“A Different Kind of Gate”
April 30, 2023
John 10: 1–10
‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 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. ***
In recent years I’ve visited several countries where sheep are abundant, outnumbering any beef cattle. Sheep add something unique to the landscape. Grazing in large, fenced fields or wide-open, sprawling expanses of prairie, coastline or mountain meadow, watching sheep has provided this curious tourist with a sense of the pastoral, a quiet, serene dimension to the countryside.
In some of these countries, there was nothing but sheep for long distances. Unlike the scene Jesus describes in this reading, there were no shepherds. I didn’t see any thieves or bandits. Not a single gatekeeper. So, I’ve struggled to shake free of my vacation visions of sheep to understand or get much inspiration from this passage of John’s Gospel today.
Those who heard this message from Jesus struggled to understand its meaning, and they lived in a deeply pastoral setting. What chance have we got? This is a dense and layered passage, easy to get lost and bogged down in.
In packed metaphor, John gives us 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.” At one point, Johns comes right out and says, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying.” The feeling is familiar.
Perhaps the temptation is to read this passage from a place of complacency and privilege. To assume that we are automatically the “insiders,” snug inside the sheepfolds of our own merits. That we are never the sheep who heed the stranger’s seductive voice. That we never resort to deceptive shortcuts instead of “entering through the gate.” That we never play the role of bandit or thief in other people’s lives. That we unerringly follow the lead of the shepherd when he ventures into new and risky terrain.
But I don’t think this passage of Scripture is meant to stump us or flatter us. I think it’s meant to reveal Jesus to us. Jesus the Good Shepherd, who offers us guidance, nurture, direction, and protection. But also more.
Jesus said, “I am that gate for the sheep.” The metaphor brings to my mind the migrants and refugees who make long, arduous and perilous journeys in hopes of crossing over the walls and through the gates into this country to find a better life. News coverage of border and immigration challenges incite bitterly divided opinions among Americans. We think of gates and walls as barriers, the enclosure, the dividing line.
“I am the gate,” Jesus said. Not, “I am that which separates, isolates, segregates, and incarcerates.” I am the gate. The door. The opening. The place where freedom begins.
Needless to say, most of us left to our own devices don’t associate “gates” with freedom. We think of bars and locks, security systems and enclosures. We imagine toddler gates or puppy training gates. Prison gates and “gated communities.” But what if Jesus is a different kind of gate? A gate that opens out instead of closing in. Not the barrier itself, but the aperture in it? A place of liberty and spaciousness. “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
This passage has been interpreted in ways that harm people. It has been used to define who is “in” and who is “out” when it comes to God and God’s flock. Some people and preachers read it as Biblical proof that Jesus won’t love or save people who don’t believe, think, pray or worship in some particular way.
But in fact, this passage, at its heart, is not about the rigidness of God or the self-protective walls we like to build and feel secure behind. It’s about life because of the Good Shepherd. Life that pushes across boundaries. Life that flourishes in precarious places. Life that never denies the real threat of thieves, bandits, and strangers and yet holds out the possibility of pasture, nourishment, protection, and rest.
In the image of the sheepfold, the pasture, and shepherd, there’s a feeling of security, warmth, and love. Of course, that is the greatest contradiction to the reality of the dog eat dog world in which many take up arms because each week it seems personal security diminishes.
In Jesus’ day some historians believe shepherds placed themselves across the openings of their sheepfolds during times of danger, literally offering up their bodies for their flocks. Jesus as shepherd. Jesus as gate. Jesus as sacrificial lamb.
Maybe the questions we need to ask about this passage aren’t about gates and who is in and who is out. Maybe the questions are personal ones. What is it in me that resists the open gate? Where am I walled off, closed to change to realize a larger sheepfold loved by the Good Shepherd? Do I recognize the shepherd’s voice or are there other voices I follow most readily? Does the fear inflicted by thieves and bandits cloud the reality of the love of the shepherd for me? What in me is too complacent to pursue abundant life?
Every week, we face these questions in a variety of ways. The temptation is always there — to close the borders of our minds and hearts and lock our gates. Seductive voices will speak into our ears, promising versions of security that have nothing to do with Jesus’s abundant life. Thieves will come to steal and destroy, and so much will depend on what we believe about the nature and character of our sheepfold, our flock, our shepherd, our gate.
This week, make it your practice to see Jesus. Jesus, the gate. Unlocked. Wide open. Inviting. Free. Remembering his promise, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”