4 Easter – April 30, 2023
John 10:1-10

         This morning John’s gospel gives us ten verses of packed metaphor; we are given sheep, a sheepfold, a shepherd, a gate, a gatekeeper, a pasture, a sneaky band of thieves and bandits, and an even more sinister group of smooth-tongued “strangers.”  This passage though, at it’s heart, speaks to us about life. About God’s abundant life. About our relationship with God.

Jesus says that he is the gate. “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

I think it may help to understand shepherding and sheep and how it all worked back in that day. Once the sheep have been herded and are back in their fenced in area for the night – which is the most dangerous time for sheep – herders in that part of the world would lay their own bodies down for a night’s rest in the gap of the fence. In this way, the body of the shepherd literally serves as the gate, protecting the sheep from danger.  Notice that Jesus describes himself in this passage as both the gatekeeper of the sheepfold and as the gate itself.

Jesus’ images of himself as a gatekeeper, and as the gate, underscores the fact that his way is one of hospitality, not of threat. The gate—the one that Christ opens to us, the one that Christ himself is—does not open by way of force. The entry becomes compelling because of the one who offers it, who opens it to us as a way of blessing. “I came that they may have life,” Jesus proclaims, “and have it abundantly.”

And so, the function of the gate is to keep the sheep together in the sheepfold during the night, safe from thieves and predators; but during the day the gate is opened so that the sheep can go out, following their shepherd, to find pasture. The gate and the shepherd work together for the well-being of the sheep, so that the flock thrives. Jesus is both the gate and the shepherd at the same time; he guards and protects his sheep from danger, and he provides for their nourishment, for their life in abundance.

Life that never denies the real threat of thieves, bandits, and strangers — and yet holds out the possibility of pasture, nourishment, protection, and rest.  Life that perseveres and maybe even thrives in the valley of the shadow of death.

Jesus is sharing the metaphors of shepherd and sheep and gate during a time when people were displaced, felt uprooted, adrift in a threatening world. Does that feel familiar?  Jesus takes great pains to promise that he is the good shepherd, that he will provide protection and sustenance, that he will lay down his life for his charges.

Notice that Jesus is also talking about the sheep listening to and knowing the shepherd’s voice. This is about relationship. Jesus not only says that he is the good shepherd, he also reminds the sheep that they know him, that they’ve trusted him, and that they will continue to trust him. That they will be able to tell the difference between false hope and real hope. This is a story that is about the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. Jesus is inviting us into relationship with him. The gate to life with God is open.

Debi Thomas shares some good questions that we could ask ourselves about this passage: What is it in me that resists the open gate?  Where in my life am I walled off, closed to change, averse to movement, risk, freedom, joy?  What flock do I belong to, and whose voice do I follow most readily?  What calls to me, making seductive promises I shouldn’t trust?  Do I know the shepherd well enough to recognize his call?  Am I willing to leave the fold in order to find pasture, or am I too complacent, scared, suspicious, and jaded to pursue abundant life?

Last Sunday we looked at the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus and how Jesus walks alongside of us, all of us, whether we notice his presence or not. Today we hear a story about Jesus operating very much like a shepherd. Shepherds walked the roads and the pathways with their sheep––leading them to green pastures––talking to them––calling them by name.

His protective presence is with us through the day and through the dangerous dark nights.  The Good Shepherd goes before us to prepare the way, which means there is no place that we go that the Shepherd hasn’t already been. There may be hardships, there may be mishaps, there may be struggles but the Good Shepherd has already seen those and knows how to help us negotiate through the treacherous territory. He has already prepared a way for us to get through. All we have to do is continue to listen to His voice. To trust in the promises of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Jesus is calling your name, my name. Together, let’s go out into the green pastures of abundant life. When we turn our lives over to Jesus, recognizing him as our Good Shepherd, we will be able to pray with confidence: Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  Amen.