Sermon delivered April 13, 2008,
by Rev. Eugene C. Buie, DMin.
John 10:1-10 Psalm 23
The teachings of Jesus regarding himself are rich with descriptive imagery, particularly in the Gospel of John. It is in John's gospel that we find familiar statements like "I am the way, the truth, and the life" and "I am the vine and you are the branches."
Today we hear Jesus saying, "I am the gate for the sheep," and "I am the good shepherd." "I am….I am….I am." These declarations are meaningless apart from the over-arching context of the Creator God revealing his name to Moses as "YHWH." The meaning of this name is mysterious and ambiguous, but it is generally thought to mean, "I AM," or "I AM WHO I AM," or "I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE." In other words, the Creator God will not be defined by or restricted to human imaginings. God is free to reveal or manifest the divine self in any way he chooses.
In Old Testament times, God also was affectionately known as the "Shepherd of Israel." Thus, Jesus' words, "I am the Good Shepherd," take us back to Christianity's earliest roots in Judaism, when the image of Jesus during the first three hundred years of church history was a shepherd leading and guarding his flock.
Long before Constantine ended Rome's persecution of Christians and re-imaged Christ Jesus as the glowering judge and king of heaven and earth, Jesus was known as the gentle, loving shepherd who rescued his sheep and carried them home on his shoulders. This tender picture of Jesus is still visible in the catacombs beneath Constantinople. But the shepherd image would not serve Constantine's empire. He needed an image that would enable the church to dominate the lives of the people he ruled, an eternal king and judge.
In Northwestern Europe, however, beyond the control and influence of the Roman church, the agrarian Celtic people claimed the earliest understanding of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Therefore, in Western Christianity, the image of the shepherd continues to play an important role in the life of the Protestant church. But, because the picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd has such a rich tradition in the West, there is a tendency to ignore Jesus' initial self-revelation as the "gate" to the sheep fold, as the gateway to God's kingdom.
There are two "I am" declarations in John 10 that present us with equally important images, and these images must be preserved in our ideas about Jesus the Christ. In verse 7, we read, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep." It isn't until verse 11 that we read, "I am the good shepherd." When the shepherd image is emphasized in isolation from the gate image, the self-revelation of Jesus looses its messianic edge. When the gate image is dropped all together, the shepherd image becomes more about us than about Jesus.
Contrary to our modern inclination to make every thing about us, the gate imagery helps us realize that these texts are first about the self-revelation of Jesus as the Christ. "Who are you, Jesus?," we ask. He replies, "I am the gate to the sheepfold." "I also am the good shepherd who leads his sheep to the safety of the fold." These images would be clearer to us if we lived in first century Judea.
In the Judean wilderness, sheepfolds were little more than a circular wall with a narrow opening through which the sheep could pass. At night, the shepherd would herd the sheep into the fold and sleep in the opening, a living gate. If a predator or a thief wanted to get at the sheep, they either had to jump the wall or go through the shepherd who was ready to defend the sheep with his life. While this image of the shepherd, ready to lay down his life for the sheep, is intensely relational, it has no meaning without the presence of the sheep. The shepherd would not lay down his life to defend an empty sheepfold. Thus, it is for us that Jesus is the gate and the shepherd. Without the shepherd, Jesus, we the sheep would surely perish in the wilderness of the world.
These "I am" statements not only reveal who Jesus is, but also what Jesus is in relationship to those who follow him as his flock, that is, his community. The identity of the Christian community is determined by Jesus' relationship to it and the community's relationship to Jesus. All who gather around Jesus receive their identity as members of his flock. In verse 9, Jesus elaborates saying, "I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture."
Living life to the fullest….living the abundant life…this is what the Good Shepherd offers his sheep. They may come in and go out the gate without fear of what exists in the world. The Good Shepherd watches over them. Their relationship to Jesus is modeled after Jesus' relationship to God the Father. Their source of unity in a diverse world is listening to the voice of Jesus, and none other.
In first century Judea, when shepherds came to town for rest and provisions, they would leave their flocks in a large sheepfold outside of town guarded by a town gatekeeper. The sheep would mix and mingle until their shepherd returned for them. When it was time to return to the grazing fields, the shepherds would stand outside the large fold and call to their sheep. The sheep would separate themselves and go to the shepherd whose voice they recognized.
If Jesus is our shepherd, and we listen to and respond to his voice, then he also is the source of our unity. We are followers of Jesus the Good Shepherd, regardless of all other differences. There are other shepherds and other sheep that follow their voices. So, what does it mean for Jesus to say directly to us, "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved."
Gates or doors separate one physical area from another. A sheep left outside the fold at night would surely perish. On the inside of the gate is safety and life. A door is a rather humble image for Jesus to take for himself. Yet, the image is significant, because doorways lead to a destination. The symbolism conveyed here tells us that Jesus is saying he is the gateway that leads to God. It is similar to Jesus saying, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."
Jesus is the way to God, the way to safety, the way to abundant life. This is who we are as Christians. We are a people who think that, of all the ways a person might consider getting to God, we believe the only way is through Jesus. As I said, a door or gate is a rather humble image for one who is the Son of God. If he is the gateway, he is not the destination. But he is the way to the destination. Thus, a gateway is important. It can tell you about the character of the destination; in the case of Jesus, the destination is God.
When we look at Jesus, we believe we are seeing as much of God as we are able to see. Jesus is not only a gateway or door that leads to the destination, but he also tells us about the destination. In his parable-like speech, Jesus condemns those who refuse to use the gate and try to sneak over the wall like a thief. The world outside the fold is a dangerous place. But with Jesus Christ as my shepherd, I can come and go from the fold and find safe pasture. "Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. I will fear no evil, for you are with me."
Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the father but by me." Here, he is the door, the gateway to God….the only way. Some are saying today that there are many ways to God….that Christianity is only one way among many to get to God. If we believe this, we might as well throw away this Bible and close the doors of this church. Jesus said that he is the only way to God the Father. And we believe this why? Because Jesus died on a cross for us, and God raised him from the dead. The resurrection is our affirmation.
From our mouths as Christians, talk like this can sound arrogant and unbearably exclusivistic. But we are not saying it. Jesus is, and we have chosen to believe and trust in Jesus. There is no possible way to God, except through Jesus, the gate and good shepherd. We believe that, but we believe it with a certain amount of humility. We cannot imagine how people like us would have any way to God, except through Jesus.
We do not believe that God can be bought or conned by our good behavior and ritualistic formulas. We don't believe God keeps a ledger on us or is obliged to accept us if the positive side of the ledger outweighs the negative. There is only one way. Jesus is the gate by which the way to God has been opened to us. We are simply confessing that only through the loving, compassionate, suffering, and self-sacrificial way of Christ Jesus have we gained entrance to the kingdom of God. This is not arrogance, nor is it exclusivistic. It is what we believe God has done for us. It is where we have chosen to put our faith.
You have gathered here today. How did you get here? You came by way of the gateway that is Christ Jesus. But also, you came through the door of this church building. Frankly, I'm concerned about this doorway of our church. It does not reflect the openness of the door that is Christ. It is small, narrow, and it is closed. This is something we need to discuss as a community that identifies itself with Jesus. If we want our community to grow, that door should be wide, and it should be open.
We believe Jesus is the doorway, the only way for people to get to God. Jesus also is the way that the Creator God comes to us. This is the good news we have to share with the world. Let us share it with compassion and love. Amen.