Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fourth Sunday of Easter.
“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.”
When I was a twenty-one, I got lost driving in a new city.
Being lost is not unusual for me. I have reams of stories about finding myself in places I really should not be due to my poor sense of direction—back alleys, one-way streets, the loading docks at an airport, once. That was a hard one to explain.
In this case, I had accidentally turned down the driveway to a swanky subdivision in Charlotte, NC. For a while it was just beautiful tall trees and a curving road, but eventually, I found myself stuck at a lovely wrought iron gate, sticking out from a little guardhouse.
Now, I’ve seen gated communities before. The gate itself did not astonish me. What did was that there was no place to turn around—no widening of the road, no path between the lanes going in and coming out where I could pull a u-turn. I had two options—back my way up a solid half-mile of driveway, or crash through the gate.
I paused too long, a little bit panicked, and soon a man in a gray uniform came out of the guardhouse. He eyed me suspiciously.
I want to point out that I looked particularly nice that day. The whole reason I was in Charlotte was to undergo a phycological evaluation, something every PCUSA pastor is required to have before we can move towards ministry. So I’d dressed to look extra professional and trustworthy and, you know, sane. But still, this guard at the gate was not swayed by my neatly creased khakis.
Having ascertained that I was not a resident and didn’t know any residents and that I had neither key, code, nor number to call, he told me I would have to leave. I told him I’d love to leave, but I didn’t think I could back up the drive that far, especially if anyone ended up coming down it while I was backing up.
I asked if he would let me through the gate just to turn around. There was a place where the median broke on the other side, I could see.
The answer was resolute. Absolutely not.
I stared at him. He stared at me. I stared at him.
“You can watch me the whole time,” I said. “I just need to turn around.”
I was starting to really worry, now. The car already had a major dent in it from where I’d backed into a retaining wall at my parents’ house, and a replaced tire from where I’d backed over a curb. Backing up is not my strongest skill.
Out of desperation, I said, “what if you drive the car? I’ll get out and stand on this side of the gate and you can drive it through and I’ll get it when you come back.”
He pondered this for a minute. I felt fairly confident that my car was not worth stealing, and that I trusted him a lot more than he trusted me. Eventually he said, “I could do that.”
I jumped out of the car while he went back in the guardhouse and pressed a few buttons. The gates, both coming and going, rose in an elegant swoop. Then he got in, drove my car in an almost seamless loop around the other side, and pulled it up to the other lane.
I hope the man got a raise for his compunction. He certainly was doing his job, to the letter. But it all felt very silly to me, these gates barring the road, when, had I actually wanted to get into this exclusive neighborhood, I could have walked in from any direction, through the trees and footpaths. They made such a production of keeping regular schlubs like me out—paid this guard what I hope was a decent wage to sit in a tiny closet day in and day out—all for the illusion of exclusivity.
Perhaps that story explains why I was not eager to preach on Jesus the gate. I am much fonder of Jesus the Good Shepherd, and indeed today is sometimes called Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year, on the fourth Sunday after Easter, the lectionary gives us a smattering of the Bible’s many scriptures that use a shepherd metaphor to speak to God’s loving care for us. And Jesus does call himself the good shepherd, the one whose voice the sheep recognize. I wanted to write this sermon about how beautiful it is to have a shepherd to care for us. But I kept being pulled back to the second part of this scripture, where he gives the metaphor a kaleidoscope twist: and calls himself the gate.
I tend to categorize gates two different ways: there are the decorative gates, gates like the beautiful one that hangs in my grandparents’ garden, gates that add aesthetic value but do little to actually keep anything in or out. I don’t think Jesus would ever refer to himself as merely decorative.
And then there are the other gates—gates like the one I came up against in that idyllic, suspicious gated community, gates like the ones that come wrapped in barbed wire at prisons, gates like the one we have across our hallway at home to keep the cat and his claws away from us when we walk in the door. These are the gates that are very, very functional—that serve to give very clear ideas about who is in, and who is out.
This is perhaps the more traditional reading of Jesus as the gate. Jesus who functions as a shibboleth, measuring who is in against who is out. The saved vs. the unsaved. Christians vs. unbelievers. Presbyterians vs. other denominations, flavors of Presbyterian vs. other flavors of Presbyterians, the people in the first pew vs. the people in the back pew, you can just keep on dividing and dividing and dividing and dividing until Jesus’ flock has barely any sheep in it at all.
It breaks my heart, when people talk about Jesus this way. As if Christianity is a gated community, and Jesus is the security guard at the checkpoint.
I do not believe in that Jesus for one single second.
