The gate and the sheep
John 10:1-10 How do you imagine God? If I asked you to describe God, what might you say? Is God a wise, white haired guy in the clouds? Is God a life-force, an energy, a spirit? Is God a homeless person begging on a street corner? Is God an angry taskmaster? a judge? a mother hen? Or rather than such images, your first thought might be of a quality or characteristic… God is love… God is peace… God is in control. Over the years, God has been described using numerous images, metaphors and ideas and most people, including Christian people, people of other faiths and people of no faith – most people, have an idea or image that immediately pops to mind when they hear the word “God.” These primary images of God may or may not be conscious. They may simply be assumed as “the way it is,” and either accepted or rejected on that basis. Or our beliefs about God may have changed over time or through struggle, becoming conscious and debated as part of a questioning or renewal of faith.
How we imagine God matters in part because it impacts how we understand ourselves and others, the whole of humanity and the world. Even more importantly, it impacts how we relate to God and to others. The bible offers us numerous different images and ideas of God, along with stories of God that point to various ways humanity has related to God, to themselves, to their community, and to the wider world. Jesus’ words in our Gospel passage today offer us one such window into the nature and character of God through Jesus, along with its implications for our relationship with the divine.
On the catholic side of our tradition, today is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, with sheep and shepherds finding their way into all but one of our readings. Most notably, of course, we hear Psalm 23 with its beautiful and beloved imagery of God as provider and protector: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want…” Our passage from Peter’s first letter concludes with: “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” These images of us as sheep with God as our shepherd are familiar and comfortable. Shepherds protect and care for sheep. In the presence of the shepherd, sheep need not worry about predators or concern themselves with where to find water or food, for it is the shepherd’s job to take care of all that. With the shepherd as their leader, sheep need only be good followers, and should they go astray, they need simply to return to the care and guardianship of the shepherd and all shall be well.
But then we get to the Gospel. Today’s passage from John chapter 10 takes the familiar ideas and imagery of sheep and shepherd and plays with them in unexpected ways. Given that this is Good Shepherd Sunday, we might expect to hear Jesus’s declaration: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…” It would make much sense for us to hear that declaration and yet the crafters of the lectionary have ended our passage at verse 10, one verse shy of our reasonable expectation. The more famous part of Jesus’ speech, when he declares himself the good shepherd and compares the care and commitment of such a role, even unto death, to the lack of the same in a hired hand, comes immediately following where we left off at verse 10. The flourishing of the sheep, their abundance of life, is the primary, maybe even the only, thing that matters to the good shepherd, as we hear in the concluding verse today. The imagery that gets us to that abundance, however, highlights not the role or person of the shepherd but that of the gate. It is unexpected, to say the least!
Jesus begins his speech today with a description of a whole pastoral scene with a picture of a sheep pen and its authorized entry by its gate. He draws a contrast between the safety and security of the sheepfold properly entered, with thieves and bandits who enter by another way. The action then shifts as the personal relationship between the sheep and the gatekeeper is highlighted by the recognition of voice and name: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” It all sounds good and familiar… and yet the narrator tells us that the disciples don’t understand! How could they not understand?!? Jesus is the Good Shepherd… the gatekeeper… it is what makes sense to us. But the scene continues: “So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” I am the gate. All of a sudden, the lovely personal imagery of shepherds caring for their sheep is gone in favour of… a gate… the door between the safety of the sheep pen and the pasture beyond.
One of the primary literary features in the Gospel of John is the series of “I am…” statements by Jesus. More than a call to different kinds of imagery, when Jesus says “I am,” he is claiming the name of God as revealed to Moses in Exodus. The various “I am” sayings in John then combine this claim to God’s name, God’s identity, with some kind of description, image, metaphor… “I am the bread of life…” “I am the light of the world…” “I am the true vine…” “I am the way, the truth and the life… “I am the resurrection and the life…” “I am the good shepherd…” “I am the gate for the sheep…” The use of God’s name “I am” speaks to Jesus’ identity in relationship to God, thereby telling us something about God by telling us about Jesus. The richness and variety of the descriptive metaphors paint a multifaceted, multi-dimentional picture of God through Jesus. So what could today’s claim, “I am the gate,” be telling us about who Jesus is and what God is about? Let’s think about gates…
Perhaps most notably, particularly in contrast to a good shepherd, a gate is inanimate. It’s an object. A gate doesn’t lead or follow or direct… it just sits there. It does, nevertheless, have a critical dual purpose of both protection and movement… just not in the personal or active way that a gatekeeper or shepherd do. A gate doesn’t move sheep… the sheep themselves must choose to enter and to leave, even as the gate provides direction and restriction between worlds. And yet, think of the importance and power of gates to connect different worlds… think of the image of the Brandenburg gate in Germany as a symbol of division and unity in the days of East and West Germany; or, the gates that locals and pilgrims alike must pass through in the security wall dividing Israel and Palestine. A gate might provide entrance to a beautiful garden or to an adventure that starts with getting on an airplane! A gate serves a truly critical function and yet it only really matters in relationship to those who want to pass through… in this case with sheep. Unlike a shepherd, a gate doesn’t go out looking but rather waits for sheep to approach. And finally, as an object, a gate doesn’t judge where those who pass through go… whether it be in or out, out or in… a gate simply provides the way.
If Jesus is a gate, then Jesus is a passageway… a passageway between what and where? between God and people? between hell and heaven? between the community of the faithful, the church, and the world? Our passage today doesn’t offer a clear answer or a stable allegory. Instead, Jesus invites us in and out, to wonder and to explore, to find safety and comfort, to move between worlds… “I am the gate.” Jesus says, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” If Jesus is a gate, then to interact with Jesus is not to enter and stay, or to leave and never return, but rather being in relationship with Jesus is to move around, to go in and to go out, to be on this side and that. If Jesus is a gate and we are sheep, then it is up to us to approach and to pass through, to move and to explore, to enter and to exit. If Jesus is a gate, then we can be assured of protection, a place of safety and security, and we need not fear the world beyond. If Jesus is a gate, then it is in this interaction, in relationship, that we have life, Jesus says today, and have it abundantly.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, Jesus claims the name of God, the great “I am,” and describes his divinity as the passageway, the gate, through which we will have abundant life. Jesus uses this compelling image not at the exclusion of the more familiar and personal image of God as a good shepherd, indeed Jesus expresses it in the very next verse! Rather, Jesus’ words today serve to remind us that all kinds of ideas and images and metaphors help us describe and understand who God is, who Jesus is, and how we can relate to either – both! – of them. All our language falls short of the fullness of God and so if we get stuck on any one too much, we lose something important. Jesus is the good shepherd. Jesus is also the gate. Let us know ourselves in relationship with both and more yet, that we might have life and have it abundantly.