I little introduction to the reading today. It doesn’t take a seminary or religious degree to notice that the way Jesus teaches in the Synoptics – Mark, Luke, and Matthew – is very different than the way Jesus teaches in John. The style, language, vocabulary, imagery, and structure is very different. The consensus of mainline biblical scholarship is that the Synoptics give us a more reliable historical picture of how Jesus actually taught. The discourses of Jesus in John, they say, are more reflective of the interpretations and understandings of John’s church. In other words, these discourses in John by Jesus are most likely expositions of short sayings of Jesus by the author of this Gospel and the community from which it came and to whom it was written. That doesn’t mean these discourses in John are any less important or meaningful than the teachings in the Synoptic Gospels; it just means these are not the actual words of the historical Jesus. They are meditations, expositions, and proclamations by John’s church as John’s community sought wisdom and guidance and inspiration from the living Christ. Many of the teachings of John’s Gospel expound the same themes as the Synoptic Gospels – they just go about it in very different way.
In the reading today the lectionary has it ending at 10:10, which doesn’t quite make sense to me, so I extended it through 10:18. What we have, it seems, are two discourses combined around the imagery of shepherding. In 10:1-3a the imagery of Jesus as the gate is introduced, which is developed in more detail in 10:7-10. In 10:3b-6 the imagery of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is present, which is developed in more detail in 10:11-18. So let’s read the text. . . . .
The text begins with Jesus as the gate, so let’s start there. Jesus is the gate through which we enter into life. Life here is God’s life, often called eternal life in this Gospel. Here it is simply called life which enables those who receive it to live more fully and abundantly.
What does John mean by life or eternal life? John is not specifically talking about the afterlife or life in heaven, though certainly whatever life after this life involves that is included. Eternal life is eternal. But that is not the focus. In this Gospel eternal life is as much a present reality as a future reality.
And another thing, it’s important not to import modern views of what makes life complete or full or meaningful into the abundant life or fullness of life this passage is talking about. This writer is clearly not talking about material prosperity, vocational success or fulfillment, physical health, and certainly not the American dream. The life or eternal life John’s Gospel is talking about is God’s life. Eternal is emphasized not because it’s forever. Obviously it is forever or it wouldn’t be eternal. But the point here is that the life we share in is the life of the Eternal One. Eternal life is God’s life. To possess life or eternal life is to experience and share in God’s life, God’s world, God’s will. In John’s Gospel the symbolic meaning of eternal life is very similar, not quite the same, but similar to the meaning of “kingdom of God” that is employed so frequently in the other Gospels.
So what does it mean to share God’s life? And what does it mean to enter into God’s life through the gate that is Jesus? In verse 7 Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” In verse 9 he says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out [of the sheepfold] and find pasture.” The sheep go in and out of the gate to rest and find pasture – to experience fullness of life as a sheep. What John is saying here is that we experience fullness of life in God, we experience God’s kind of life, we share in God’s will and God’s work in the world by entering through the gate of Jesus. And this is how we are saved – that is, this is how we are healed, this is how we are restored, this is how we are made whole, this is how we are liberated and set free from our little self with all its fears, worries, insecurities, and negativity. We enter into this salvation, we enter into the experience of God’s life through the gate.
Now what does that mean? How do we enter through the gate of Jesus and is that the only way one can enter into this life? An American rabbi was once asked what he thought about the words in John 14:6 where John’s Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The rabbi said, “Oh, I agree with these words.” The one who asked that question was a bit taken back by the reply. He asked, “But how can you as a rabbi believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life?” This gracious and wise rabbi said, “Because I believe that Jesus’ way is the way of love, that Jesus’ truth is the truth of love, and that Jesus’ life is the life of love. No one comes to the Father but through love.” I agree with the rabbi.
In the prologue of John’s Gospel we are told that Jesus as the Word made flesh is full of grace and truth. The way to God, the way we enter into the life and will of God is by trusting in and being faithful to the grace and truth that Jesus embodied. Which is just another way of saying we enter through love. Just think about this for a minute. Do you think God really cares that much about what we believe with our brains about Jesus? Or do you think God cares more about how we live like Jesus? How we express the grace and truth of Jesus? How we love like Jesus? What we believe about Jesus is important to the degree that it inspires us to actually live like Jesus.
Author, poet, scholar, and spiritual guide John Philip Newell will sometimes share stories about his son Cameron who has some special needs. He says there is little pretense with his son, Cameron. He speaks with an honest, open heart. One morning at breakfast the conversation turned toward the wisdom of Jesus. Cameron said to his father very candidly, “No offense to Jesus, Dad, but I don’t think about him very much.” Philip told his son that this was the greatness of Jesus, namely, that Jesus did not think about himself very much and Jesus would not be offended at all. Philip says that Jesus showed us that we truly find ourselves and discover who we are in God by letting go of our ego and loving the other as ourself. Philip said to Cameron that if Jesus had thought about himself all that much we would have forgotten Jesus long ago. He told his son this, “It is a good think to think about Jesus, but not because Jesus needs us to be thinking about him. It is because Jesus shows us the way of love.”
God doesn’t need us to believe certain things – doctrines – about Jesus. Of course we all do. I’m sure we all do. We have beliefs about Jesus, and many Christians don’t agree. And that’s okay. We don’t have to agree, because that is not the important thing. What God wants out of our lives is for us to live like Jesus, for us to love like Jesus, for us to express the grace and live out the truth like Jesus.
