Sometimes your need for a Shepherd hits home. Like during a global pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I spent the first 9 weeks of this year in one of the busiest stretches of my life. And when you run from day to day, from event to event, meeting to meeting, class to class, it’s easy to fancy yourself as in charge, as master of your own destiny and captain of your own ship. Sometimes we equate being busy with being important and so . . .
And then in a few blinks, it’s all gone. The calendar empties out before your very eyes. Every other email you get cancels an event just a little farther along in the year than the previous email did. And suddenly weeks that had evaporated at an almost alarming rate stretch out and drag on. Perhaps it is just then that one realizes that having a Shepherd—especially a Good Shepherd—to take care of you and be the real Master of your life is a good thing.
John 10 opens with the image of a shepherd with sheep. And the first five verses are all about the shepherd and how his voice is the familiar and trusted voice for his own sheep. The shepherd makes his distinctive calls and whistles his distinctive tune, and his sheep just know he’s the one they trust to follow. It’s all about the shepherd. He’s the one who comes in through the front gate (and not the one who sneaks in by climbing over the fence). He’s the one who leads the sheep out to pasture. He’s the one whose voice the sheep trust.
The shepherd. It’s all about the shepherd.
But in verse 6 John says that after hearing that, the disciples looked at Jesus with slack jaws and glazed-over eyes. They didn’t get it.
So Jesus explains a bit more. “I am the gate.”
Huh? OK, now it is I, the reader, who is confused, and I imagine the confusion of the disciples only deepened at this juncture. I was expecting Jesus to say what he will eventually say a few verses on in this chapter (though just beyond the boundaries of this week’s Lectionary selection); namely, “I am the shepherd.” After all, the first 5 verses were all about the shepherd. So where did this “I am the gate” image come from and how does it clarify what the disciples found hard to understand in the first five verses of John 10 as it was?
And anyway, how is Jesus’ being a gate helpful? Gates are not real exciting. It’s not the stuff of great art or stained-glass windows (the way the ubiquitous image of the Good Shepherd is). A gate of grey, weathered wood dotted with knot holes and being swung open and shut by some gatekeeper is not as interesting as the human image of a gentle shepherd. Why be a gate? Have you ever seen this on a stained glass window? The folks at Pixar are good at making animate characters out of everything from fish to toys to cars but even they would be hard pressed to make a talking gate an exciting character. I mean, a gate can’t go anywhere. It just swings.
What’s more, in verse 9 Jesus talks about the need to “enter through me.” But really no one ever actually passes through a gate any more than you could walk right through a door in your house. You pass through the doorWAY, which is the empty space that opens up for you once the door itself is opened or moved aside. But unless you are a ghost, you cannot literally pass through a door or a gate. Indeed, our inability to pass through the wood of a door is precisely what makes the thing useful: exactly because the wood is solid, your being able to lock the door is what prevents the good from escaping and the bad from trespassing.
So what is going on here? Why is Jesus a gate even before he identifies himself as a shepherd? And how does one pass through a solid object? A few thoughts:
First, there is something I read in a commentary a while back. Apparently while doing some research in the Middle East, the Bible commentator ran across an Arab shepherd. This shepherd was not a Christian and did not know the Bible. But he was a keeper of sheep and so was showing off his flock as well as the penned-in area where his sheep slept every night. “And when they go in there,” the shepherd said proudly, “they are perfectly safe.”
But then the scholar noticed something. “Your sheep sleep in that pen and yet I just noticed that the pen does not have a gate on it.”
“Yes, that’s right,” the shepherd replied, “I am the gate.”
“What do you mean?” the man asked in startled wonder.
“After my sheep are in the pen, I lay my body across the opening. No sheep will step over me and no wolf can get in without getting past me first. I am the gate.”
Here is an image to savor. Perhaps this may explain how Jesus can so freely mix up the imagery of being at once the shepherd and the gate. Perhaps it was possible to be both after all. The gate is the one who lays himself down to keep what is good on the inside and to keep what is bad at bay. And whether or not the good is kept safe from the bad, the point is that it will be the gate, perhaps the very body of our Lord, that makes the difference.
Actually, it is not certain that this was the precise imagery Jesus had in mind. In fact, verse 3 indicates some kind of actual gate that can be swung open and shut by the gatekeeper, and some commentators have used that feature to this allegory to argue against the notion that Jesus as gate is no more than the shepherd curled up on the ground at the opening to the pen. Again, however, the imagery is fluid enough in these verses that it may be possible to hold both images in creative tension: Jesus may be the gate that gets opened and shut, but perhaps we can imagine that what gets swung open and shut is nothing short of the body of Jesus itself.
However, a main thing to notice in this otherwise lifeless gate image is that it is actually all about life and its flourishing. Thieves and robbers harm and destroy. They take life and livelihood. But as the gate, Jesus protects life in the watches of the night and promotes life during the day by giving the sheep access to green pastures. It is all about life and life abundant, life to the fullest.
