Fourth Sunday of Easter John 10:1-10
Good morning – it is good and fitting that I am standing here this morning with the beautiful stained-glass Good Shepherd window behind me— today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, which is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. On this day each year we read sections from the 10th chapter of John’s gospel—all replete with familiar shepherd imagery:
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. “
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
Jesus teaches the people “who he is” in this way—through symbolism. Jesus explains the kind of leader he is and just what he intends a relationship to be like between him and his followers. The sheep follow him because they know his voice. Jesus’ teaching is so practical for us—as we know this truth, we know our loved one’s voices.
When I was in fourth grade, my family lived in Sewanee TN for a year, while my dad attended seminary We attended Otey Parish, the Episcopal Church in downtown Sewanee. I sang in Mrs. Running’s choir and attended Sunday School before church, met for Girl Scouts there every week…for me Otey was a comfortable place to be a kid. After church each Sunday, during the closing hymn, the acolytes would march right out the door, leaving the door wide open—
at Otey, the church door opens into the parking lot and so folks just begin meandering toward their cars after the service.
I remember one Sunday I must have been playing inside after church and then realized folks were leaving so I ran up to my father and grabbed his arm to go home.
I knew it was my father because I could feel his big veins that ran up and down on his arm. Running my fingers over the veins felt familiar to me and distinctive; dad’s veins were like soft prominent, strings of a guitar. We walked on for a short bit, and then I heard my dad’s voice… but something wasn’t right. Dad was calling to me from across the parking lot.
I looked up to see the strange man whose arm I was holding. The man was smiling at me, unsure what to do; he obviously didn’t want to scare me, so he didn’t say anything. I remember this so well because I was wholly embarrassed. I was not a cute little toddler; I was 10 years old…still very glad to hear my own father’s voice!
One of the hazards of being a faithful go-to-church-every-Sunday-Christian is hearing the same bible stories over and over and saying to ourselves, yeah, heard that one before. Got the picture: Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
Sometimes we even hear words in the story that aren’t actually there. Today in fact, the fourth Sunday of Easter, although it is called Good Shepherd Sunday, in the lessons we read, Jesus doesn’t call himself the good shepherd.
If we’d read on in John’s gospel, actually, if we’d read just one more verse, we’d hear these words, “I am the good shepherd.” But this is not in today’s (Year A’s) reading. Today’s lesson has another image for us altogether. Jesus says, “I am the gate.” I’m glad we don’t call this Good Gate Sunday.
With all the images Jesus uses, this one is tricky. I am the bread of life, we get this symbolism. I am the light of the world, yes—makes sense to us! I am the way the truth and the life, wow, wonderful. I am the gate. Hmmm.
The gate…this is not one of Jesus’ most understood I am statements. In fact, it is not just us, John tells us the people did not understand what Jesus was saying to them either.
I’m sure if Jesus had just led with the metaphor of shepherd, it would have gone much better. The Ancient Mediterranean societies of Jesus time understood shepherding—much better than we do.
They would know Jesus is calling himself a protector, one who goes after each and every stray sheep, without question, risking everything; he goes to find his sheep no matter how stupid they act or how far they wander. There are no good sheep or bad sheep, the shepherd counts all of them as his own. Ezekiel has a whole chapter on the Lord as Israel’s shepherd – the shepherd who tends to the injured and rescues those who’ve scattered, who finds green pastures for grazing, and lies down with them to rest. The people Jesus is talking to would know all of this and more; Psalm 23 is just one we can recall, because it is strikingly familiar and comforting. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want. But Hebrew Scripture is full of shepherd stories and packed with shepherd imagery.
There are no Hebrew scriptural references for “I am the gate”… It is no wonder folks were confused.
I am the gate can also be translated, “I am the door,” as the Greek word written in John’s gospel is thura, which is literally translated door. The KJV writes it thusly, “Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.”
I understand that this word thura can mean more than just door, however, it can mean an opening, such as the opening of a cave or a tomb.
It can also mean “an opportunity”—as in an opportune time for a new possibility. In our modern society use door in this way too, when we talk about someone helping another to find a job—they are opening doors for them.
I love knowing this new image for Jesus…I am the door of the sheep, the opportunity for a new possibility. It’s sad that we often think of doors as things to keep shut, and gates as entry ways to keep others out.
“I am the door,” Jesus says, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Too often Christians have used this and other passages to exclude people from the kingdom, to tell folks they will not be saved unless…but Jesus is saying something very different.
In disagreement with the religious conservatives of his day, Jesus is saying simply, come, you can know God through me. This is an invitation to new life! I’m not a gate that shuts people out. I am the door of the sheep – opening up new possibilities.
This is perfect Easter imagery!
I read that the great theologian and martyr of WWII, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once noted the insight he gained from having to celebrate Easter from inside a prison cell. “You become entirely aware, he said, that the door is the only way out. More than that: The door of a cell can be opened only from the outside.” Bonhoeffer went on to explain that, “when Jesus speaks of saving those who pass through the door, he has rescue in mind”—rescue on one hand from all the phony shepherds in the world and on the other hand saving us from ourselves.
Jesus has rescue in mind.
He is in the business opening doors to invite us in, to protect us, to save us. It is strange to reflection upon all this imagery right now when doors and gates are a stark part of our reality.
Doors in grocery stores have brightly colored signs with warnings about keeping our distance. While some places are opening, there are still Closed Signs on so many doors right now.
Gates are shut to some factories in hopes we can be protected from one another.
Even church doors are shut, which seems to fly in the face of all that we are to be about.
As the hands and feet of Christ, we the church are to be the gate—not the gatekeeper, mind you, but the door to open new possibilities for all to find God.
With our doors shut to gatherings, it seems as if we cannot fulfill our purpose.
But to this, I’d like to say, not so fast.
We are still feeding the hungry, still teaching and learning, still gathering with one another for fellowship, just in different ways, and while it is not ideal, and regretfully, not everyone can log in or log on or zoom, we are finding ways to continue the mission of the church, and even see ourselves in a new way.
I joked about being a televangelist a few weeks ago, but offering church online is quickly becoming an expectation now…
In the near future, it may be that when we are able to gather again in person, we actually need to be a church with no doors, worshipping outside for a bit.
We can do that too.
We can absolutely emulate Christ’s door without doors.
This can-do attitude is what our presiding Bishop, Michael Curry calls Kingdom of God thinking. We see this kind of thinking happening all around…people are hearing the shepherd’s voice calling to them and they are acting out of love. Churches are following Jesus’ practices, his way of love, and doing things we never imagined. Sure, we’re making mistakes, but we’re learning to be the church again in this calamity, as we’ve always done through tragedy and change; we’re listening more carefully, learning to take risks, and trying new ideas.
I see all this as possibility –which is what we’re called to be—hopefully this possibility will spill out well beyond our parking lots as we open our doors –it will spill out into the world, opening up a new era, so that all people may have life and have it abundantly.