Sunday, May 07, 2017

I AM, the Gate

Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A)
John 10.1-10
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

We’re only halfway through the season of Easter, but with last week’s journey to Emmaus, we have finished the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Throughout the rest of Eastertide, we turn our attention to what it means to be the followers of the Risen Christ. It is quite appropriate that the imagery that is used as we shift our focus involves sheep. Not so much about what the image of sheep says about us, but what it says about Jesus.

Stepping back a bit, we see that the first public testimony as to who Jesus is, is the testimony made by John the Baptist reflecting on his experiencing of baptizing Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry. The Baptist proclaims “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1.29). This evokes the image of the Passover lamb, the symbol of Israel’s deliverance from bondage and their ensuing journey to a new life in the Promised Land. This image is a foretelling, of sorts. An indication of who Jesus is and what his role will be. Some three years later, during the week of the Passover celebration, we witness Jesus’ Passion. The narrative of which firmly places Jesus in the role of the Passover lamb. Of the one who is slaughtered, not just for the salvation of Israel, but of all people.

In the crucifixion, the Lamb of God was sacrificed for us. Bringing liberation from our bondage to sin and death. Beginning our journey to new life. Then in the Resurrection, the image of Jesus as Lamb is transformed. Turned to that of the shepherd who leads other sheep – his sheep – into resurrected life. The helpless victim becomes the fearless protector. The one led to slaughter leads us away from the threat of sin and death.

While the Gospel passage we heard this morning is part of a discourse that took place before Jesus’ death and resurrection, in the season of Easter we read it with post-resurrection eyes; we hear it with post-resurrection ears. Because of this, we experience it, process it, in a way that the original hearers could not have even fathomed. We gain a greater understanding than would have been possible by those who saw, heard, even knew, Jesus personally.

While it would have been so awesome to have been there and to hear Jesus speak these words to us, maybe we are more blessed in living now, after the fact. Don’t get me wrong. I would have loved to have seen and heard Jesus first-hand. But it would not have provided the depth of meaning in our lives that we derive from experiencing and processing his message post-resurrection. As strange as it may seem, to experience Jesus and his message now may be of greater significance than if we had had the opportunity to experience him first-hand, in person. As Edgar J. Goodspeed wrote in his Introduction to the New Testament: “The Gospel of John is a charter of Christian experience. For the evangelist, to know Christ through inner experience matters more than to have seen him face to face in Galilee.”

Because to have seen him face to face would have only meant seeing Jesus in the image he portrays in his discourse – as Shepherd. But following the crucifixion and resurrection, we see him as both Lamb and as Shepherd. A shepherd who can relate to those he is charged to care precisely because he has been the Lamb.

We all know the meaning of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. How a shepherd cares for his sheep, feeds and nourishes them, protects them from dangers, protects them from themselves. That’s the popular image we grew up with. What was taught us in Sunday School. What was perhaps portrayed in beloved paintings or stain glass windows in churches of our youth. And those warm and fuzzy feelings of who Jesus is as our Good Shepherd are certainly valid. But if you carefully read our Gospel passage, none of these attributes are specifically mentioned.

The nice, comforting imagery of Jesus as shepherd who lovingly takes care of us his sheep, particularly as conveyed by Jesus himself in this passage from John, contains some very serious theological claims. Claims about sheepfolds. Claims about gates. Claims about hearing and following. All of which says something about who Jesus is as the Good Shepherd, and about who we are as the sheep under his care.

The imagery Jesus uses centers on the sheepfold. During the day, shepherds would lead their flocks to various pastures for food, water, and exercise. But at night, they would herd their sheep into a common enclosure for protection from predators. This imagery, as with so much of what Jesus talked about, points to the centrality of community for our wellbeing. Communities of faith where we are protected from the negative forces of the world. Communities of faith where we are comforted and cared for.

Throughout his discourse, Jesus continually returns to one key feature of the sheepfold – the gate. Of course, an enclosure needs an opening to provide access. A means of entry and exit. The interesting thing about sheepfolds is that generally there is not a physical gate to close off the sheep once they have entered. The gate is merely an opening in the fence or wall. To provide for protection of the flocks, at night the shepherds of the various flocks housed in the enclosure would take turns sleeping at the opening to keep out predators. The shepherds themselves became the physical gate which provided protection and security from wild animals seeking a tasty meal.

In the morning the shepherds would lead their animals out to pasture. Since there may be several flocks sheltered in one enclosure, the shepherds called each sheep by name and sang or played a tune on a pipe, to get them to follow. Each shepherd had a distinct call. And the sheep knew the sound of their own shepherd’s voice, knew the sound of their distinctive tune or song. Hence the sheep would not follow a stranger – be it another shepherd or thieves and bandits seeking to steal them. There is a bond of mutual love and trust between the shepherd who leads and the sheep who follow.

In his discourse, Jesus describes what would have been a well-known routine in a land where flocks of sheep and their respective shepherd abounded. But even so, the hearers of his message don’t get it. So, he moves from a general description to a more explicit statement of “I am the gate.” He says this not once, but twice. With that, the people would have understood exactly what he is saying. “I am” is a direct link to God’s name in Exodus, where Moses encounters God in the burning bush. When Moses asks for God’s name, God responds “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex 3.14). In Jesus using this phrase, “I am,” there would have been no doubt to the hearer that this is God in the flesh. In this, Jesus is revealing his identity. “I am the gate.”

Jesus is the point of access to God for those seeking to enter the gate, to enter the sheepfold. The point of access into the community of faith. Jesus is the one who calls each of us by name, bidding us to enter into his fellowship. The fellowship in which we are loved, comforted, and protected. Jesus concludes this portion of his discourse by revealing the ultimate purpose for his life and ministry. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10.10). Jesus’ intention for his people is new life. Jesus as shepherd is the one who leads others to new life. Those who hear his voice recognize him as the one who will lead them to new life. Jesus as the gate is the way to new life. To abundant life.

As always, we have a choice. To respond to the call of this Good Shepherd – the one who knows each of us by name and issues that personal invitation to come into his protection, his comfort. Or to follow others, thieves and bandits who would seek to lure us away with false promises of those earthly things that profess to bring true joy and fulfillment. That promise abundant life. Abundant life that we can have if we just work harder, so as to become wealthier, more influential, more famous, more respected. Abundant life as demonstrated in outward signs such as a bigger house, a nicer car, having more and nicer stuff. There is pressure to provide an abundant life that extends beyond this one, through our children or leaving some sort of legacy, so that we will not be forgotten. All these are offered up by society as methods of salvation, ways to have “abundant life,” and maybe even to live beyond death.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be successful, to have nice things, to provide for the future, to leave our mark on the world. But this is not truly abundant life. Jesus shows us – promises us – that those who have entered through the gate, in the richness of relationship with him, are coming to know true life, fullness of life, truly abundant life. There is no shortcut to that kind of relationship – we can’t climb over the fence and belong to the flock in the same way. Christ as the gate to abundant life. To eternal life.

He has secured that through his death and resurrection. Like the Good Shepherd, he seeks to provide that abundant life for his flock, which is sheltered in the sheepfold of his love and mercy. And there’s only one gate. Christ who himself defeated sin and death so they would no longer be a threat to us. So they would no longer steal us away from the unbounded love of our God.

Come to the sheepfold. Enter into the gate. Our Shepherd is calling your name.

No comments: