Each year on the fourth Sunday after Easter, the lectionary brings us to a passage that relates to the Good Shepherd narrative. Notice, though, that in our passage this week, the I AM statement that Jesus focuses on in verses 7-10 are about being the door, or gate, depending on your translation. (I’ll be using “gate” in this sermon commentary.)
What is the biggest challenge for us in the sheepfold? Have we forgotten that Jesus Christ is both the Gate and the Great Shepherd? Do we know our Shepherd’s voice? Or do we get it confused with the voice of a thief and a robber, allowing them to make themselves at home among us?
It feels like distinguishing a thief and a robber from a saviour-figure isn’t as clear-cut as we used to think it was. The other day I watched a portion of a news documentary show about how people get duped into buying timeshares and then fleeced by companies who will extract them from those contracts. These customers were charged thousands upon thousands of dollars for vacations they were never allowed to use (there was always a scheduling issue or some other excuse). To get them to buy into the system, the sales people talked about how these hard-working people deserved to rest (which is true), that they could leave a legacy to their children through passing on the timeshare (something they didn’t have a choice about). Essentially, the salespeople used the good intentions of the customers to feed on real needs and desires of people to con them. It sounded right, but was more like a thief who came to steal.
If these things are happening to us as part of our daily functioning out in the world, then it’s definitely happening in the church. Being able to tell the voice of our Shepherd, to be able to discern who has come through the Gate, which has the character of Jesus Christ and his ways, seems to be posing quite the challenge in our churches. Who is speaking with the character of God and following the will of God when it comes to issues of racism, nationalism, gender and sexuality, pandemic response, etc.?
Pretty much any commentary that talks about the Good Shepherd points out that to this day, shepherds in the Middle East still use their voice or a consistent sound of some sort to call their sheep from a pen full of mixed flocks. Jesus’s image of the sheep following his voice because they know it, is an apt one. The thing is, this relies on knowing the voice or sound, and it takes being used to living and moving and having our beings in and through the Gate who is Jesus Christ.
If we are not sheep cultivating a life within the fold, within the body of Christ, with the Holy Spirit, in Christ, then we are not going to be able to tell quickly and readily what is the voice of our Lord and what is the message of the those who come to kill and steal and destroy. If we do not know his voice, we will listen to the bandits.
The way to life, abundant life, is through the Gate that is Christ. When Christ is the Gate, we have freedom and protection. We are able to rest in safety and go out into the world and do what we are meant to do, knowing that the threshold through which we walk, stays beside us, before us, behind us, above us, below us, all around us, in the form of our Good Shepherd who does not abandon us.
Our Shepherd and Gate speaks with love, of the truth, and with a message that is embodied as the way of life abundant. Thieves and robbers can sound close to right, might even appeal to our own inner senses and desires as right, but their self-centeredness is eventually revealed as the danger it is—to everyone around them, and to themselves. By knowing Christ’s voice and way and will, we can save ourselves and the other sheep in the fold so much heartache and pain.
We must learn the difference between the loudest voices in the discourses of our day and the still, small voice of God in the midst of the chaos. We must look at the real fruit of the message and the messengers. Someone having to climb over walls is going to be light on fruit, but someone who walks in the way of Christ can enter through the Gate, heavy with the glory of God and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Knowing his voice and growing in this knowledge comes through the practice of being with God, through prayer, with Scripture, in communities of discernment, and with the bravery of sacrificial love.
If we pay attention to the textual setting of this discourse, we’ll notice that it flows directly (in the same setting) as the healing of the blind man from birth and the dialogue between Jesus, the healed man, and the Pharisees about being blind. This follows the Johannine pattern of sign – dialogue – discourse. Though the human sense has changed from seeing to hearing, Jesus is making a similar point about who knows him. And knowing, if you’ve been following along through the gospel texts, is the overarching theme of our Easter season passages.
In the Marvel Comics and Cinematic Series, the nine realms are connected to one another by the Bifrost bridge: it is the door by which you can travel through and to each realm. In Asgard, the gatekeeper Heimdall stands watch, giving access to leave for another realm, and protecting Asgard from those who wish to enter through the only access. It is essential that Heimdall be able to discern who to obey (i.e., whose “voice” to listen to). When a new (bad) king takes over Asgard, Heimdall must decide whether to fulfill the letter of his duty, which is to obey the Asgardian king, or to disobey the king and follow the wisdom of the one who proved he wanted what was best for the realm…
Many of us have fashioned ourselves de facto gatekeepers of the church, and most of us have gotten too big for our britches to remember that we are called to die to ourselves and heed the voice of the Great Shepherd as well as the character of the Lord who is the true Gate.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 30, 2023
John 10:1-10 Commentary