Others, notably the religious leadership, are pushed further into their unbelief.  The episode in the Temple ends with Jesus almost getting stoned for heresy, but he manages to escape.

The conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment, however, is just ramping up.

As Jesus walks along, we read at the beginning of chapter 9, he comes across a blind man, and restores his sight.  It happens to be the Sabbath. Naturally all of this causes a bit of a stir, and the onlookers drag the man to the Pharisees, some of the religious elites, for a judgment on this thing that has just happened. The Pharisees interrogate the man, his parents, and then the man again until they finally just get mad and send him away.

Jesus reappears on the scene with the man and some Pharisees with some thoughts on the subject of what really, in the end, makes a person blind.  Then he launches into a new monologue, in which we encounter his next two “I am” sayings.

He deals in the imagery of sheep, imagery which would have been familiar to those he spoke to, though it is probably somewhat less familiar to us.  “Very truly I tell you,” says Jesus, “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….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.”

Those of you who have been in our Sunday Bible study as we read through the Gospel of John together know that one of things I find most frustrating about John, and especially about the way Jesus tends to talk in it, is that he can be really hard to follow.  I find myself really wanting Jesus to get to the point.  So maybe you can help me out with what’s going on in this image:

– Who are the thieves and bandits?  (Since he’s saying this in the context of ongoing conflict with the Pharisees, it seems likely that it’s them – that they are somehow trying to lead the sheep astray.)  We might ask also: what’s the sheepfold, and what does it mean to enter it the wrong way?

– “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep,” Jesus says – who’s the shepherd?  Jesus himself?  Seems likely, right?  Does that make us, or his followers in the story, the sheep?

– “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him.”  Who’s this gatekeeper?

– How about the strangers, the ones the sheep won’t follow because they don’t recognize their voice? Are they the same people as the thieves and bandits?

John tells us that the people did not understand what Jesus was saying to them, and to be honest, I don’t really blame them.

Sometimes, though, we might actually trip ourselves up by trying to assign parts to every piece of the story.  Maybe what Jesus is trying to tell us here doesn’t depend on us being able to decode this image.  Maybe there’s a bigger picture here; maybe he’s still setting the scene for what he has to say next.  So let’s listen to it again, and instead of trying to line up all the parts, tell me what you hear in it, what impressions you get.

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.

What do you see and hear in this scene?

I get an impression of tenderness between the shepherd and the sheep.  There’s a kind of trust and intimacy there.  The shepherd knows the sheep by name and they know the shepherd’s voice.  There’s also danger there – from the thieves and bandits who try to enter the sheepfold.  And yet even in the presence of danger, there is assurance: the sheep won’t go with the wrong person; there’s no mistaking the bandit for the shepherd.

From here, Jesus begins to explain what he means, and this is where our next “I am” saying comes in: “I am the gate for the sheep,” he says.

OK, I did not see that one coming.  I could have sworn that Jesus was the shepherd.

How does this image change for you if Jesus is the gate?  What does a gate do?  A gate is the right way in to something.  Jesus says, “Everyone who enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture….I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Jesus, the gate, is the way in to abundant life, which I might describe as life lived fully in the love and grace of God.  Jesus is the way in to the pasture where the sheep are fed, and safe, and known.

It’s also interesting to me that Jesus talks about the sheep both going out and coming in.  I’m initially inclined to think of a gate as restrictive, controlling movement, keeping in those who supposed to be in and out those who are supposed to be out.  But here the gate is freedom rather than restriction.

Jesus goes on: “I am the good shepherd,” he says.  Wait a minute – I thought Jesus was the gate.  Now he’s the shepherd, too?  Well, why not.  Again, we can’t be too rigid in our metaphor here.

Well, what does it mean, then, for Jesus to be not just the shepherd in our image – but a good shepherd?

As Jesus says here, The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  He’s not a mere hired hand who takes care of the sheep until it gets scary and dangerous and then runs away and leaves the sheep to their own devices.  That hired hand may have a job to do, but he doesn’t love the sheep.  And he might be able to tell the sheep apart, but he doesn’t know them, not by name, not by whatever ovine characteristics make them unique creations of God.  The good shepherd loves the sheep and will protect them, fight for them, lay down his life for them.

A few years ago I preached on this passage and what stood out to me, then, was this idea of the sheep recognizing the shepherd’s voice.  It stood out to me because Jesus seems to take that as a given, that the sheep will recognize the shepherd’s voice and not go with the wrong person.  This seems less obvious to me, as a person who sometimes has trouble recognizing just what is the voice is the voice of Jesus in my life and what is the voice of society, culture, even my own self-doubt or self-justification.  Sometimes, I think, we sheep need to help each other recognize the shepherd’s voice, so when we follow, it’s together – no sheep left behind.

This time, though, what stood out to me was this idea of not just knowing but being known.  After all, this passage is supposed to tell us something about who Jesus is.  The shepherd calls his own sheep by name.  The shepherd knows his own.  The shepherd lays down his life for the ones he knows.

Once, at the church I previously served, we were going around the table in a staff meeting – it must have been around Thanksgiving – naming what we were thankful for.  I only remember one thing someone around the table said that day: “I’m thankful for a spouse who knows me completely, and who still loves me.”

On the one hand there is something beautiful and comforting about this idea of being fully known by another person – whether it’s a partner, a family member, or a best friend.  There’s something about this idea that someone could know everything about me: my history, my heart, my best qualities, my worst ones – those extremes that people don’t always get to see – and that I could be loved for all of it, for the totality of who I am and who God created me to be, and not just for who I try to present myself as on a day-to-day basis.

There’s comfort and maybe even abundant life in that, but on the other hand, there’s fear, too: my spouse still loves me, my colleague said.  As in, there’s the danger that they might not have.  There’s a vulnerability in being known, the possibility of rejection.  Because maybe if someone really knew us they’d realize we aren’t what they think.   Maybe if someone knew how we can be sometimes they wouldn’t want to stick around.  And so we’d rather not be known too well, maybe even by the people who know us best.

Some of us probably even live with a certain wariness of being known in a digital world of eroding privacy.  We may keep our friendly distance from our neighbors but the powers that be on the internet, somehow, know everything about us: our shopping preferences, what we’re searching for, what conversations we’re having when we forget that Alexa is there listening.  And there’s a distrust – well-founded, I’m sure – of what these entities are going to do with this information, and how it might be used for us or against us.  So again, how much do we really want to be known?

When it comes to Jesus, though, we’re not talking about the kind of knowing where information is going to be used to manipulate us.  This isn’t Santa, knows-if-you’ve-been-bad-or-good kind of knowing; it’s not knowing the way Google knows us, or the way we fear the NSA might know us.  It’s not even knowing the way other people might know us, for better or worse.

Jesus, the good shepherd, knows his sheep completely.  There’s no risk, because he already does.  He knows them, each one, in all their beautiful sheepiness and all their smelly, annoying, sometimes not-so-bright sheepiness.  And he loves them.  He loves you.

And this goes back to how Jesus is not only the shepherd but also the gate – because, in this weird mixed metaphor, the one who determines who goes in and out, who has access to the abundant life of that pasture – is also the one who calls us by name, who lays down his life for us.  He knows us completely, and he – still – invites us in.

Jesus adds, at the end of this monologue, that he has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”  And while scholars may debate about who exactly he means – is it Gentiles?  Other Jews? – what I hear in this is an invitation to extend that same love and welcome that we’ve received to others.  In the end, we can’t know those other sheep like Jesus knows them. And in the end, we are neither gate nor gatekeeper, controlling who comes in and out.  We’re simply part of one beloved flock.

You’d think if any message could be unifying, this one would be, right?  But again, we read, the people were divided.  Some said Jesus was possessed, or out of his mind. But others heard the voice of their shepherd, and followed, because they knew they were known completely, and loved completely.

The God who gave you life knows your beauty and your brokenness and loves you enough to lay down his life for you.  When we live like we know that – that is abundant life.

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