And so I love that as soon as Jesus calls himself the gate, he qualifies what kind of gate he is: a gate that opens to a safe place, but also one that swings both directions. In and out.
“Whoever enters by me will be saved,” Jesus says, then adds, “and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
Jesus the gate is not the bars or the locks or the wall. Jesus the gate is the opening in the wall. One which he expects us to wander in and out of our whole lives long
The places where sheep were gated up at night in first century Judea were safe places, often courtyards in or amongst houses. They were the easiest places to defend from thieves who might sneak in at night. But they were not places sheep could stay. A herd of sheep would die of hunger, locked up safe in a courtyard. Sheep have to go out to pasture, to be able to roam wide hills of grass and streams, if they are going to live.
Jesus offers us a place of safety. But if we go into his courtyard and sit ourselves down and compliment ourselves on being in the in-crowd, we too will end up dying of spiritual hunger. To live the life Jesus desires for us is to draw close to him when we need that safety, and to be led out by him into the wide world when he calls.
Jesus is both the gate and the good shepherd. And the good shepherd, as any Jewish rabbi who knew their psalms could tell you, is the one makes us lie down in green pastures, leads us beside still waters, and causes our cup to overflow.
If we stay in the gated sheepfold, no matter how safe we are, we will never know the full beauty of the life that God is inviting us into.
At the end of this passage Jesus reminds us that he has come that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus is not simply talking about quantity of life here—that we will live to a ripe old age, or that we will live into eternity if we only do x, y, and z. Jesus is talking about a quality of life—life that is abundant, life that overflows all around us, life lived in full technicolor. From the very first notes of the gospel of John, Jesus is identified not as the one in whom that kind of life is found. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people,” is right there in the prologue.
And life—full, rich, glorious life—cannot be lived solely behind gates. Jesus invites us to come in to save our life—and go out to live it.
I wonder about the folks who lived in that gated community I stumbled over in Charlotte. I have no doubt that some of them were committed Christians, people who knew and loved Jesus and craved that abundant life he offers. But I also wonder, in those magnificent houses with their top-of-the-line security systems, had they traded abundance for acquisition? Having a lot of money or a lot of stuff or even a lot of expensive experiences does not mean having abundant life. Paying a monthly fee for a guard to keep out lost college students does not sound like abundant living to me.
I can also turn that finger I’m pointing on myself. There’s no gate at the entrance to Prospect Point, but I have my own little condo full of craft supplies and extra clothes, half-done home renovations and passports so we can travel. I too know the temptation towards acquisition over abundance—to trade in having more life for having more stuff. I know the temptation to sit in the courtyard of safety, and beg Jesus to let me stay, even if it means starving myself of all that he offers out in the wide and terrifying and wondrous world.
I think perhaps the most astonishing thing about Jesus in this passage is that he lets us go. If we are his sheep, his disciples, his people, his followers—then he could treat us like acquisitions too. A flock to be increased for the sake of having us, showing us off. If that were the case, then I think Jesus would be pleased only with the largest megachurches, the biggest sanctuaries, the most expensive stained glass and the fattest church bank accounts.
But Jesus is not interested in acquiring sheep simply to have, to be the most successful shepherd, to flaunt his flock at the market. Jesus is interested in caring for his sheep, in giving them safety at night and freedom during the day, in giving us life, and life abundant. And to do that, he lets us go.
I believe Jesus is proud of the sheep who wander out, who risk danger in order to find abundant life, and to share that abundant life with others. Or to drop the metaphor, I believe Jesus is proud of the churches who run on shoe-string budgets yet keep giving out food. I believe Jesus is proud of the faithful foolishness of folks who set out to follow his call before they know quite where they are going. I believe Jesus is proud of the people who trade in lavish lifestyles for a lavish love of this broken world, in echo of the way he does himself.
I think about the guard at that checkpoint who wouldn’t let me through. I understood he was just doing his job, which was to check clearly who should be allowed in and who should be kept out at all costs.
Yet I give thanks that Jesus is not security guard, but loving guardian. Jesus is the one watching over us in danger and in joy; leading us on right paths; comforting us in dark valleys; pouring life into our cups until they overflow and that life gets spilled out into the whole world.
If you are weary, if you are frightened, if you are tempted to listen to voices that cast shame and doubt upon you today, then the gate is wide open. Jesus stands ready to welcome you into the fold.
But if you are restless, if you are searching, if you are wondering what adventures may yet lie ahead for you, then the gate is wide open, too. Jesus stands ready to call you onward.
In the words of a different psalm:
The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.