GOSPEL: JOHN 10:1-10
Jesus uses an image familiar to the people of his day to make a point about spiritual leadership. Those who listen to Jesus are led to abundant life.
[Jesus said:] 1“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. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
I knew a pastor who was really skilled at mixing metaphors and similes in his sermons.
He’d say things like, life is like a box of cherries. Or that someone wasn’t the brightest crayon in the deck. A penny saved is worth two in the hand. Trying to thread a needle with a haystack. You know what I’m talking about.
Jesus starts off with some shepherd metaphors. Which is common enough, all throughout the Hebrew Bible you hear shepherd/king metaphors, especially the role of Good Shepherds. Good kings and good leaders, know how to care for their flock, in contrast to the bad shepherds, selfish leaders, or those who would threaten the flock.
Hearing and knowing God’s voice is another repeated image. Recognizing, and acting when God speaks – following God’s commands – is a mark of faithfulness. From Noah to Abraham to Moses…. But then Jesus goes off script with this I am the GATE metaphor. I am the DOOR. That’s new. Shepherd is familiar and understandable – but the gate? The Door? How can this Jesus be the Shepherd and the Gate at the same time?
The religious leaders are as confused as ever. These statements from Jesus come right after the healing of the man born blind, and they seem to be directed to not just disciples but the crowd as well as the religious authorities who are listening in. The leaders in the temple who haven’t understood what Jesus was after since the beginning. But his own disciples weren’t too understanding either, so maybe we shouldn’t judge them too harshly.
Jesus’ sayings and metaphors have the understandable effect of making us scratch our heads and try to solve the riddle. We try to figure out where all the pieces go, because we think that Jesus just gave us a puzzle. We smugly identify with the well-behaved sheep, like we’re supposed to and then try to figure out who the bandits are that we are supposed to be afraid of. It’s not our job to be gatekeepers either. Our only job is to follow the shepherd and live.
We follow the shepherd’s voice. And the more we follow, the more familiar that voice becomes. We can hear it above the din of other voices vying for our attention. The way to become more familiar with the shepherd’s voice is to follow in his steps, with the flock.
“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.”
Being a Christian is not a solo endeavor. We are sustained through our life together, in worship, fellowship, learning, and sharing. Our life together is strengthened at this table, where forgiveness is given, and grace is received. We must rely on the Shepherd to provide and to lead, because our work is in the following. This following means that we have a different kind of life than the world offers. This life is shaped by the cross, and its sacrificial love. With our glad and generous hearts, this life consists of providing for others, as we have been provided for.
While our American culture encourages a life of accumulation of possessions, early Christians divested themselves of their wealth for the sake of generous compassion toward the needy. In numerous studies, social-scientists have documented how disconnected and isolated people feel today, finding a growing “social-capital deficit” that leaves people in our culture longing for a “more collectively caring community”—which communal caring is exactly the sort of social life that Luke describes in his historical description above. This is what the church has to give to the world, among other things, a practice, a way of living that is more than just living for yourself.
The gate that Christ represents, the way through to abundant life is not a one-way street but goes both ways. Into community and out to serve. It is a wide-open door. Christ calls us in, gathers us with the flock, and then sends us out. What we do in worship is practice not just for heaven, singing around the throne – but practice for our daily lives. Practice is saying we’re sorry and asking for forgiveness. Practice listening with open ears and open hearts. Practice articulating what we believe. Practice giving away our time, talent and treasurers for our neighbor’s needs. We practice talking to God about the concerns of our hearts and using our prayers to change us and the world. We practice hospitality at a table we do not own but are invited guests of Christ.
This worship is practice and preparation for the rest of the week. Not in the sense of “ah, I can check Sunday off the list, now I’m ready.” – but to use what we learn here in our work and play and relationships. To practice hearing the shepherd’s voice clearly here, means that when we are out and about, grazing in the pasture, falling in a hole, and getting stuck in the briars, our ears are attuned to that call. Amen.