|A. Hanson, Ameugney.|
This is the closest thing to a gate I have.
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from our resurrected and living God. Amen.
Jesus as the Gate. Among biblical metaphors, this is one of the stranger ones. We call this particular Sunday in the church year, the fourth Sunday of Easter and halfway to Pentecost, “Good Shepherd Sunday”, but our Gospel text from John is not actually about Jesus as a shepherd, it is about Jesus as a gate. And this image of Jesus is far from the bucolic and soothing idea of a good shepherd leading a flock of sheep through green pastures and beside still waters. We are generally uncomfortable with the idea of a gate, because in our understanding, it brings to mind something that separates those on the inside from those on the outside. Gates keep people out, gates keep people in. Gates can serve as protection, such as when we fence our yards to provide a safe place for children to play, or gates can be a sort of privilege, such as with gated housing communities where a cushion of wealth can keep out those who are undesirable. Gates can be opened for us or slammed in our faces.
At first glance, this metaphor of Jesus as a gate seems more problematic than it does promising, particularly when looked at in the context of the body of Christ. To proclaim Jesus as a gate seems that there might be an insider community and also a community that is outside the gate. And because it is our human nature, we want to do everything possible to make sure that we are part of that insider group. This is rooted in our need for security. We look for ways to make sure that we can be included in this select group. Whether that is by believing the “right” things (whatever those might be) or making sure that we are “good” enough through our own actions. Or perhaps we despair of ever really belonging to the body of Christ and we drown in our own shame and regret. Maybe we feel too young or too old or too poor or we feel depressed when everyone else around us seems to be filled with joy.
The church has in many ways contributed to creating this sense of who is in and who is out. This text has been preached as a sort of guide to salvation. That Jesus is a shepherd and opens the gate to abundant and eternal life, and all we have to do is just follow him through that narrow gate and then stay the course with him. Also, the church has at some times and places decided who is good enough to be a follower of Jesus based on one’s actions, identity, or some other measure. It’s like the church itself, or the people that compose the institution, have decided to be the gatekeepers that open the doors to let the sheep pass through unimpeded…or not pass through. This does not sound much like the good news of the Gospel to me, and it makes it extremely difficult to see Jesus as the gate promising abundant life.
I spent most of this last week at a retreat in Northern Wisconsin. This retreat was for publically identified gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender ELCA clergy and seminarians and hosted by an organization called Proclaim. While the theme of the continuing education retreat was faith-based community organizing, for me, the greatest gift in learning was to feel a part of a community that knows how it feels to have gates slammed shut in front of them and knows what it is like to have their lives controlled by gatekeepers. But this retreat was not a time of lament, nor was it a time of fostering solidarity in the face of oppression, it was a time of abundant life and joy and belonging as beautiful people that compose the body of Christ. This past week was my first experience meeting other gay and lesbian clergy and I felt the deep joy of belonging. And I read this text in an entirely different way because of my experience on this retreat.
How might our experience of Jesus as a gate change when we realize that we already belong to the body of Christ? In this text, Jesus is not the gatekeeper. Jesus is not the one who decides who is in or who is out. Jesus knows his sheep, he “calls his own sheep by name” and “the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” We are known to Christ and we are saved. But this is not just the eschatological, life after death, kind of salvation. This is at an earthier level. We are given abundant life now.
We miss something if we do not look at this text in the greater context of John’s Gospel. The story immediately preceding this text is that of the man born blind, which we read on the fourth Sunday in Lent. Yes, it is a story of healing. Jesus restored the man’s sight. But also, he is restored to beloved community. The man born blind had been alienated and marginalized. He did not belong. The gatekeepers of his community had shut him out. But Jesus restored this man’s sight, and in doing so, also restored his place in the community. In the story of the man born blind, abundant life is not just a metaphorical nice idea. It is given flesh and blood. We need to hear this story of abundant life being given in order to emphasize the promises that we hear in the Gospel today. If we merely see Jesus as a good shepherd leading the simple sheep into a serene pasture, we miss the flesh and blood, incarnational, aspect of it all.
The abundant life that is promised to us through Jesus comes not as some far-off promise to be realized in the future, but rather, comes right now in our midst. Just as Jesus calls the sheep by name and leads them, we too are called by name and led. We belong to a community called the body of Christ and we are known intimately by God. And in a world where our human institutions seem hell bent on division, on determining who is in and who is out, we need this promise more than ever.
And we need one another to realize this promise. Just as I learned the joy of being known in a community this past week on retreat in Wisconsin, just as the man born blind was restored to belonging in community, we all have a need to be known and to belong. As we go out from this place, I ask you to consider:
To what communities do you belong?
Are there communities in which you feel like an outsider?
How can you help to create a sense of belonging for others in your communities?
Let us pray:
Gracious God, you have called us by name and you know us. We belong to you. Help us to live out our calling as members of your body, that we might ever be reminding one another of that belonging. Amen.