I learned something new this week: in some denominations, the fourth Sunday of Easter is celebrated as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It got this name because every year, on the fourth Sunday of the Easter season, the lectionary calls for readings from the tenth chapter of John, and in all of them, Jesus uses images of sheep and shepherds.
But, in our reading for today, Jesus doesn’t call himself the Good Shepherd. That comes in verse 11. In this passage, he talks about shepherds. He talks about sheep. And he talks about those who try to steal the sheep. But, here, he doesn’t say, “I am the shepherd.” Instead he says, “I am the gate.”
Gates aren’t nearly as picturesque as shepherds. That’s obvious from the scarcity of hymns about gates. No one observes a “Good Gate Sunday.” But, maybe we should. Because with Jesus as our gate, we have access to what we need for life that is abundant and secure—life lived in relationship with God, through our relationship with Jesus.
We tend to read the 10th chapter of John, with its wonderful images, as a self-contained unit. But, it’s actually a continuation of the story John begins to tell in Chapter 9. As John tells it, one Sabbath day, Jesus healed a man who had been blind from birth. When the neighbors learned that the man was able to see, they had lots of questions. The man’s answers weren’t enough for them, so they took him to the Pharisees to get to the bottom of this mystery. The Pharisees weren’t any more satisfied than the neighbors, so they brought in the man’s parents. They could only confirm that the man was indeed their son, that he can now see, and that he had been blind from the moment he took his first breath.
The Pharisees called the once-blind man to come back and tried to convince him that, whoever this mysterious stranger was who had opened his eyes, he wasn’t legit. He certainly couldn’t be from God, since he had favored healing on the Sabbath over observing the Sabbath. They didn’t know his pedigree. They argued that since God doesn’t listen to sinners, and God had never restored the vision of someone blind from birth before, then obviously this Jesus wasn’t from God and was therefore a sinner. They discounted the validity of the formerly blind man’s report, dismissing him as merely a disciple of Jesus and not of Moses as they were. He was an impertinent upstart who was trying to upstage them!
The Pharisees wouldn’t stand for such a thing. So, John tells us, “they drove him out.” They drove the man out of the synagogue—out of his faith community. It was just what his parents had feared would happen, since the Jewish authorities had promised to do just that to any Jews who confessed Jesus as the Messiah.
But what’s odd about this is that the man had claimed no such thing. He knew it was a man named Jesus who had made mud out of his spit and some dirt, rubbed it on the man’s eyes, and told him to go wash it off. The man had never actually even seen Jesus, since Jesus had sent him off, still blind, to wash away the mud in the Pool of Siloam. The best description he could come up with for Jesus was that he was a prophet—true enough, but a far cry from naming him as the Messiah and becoming his disciple.
John’s original listeners would have identified with the man’s ejection and his parents’ fears, because what happened to the man was happening to them some fifty to seventy years later. John’s readers were among those Jews who had accepted Jesus, and they, too, were threatened with expulsion from their synagogues. Amidst the turmoil following the destruction of the temple, various Jewish factions were jockeying for power and desperately trying to keep their identity as God’s people intact. One of the ways they tried to do that was to exclude anyone who had become a follower of Jesus from the family of faith.
Whether it was a desire to hold on to their own power and position, or a genuine effort to keep their people together, the Pharisees had forgotten what their most important job was—to help their people know and love God. In their zeal for religious purity, they did exactly what God had warned against through the prophet Jeremiah. Rather than serving as shepherds to God’s sheep, they were scattering the sheep and driving them away.
Jesus hears about the man’s ouster from the synagogue and goes looking for him. The eyes in the man’s head had been opened earlier. But now, in this second encounter, the eyes of his heart are opened. Now he does see Jesus—really sees him. And when he does, he believes. He confesses what he had only been accused of before—that Jesus is the Lord. And, John tells us, he worshiped Jesus.
