By The Rev. Sherry Deets
4 Easter – May 11, 2014
Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved…. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” We understand a gate as a means of access, or an entryway. Jesus says that he is the gate – the access to salvation and not just life, but abundant life.
Abundant life isn’t defined by Jesus, but this piece of scripture comes right after the healing of the man born blind. For the man born blind, abundant life is sight. It is release from dependence. It is freedom and light and new opportunity.
So, I wonder if this invites us to imagine that abundant life — and perhaps salvation itself — is highly contextual. For the blind man it is sight. For the single parent it might be companionship and help. For the bullied teen it might be acceptance and an advocate. For the impoverished neighborhood it might be dignity and the chance of self-determination. For the retiree, it might be involvement in a worthwhile cause. You get the picture. Abundant life looks different in different places and to different people, but it always manifests itself as a response to whatever seeks to rob the children of God of their life, their purpose, and joy.
A preacher talked about his life in Africa. He told us how the people of a village knew each other’s sheep the way we might know one another’s children. As he sat in a group in the village, a person would stop by, “Have you seen my sheep so-and-so,” identifying his own sheep by name. Through the dark night he heard villagers calling out names. “They are calling their sheep,” one of the locals told him. “They will all find each other.”
This feature of village life in a place small enough and close enough where folks know which sheep are theirs and which belong to someone else, where sheep themselves know to whom they belong, was as familiar to Jesus as it is unfamiliar to us. In this portion of John 10, as Jesus tries to describe the connection between himself and his followers, he uses images that would have richly touched the hearts and minds of his original hearers.
Like the folks in the African village, the first century Judeans also highly valued their sheep and knew them intimately. So, this shepherd has the well-being of the sheep at heart, rather than his own well-being. This shepherd is neither thief nor bandit who would steal sheep, a profoundly anti-social act and one in which the sheep would come to no good end. Jesus emphasizes a particular difference between the bandit and shepherd: the shepherd enters rightly, properly, and openly into the sheepfold. It is appropriate for him to come and call his sheep and he does so, through the door consistently. All is open and above board, a cooperative effort with an obliging doorkeeper and sheep who respond to the sound of their name. There is a relationship of trust among all parties here. Notice that the sheep are not presented as totally dumb. They hear, follow, flee false shepherds, and are able to “know” whom to trust.
And their trust is validated and emphasized by another piece of the shepherd’s behavior: he brings the sheep out of the fold and then goes before them. The sheep do not simply escape some confinement or hasten out of the fold to brave the larger world on their own. Their shepherd leads them out and then goes before them, in front of them, to lead. The sheep are not abandoned.
When this image didn’t click for people, Jesus tried again to contrast himself with thieving leaders. Jesus turns to a clear statement of identity. I am the gate, the door. I am the proper way, the right way, the only way into the sheep fold. Pasture, that is, life, is through me, the door. Those who enter are being saved, that is, being brought into pasture and life rather than being snatched up for their destruction.
He is the good shepherd of Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34, the leader whose work and life are for the sheep and their well-being. He is the right way, the true way to enter into that fullness of life. Both shepherd and gate are participants in a social system whose role is to protect the sheep and provide for them. These are both in contrast with those who prey upon the sheep for their own purposes, diminishing the flock and creating anxiety within it.
That we continue to be divided about who cares best for us, that we continue to live with the anxiety of wondering who seeks to diminish us in any respect ought not surprise us. Division and a struggle to understand are the result and the motivation for Jesus’ words here.
Laura Darling has this to say: I love Mister Rogers. I had the good fortune to hear him give a commencement address many years ago at which he told us, “The space between us is holy ground.” That’s part of what I see in an interview Mister Rogers did with (of all people) Joan Rivers on the Tonight Show.
But the thing I keep coming back to in this video is to ask myself, how does Mister Rogers manage to get past Joan Rivers’ defenses – and offenses, come to that. Every time she mocks or deflects he gives no indication of defensiveness in his turn, but only a desire to connect, to share, to respond with love.
Joan Rivers is a woman who has built up an incredibly thick shell, impervious to assault through insult or mockery over years in an industry loaded with hard knocks. Yet in one minute, by telling her he sees “the way down deep inside you,” Mister Rogers has her hiding under the sweater he had given her and that she had joked about earlier in the interview.
What this teaches me is that the way to penetrate the heaviest armor is not with even heavier artillery, but with extreme tenderness and gentleness. Mister Rogers knew in a deep and remarkable way that to reach Joan Rivers, and to reach anyone, he didn’t need to resort to tricks. Instead, he needed to enter that holy ground between us, palms open and defenseless, seeing beyond the armor to the actual woman, man, child in front of him. And in being defenseless himself, somehow he managed to disarm everyone around him.
Nowhere else does Jesus express the intent of his mission and ministry more clearly than in the verse at the end of this passage: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” In contrast to all that would rob us of life — the thieves and bandits he mentions — Jesus comes to give, not just life, but life in abundance. Not just survival, that is, but flourishing; not just getting by, but thriving; not just existence, but joy. Jesus offers, more life than most of us imagine possible.
Jesus knows us each by name, like the shepherd and the sheep. Jesus is calling your name and my name. The gate is open wide for you and for me. Amen.
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