Inspired by John 10:1-10
As you may or may not remember, the fourth Sunday of the Easter season is always good shepherd Sunday, when most of the readings highlight the role of Jesus as shepherd. Sometimes it can seem a bit contrived, a bit forced, but I think most of us, especially those of us who have no experience in the actual work of shepherding, find this particular role of Jesus to be quite comforting. And don’t worry, I’m not going to destroy that image for you today, you can relax!
I’d actually like to focus on something else from this passage from the Gospel of John, which by the way we will be reading from for the rest of the month, he just won’t go away. Anywho, I’m more interested in what Jesus calls himself before he calls himself the good shepherd, which doesn’t even occur in this passage anyway!
That happens in the very next verse after this passage when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But in this passage we are not there yet. In this passage Jesus says, “I am the gate.” Now, some of us, including myself, may get a little nervous when we hear Jesus speak of himself as a gate. But I think that nervousness comes less from scripture, and more from our own use of gates.
So it stands to reason that God uses gates the same way we do right? Well, that kind of reasoning only works when we make God in our image. Thankfully, that’s not how it works. We are made in God’s image. Now whether we live into that image or not is a discussion for another sermon but if we are honest with ourselves, we transfer our own behaviors and beliefs on God all the time. Our default position is to assume that God behaves the way we do, believes the way we do, feels the way we do. You know those old bracelets that say “What would Jesus do?” They should be called, “What am I about to do and then assume that Jesus would have done the same thing” bracelets! But that doesn’t fit on a bracelet. Oh well. But back to gates!
The assumption that God uses gates the same way we do is just that, an assumption, but it’s also a dangerous one—not to mention an assumption that has hurt a great many people over the ages. Just think of all the ways in which the church has misused the role of Jesus as the gate, the gate to keep people out. This can happen in seemingly “innocent” ways like, let’s all come to church dressed in the very best clothes we own, because Jesus would like that, no no, better yet, because we honor and respect Jesus so much.
Do you remember those days? Coming in your Sunday best? Yeah, good times, good times. Well, not for everyone. How did that make people feel whose best clothes didn’t even come close to the church membership’s best clothes? Did they feel welcome? No. Did they feel like they’d fit in? No. Did dressing in their Sunday best become a gate that many couldn’t cross? Yes.
Now, like I said, that’s one of the more “innocent” ways, or maybe a better word would be silent ways the church has used gates to keep people out. But over the centuries there have certainly been more direct, open, and vocal ways that the church has used gates, used Jesus, to keep people out. Some examples include: if you’re a woman this is not the place for you. If you’re not white, this isn’t the place for you.
If you’re not straight, this isn’t the place for you. If you don’t believe exactly the way we do, this isn’t the place for you. If you’re not successful then there must be a reason God hasn’t blessed you with success and whatever that reason is probably means this isn’t the place for you. Those are all messages from the thieves and outlaws that snuck over the wall that Jesus was talking about.
And if you think any of those examples I just gave are exaggerations, then I’d encourage you to read up on some church history, because the church has a pattern of making certain groups of people over the ages feel unwelcome at best, or intentionally slammed the gate on their face at worse. But if this passage from John teaches us anything, it’s that this is not our role. You know the saying, “You are God, and I am not.” Well, today it’s “You are the gate, and I am not.” You are the gate and I am not. As we heard during Holy Week, our job is to love, to love as Jesus loved us. Not to play gatekeeper, not to create hurdles for people to jump over in order to be part of our community, not to determine who is in and who is out—just to love. That is our one job.
But pastor, how do we know who is going to heaven and who is not? How do I know if I’m going? Well, theologians have devoted their whole careers to those questions, volumes have been written! But I’m just a simple pastor, and so I give this simple answer—consider the source. Consider who the gate is, and all you know about him. All the stories, all the work he did during his short time on earth, the miracles, the sacrifice, the cross and empty tomb, and all the work that Christ continues to do in the world today. Christ “came so that they could have life—indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.” Consider the source. Consider who the gate is. And rejoice! Amen.