Some of the Pharisees were standing by and overheard the exchange between Jesus and the man. They heard Jesus say that he had come into the world so that it would become clear who the blind really were—those who refused to see what was right in front of them. Of course, the Pharisees took offense. They asked (probably with a bit of attitude), “Surely we are not blind, are we?” To which Jesus replied that their insistence on not seeing the truth that was right in front of their noses was sin, pure and simple.
This is the point where our passage picks up the story. Jesus uses a figure of speech—the metaphor of sheep and the shepherd—to explain to the Pharisees where they are going wrong. The Pharisees had been given the privilege and responsibility of acting as surrogates for the Divine Shepherd. They should have been gathering the lost, comforting the fearful, providing what the sheep needed to be healthy and secure, dealing with them wisely and with justice.
Instead, not only had they become bad shepherds like those God described through Jeremiah, they had become thieves and bandits. Thieves weaken the flock. Their interest is not in caring for the sheep. They steal the sheep for their own purposes. They use the sheep solely for their own benefit. The Pharisees are intentionally trying to circumvent what God has put in place to provide for the sheep and keep them secure: a gatekeeper who will allow the sheep to connect with their shepherd, to hear his voice, and to follow him to green pastures and still waters.
Still, the Pharisees don’t get it. So, Jesus speaks even more plainly: “I am the gate…Whoever 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.”
As you know, Marc and I travel a good bit by air. That means I spend a fair amount of time at airport gates. Much of the time I spend at these gates is when I’m waiting to leave home. I sit amongst all the other travelers. We are all so different—young and old, with children and without, dressed in everything from designer suits to pajama pants and sweat shirts, speaking a tossed salad of languages. But we all have our eyes on one thing. We all are watching the gate.
We are impatient to go through the gate. Many of us share an anticipation that something wonderful is waiting beyond the gate. Even before the gate opens, we begin to feel the everyday burdens of our routines and responsibilities slipping from our shoulders. We are excited about the prospect of leaving the familiar behind and exploring someplace new. We look forward to having our bodies and spirits refreshed by whatever lies ahead.
Some aren’t sure what to expect when they go through the gate. They may even be a little apprehensive. But they know that the gate leads to something significant in their lives. Whether we go through the gate with anticipation or apprehension, we go through it in order to get to something we can’t get to any other way.
At the other end of the trip, the gate leads home. When we leave the plane, the gate is often out of sight, down a long ramp, around a corner. But we know the gate is there. We know that it is open, ready to welcome us back. We return to the comfort of the familiar, the security of our own place in the world, the embrace of those who love us.
The airport gate is what enables our going out and our coming in. God knows that we also need such a gate in order fully enter into the life God offers us. We need a gate that leads us to God’s abundant provision for us and into the security of home. Jesus is that gate. Through him, we are enabled to follow God out to the places that satisfy our deepest hungers and then back in to the place where we can rest in the security of God’s love and forgiveness, knowing that we are God’s beloved children.
The thieves and bandits of Jesus’ day tried to force him out of his role as the gate for God’s sheep—they tried to stop him from his mission to preach and to heal and to save. When that didn’t work, they tried to destroy the gate himself, nailing him to the cross. But that failed too, because on the third day, the Divine Gate who is Jesus was restored to life, and stands forever as our gateway to God.
Thieves and bandits still try to sneak into our hearts to steal us away. Like the Pharisees, they preach a false gospel of self-centeredness and hatred for others, scattering God’s sheep as the bad shepherds of old. They drive away anyone who will not submit to their program. They turn their backs on justice and leave righteousness behind. They try to entice us with popularity and material wealth and physical beauty. They cultivate a fear of what and whom are outside the fold and encourage us to question the trustworthiness of the shepherd.
But we are not defenseless when these thieves and bandits try climb over the walls. We have only to turn our faces toward the Gate—the One who gives us access to the freedom we have in God and the security we have in God. We have only to look toward the One who speaks with God’s voice—the One who draws us out into the world with confidence and leads us back home to rest from the world in peace.
Psalm 121 affirms this truth. The psalmist says, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” The one who keeps us is Jesus. The one who saves us is Jesus. Through him, our gate, we enter into eternal and abundant life in God. Happy Good Gate Sunday. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young