4 Easter – May 7, 2017
This morning Jesus speaks to us about shepherds, sheep and gates. In fact, he 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.”
This discourse follows immediately after the story of Jesus healing the man who was blind from birth, so there are certain associations between the two stories that are hard to miss. The Pharisees who have interrogated the blind man in chapter 9 are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel, those who care for, protect, and nourish the people. Instead, they expel the healed blind man from their community, refusing to believe that Jesus and his healing work come from God. They are more concerned about guarding their power and authority than about the well-being of the people.
So, having already restored the sight of the man, Jesus seeks him out again after his expulsion from the synagogue and brings him into the community of his followers (9:35-38). For the blind man, salvation is not only receiving his physical sight but also spiritual sight, recognizing who Jesus is, believing in him, and becoming part of his community. He followed the voice of Jesus before he could see him, and it led to new life. His days of isolation are over; he now knows himself to be a valued member of Jesus’ flock, cared for and protected. Now, we’re back to sheep, shepherds and a gate.
I think it helps 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 – 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 serves as the gate. Notice that Jesus describes himself in this passage not only as the gatekeeper of the sheepfold but as the gate itself.
Jesus’ image of himself as a 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. This 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.”
Jesus means for us to have this abundant life not solely in some future world but also in this present world. He intends, too, for us to have this life together. Christ calls us to fields, to pastures, where following him means tending to one another—to our sheepmates. And, in case you may be like me and resist being herded, let’s take care not to forget that there are good reasons to travel in flocks. Shepherding stresses the communal nature of the sheep. Our singular noun flock is one made of many.
So, the church proclaims the good news that I am not alone. You are not alone. We are the flock, and we share a common life. We – the church, this congregation – we are here to walk alongside each other and to help each other figure out this life’s journey. Jesus wants us to have abundant life, and we’re here to figure out what that looks like and help each other enjoy and share that. Amen.