You know sisters and brothers, I so wish I could help more Christians see that all our beliefs about God are like fingers pointing at the moon. I so wish I could help more Christians who have turned their belief system into an idol realize that even when our beliefs are right what we believe about God only captures a little fraction of what God is really like and who God really is. God is always so much more.
Jesus is the gate because Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love. Jesus is the gate because Jesus shows us how to serve and love one another. Jesus shows us how to live in the truth of who we really are in God and how to speak truth and live truth in the midst of a bunch of falsehood. (And the falsehood is widespread. It pervades our culture. It dominates our political and economic systems.) Jesus shows us how to forgive and express grace and thus he shows us how to live in a healthy and redemptive relationship with God and one another.
I think this more inclusive interpretation is suggested in our passage when Jesus says, “I have other sheep not of this fold (I read that to mean, Christian fold). I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Jesus speaks the language of love and when one is truly listening and responding to the voice of love, that one is entering through the gate of Jesus, whether he or she knows it or not. In the epistle of First John the writer says that God is love and wherever love is God is.
To have faith in Jesus is to trust in and be faithful to the way of love embodied by Jesus, and this is the way that leads to truth and life, this is the gate that leads to fullness of life in God.
Jesus is also the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. The power of life that enabled Jesus be the good shepherd who gave his life for the sheep, is the power we share in as Jesus’ disciples. We too are called to be good shepherds. We are called to be gates and we are called to be good shepherds like Jesus. The Psalmist speaks of God as the shepherd who leads us into fullness of life. Isaiah (40:11) speaks of God as a God who feeds his flock like a shepherd and gathers his lambs in his arms and carries them in his bosom. Shepherding is about caring for those who are vulnerable. It’s about tending to those who need direction and hope and have lost their way.
Now, the passage here that speaks of the love and care of the good shepherd for the sheep also speaks of false shepherds who use the sheep for their own selfish ends and hired hands who flee at the first sign of danger and leave the sheep at risk. Here’s what Ezekiel says in his indictment against the false shepherd in Israel in Ezekiel 34: “Ah, you shepherds have been feeding yourselves. You eat the fat, you cloth yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you ruled them.”
This is a reminder that not all religion is healthy and healing. Not all expressions of Christianity are redemptive and transformative. Healthy religion, healthy Christianity nurtures us in the skill of shepherding – of caring for one another – and empowers us to be self-giving and self-sacrificing in equipping and empowering others, rather than self-serving and self-indulging. There are many folks who will not walk into a church community because they have had such negative experiences with Christians.
Philip Gulley tells about having lunch one day with a man in his community who identified himself as an agnostic. Philip had walked into the local diner but there were no tables and so just as he turned to leave this man invited Philip to join him, so he did. The man had a reputation in the community of being outspoken, but also being capable of much kindness. In the course of their conversation he told Philip that he didn’t believe in God and then he asked Philip, “Would I be welcome in your church?” Philip assured him he would be welcome. Then he asked, “Would I have to eventually believe in God in order to stay there?” Philip admitted that there might be a few people who would try to get him to believe in God and maybe a few who would get upset if he didn’t. But Philip assured him as the pastor that he would be welcome to stay there. Philip told his new friend that he cares about beliefs to the extent that our beliefs make us more loving persons. (And I agree. I like to talk about healthy beliefs and unhealthy beliefs, rather than correct or incorrect beliefs. Do our beliefs make us more loving persons?) Philip told his new friend that he preferred a congregation of kind atheists to a congregation of hateful Christians. (Really, when you think about it, the expression hateful Christians should be an oxymoron.) Well, they talked some more and when they finished their meal and were about to leave he said to Philip, “You know pastor, I love the theory of the church. It’s the practice of it that leaves me cold.”
Well, I can understand that can’t you? And even the most caring of churches are not perfect. None of us who aspire to be gates and good shepherds like Jesus are without fault or sin are we? We will not love or care for others perfectly.
The passage that Lisa read earlier in the book of Acts gives us a glimpse of a really caring, gracious, generous, and healthy community. They even pooled their resources so they could care for the poor and vulnerable in their midst. I know we are not going to love that much. We are not going to care that much. We are not going to be that counter-cultural. Let’s be honest. We are never going to model the church depicted in Acts 2 are we? You know that and I know that. The Acts passage presents an ideal portrait of community/church that we will never attain. But, certainly there are ways we can encourage, care for, tend to, and empower one another, so that we can give others a taste and a glimpse of what a loving Christian community is like. No, we are not perfect and we will falter and fail, but if we walk in the love of Jesus we can present to our world a picture (though be it an imperfect picture) of what a loving Christian community can be.
I suspect there are any number of people out there who feel lonely and lost in this materialistic and consumeristic society of ours. They may just be fed up and frustrated enough that they are ready and looking for someone to guide them into a good and gracious and flourishing life that liberates them from their little selves and helps them find meaning and connection to a larger purpose and story. Maybe you could be or maybe I could be a gate. Maybe you or I could be a good shepherd that leads someone into the experience of God’s love and help them to find a greater purpose and meaning.
Our good God, help us to be more loving and caring like Jesus. Help us to be good shepherds that are willing to give of ourselves to encourage and empower others. Help us to enter more fully into your life – the life of love expressed in Jesus – so that we might be able to lead others through this gate that leads to life. elpHAmen.