It is all about, therefore, that thing called shalom.
But what about that “passing through” part? That seems a little tough to understand whether it is an actual wooden gate or the body of the shepherd. Either way, one cannot literally pass through it—as already noted, you’d have to be a ghost to do that. And maybe that is part of the point, too.
Ordinarily the gate or door needs to be moved aside, it has to yield and give way, in order for a person or a sheep to pass into whatever the gate encloses. But in a sense isn’t this what Jesus did by coming to this earth? He emptied himself, gave way, he opened himself up by shucking the perks of divinity and glory so that he could come here as a humble servant. He let himself get moved aside–shoved aside, in fact–until finally he was dead.
Yet by God’s power and grace he was raised again. But the resurrected Lord Jesus could do things he didn’t do before and which ordinary human beings don’t do–things like being able to pass right through locked doors to appear in the midst of his disciples just as they were sitting down to eat some bread and fish. Is it too odd to suggest that the same Jesus who said he was a gate through which we need to pass is pointing in some sense to what we need to become in him through baptism? In baptism we die, we drown, we get crucified with Christ, the New Testament claims. Yes, we are raised with Christ, too, but like that risen Lord Jesus we are not the same after our baptismal dying and rising. Having died with Jesus, we now have the ability to pass right through him into the newness and fullness of the life he has promised.
Jesus is a two-way gate: he not only locks up behind us to keep us safe but also unlocks and swings open so that we can enter into a life dripping with more fullness than we can know. But whether we are going into the pen or out into the pastures, it is Jesus himself, and his crucified but now resurrected body, that we pass through. We are purified by this baptismal journey through death and back to life again. We are changed, altered, re-oriented, re-energized. And this rhythm of baptism’s passing in and out of Jesus the gate is re-enforced by also the Lord’s Supper. There again we see the body and blood of Jesus laid down for us–the body and blood through whom we pass into newness of life but that, in the ritual act of eating and drinking, passes also through us!
All in all what we find in John 10, and then in the rest of the wider gospel as well, is a marvelous co-mingling of images. We have a living gate, a gate not of wood and steel but of flesh and blood; a living gate that is “swung aside” not because some wood swings on hinges but because Jesus’ body was killed on the wood of the cross. Having been crucified and then raised, Jesus’ new body has the wondrous ability to pass through doors and, by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to be passed through as the gateway to new life.
In short, there is just possibly a bit more Eastertide in John 10 than first meets the eye! And again, during a time of COVID-19 pandemic when we are stalked not by some wolf we can see but by a virus we cannot see; at a time when staying behind the doors of our houses offers some protection but not certain protection, we need a Shepherd and a living Gate who can assure us of his love, his power, and his protection—whatever may come—at a time when our own helplessness stands out for us to see with startling clarity.
Yes, during ordinary moments we might fancy we are taking care of ourselves and our families. We are the breadwinners, the protectors, the bulwark against the wiles of the world. But then we hit the brick wall of our limitations and we pine for the One who alone can stay with us through all we experience.
Maybe we think we are free range sheep a lot of the time. And then we realize we’re not. And so how happy we are to hear the voice of the Shepherd who calls us back into his pen and to stay behind his living Gate through which nothing final can harm us or those we love. Surely this is a message the Church needs this year as much as ever.
As Scott Black Johnston points out in his article on John 10 in “The Lectionary Commentary,” there is some irony in John 10 considering that Jesus makes a big point to say that the sheep know and follow the recognized voice of the shepherd. They don’t listen to a stranger’s voice but they do so to the familiar voice of the shepherd. And yet given all that, how ironic to note that in John 10:6, right after Jesus says all this, we are told that the disciples and others listening to Jesus that day “did not understand what he was telling them.” Apparently even when we recognize the Good Shepherd’s voice, we don’t necessarily always understand what he is saying to us!
Some years ago there was a story carried in various newspapers about a woman from Missouri who was startled out of a dead sleep one night by some desperate cries of “Help! Help!” You know how it is when you awake to some sound: you are not at all certain whether you really heard something or if it was just a dream. At first she thought perhaps her husband had cried out, but he was sleeping soundly next to her. Then suddenly she heard the cries again: “Help! Help!” Finally she threw back the covers and headed downstairs toward their living room. “Help!” went the plaintive voice yet again. “Where are you?” the woman replied. “In the fireplace,” came the rather shocking answer.
And sure enough, dangling in the fireplace with his head sticking through the flue was a burglar, upside down and quite snugly stuck! The police and fire department got him out eventually, though not before having to disassemble the mantle and some of the masonry. Perhaps the best part of the story was what this woman did in the meantime. She flipped on all the lights and videotaped the whole thing. I don’t know what the two talked about while waiting for the police and company to arrive, but had I been she, I think I would have hauled out a Bible and given the crook a pointed reading of John 10: “Verily I tell you, anyone who does not enter by the door but climbs in another way is a thief and a robber!”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 3, 2020
John 10:1-10 Commentary