by Mac Leonard
3 May 2020
Jesus said, “I am telling you the truth: the man who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who goes in through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him; the sheep hear his voice as he calls his own sheep by name, and he leads them out.
When he has brought them out, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they know his voice. They will not follow someone else; instead, they will run away from such a person, because they do not know his voice.”
Jesus told them this parable, but they did not understand what he meant.
So Jesus said again, “I am telling you the truth: I am the gate for the sheep. All others who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever comes in by me will be saved; they will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only in order to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come in order that you might have life — life in all its fullness.
“I am the gate”
At the burning bush when Moses asked God who he was, God replied, “I am who I am.” (Exodus 3:14).
There are various ways of translating “I am”. The original tense is one we don’t have in English – I’m told it’s the ‘present continuous’ – and a more accurate if ungrammatical translation could be “I is who I is”.
For the people of Israel God is not a God of the past – He’s a God who is always in the moment. And this, as they went through a very long time in the desert and the rest of their history until today, is key: God is – here and now – in the situation in which they find themselves in the instant – whether that situation be persecution or celebration.
Jesus reinforced his Divine identity by using this ‘title’ on many occasions. According to John’s gospel there were seven times when Jesus spoke of himself as “I am” – or “I is”.
“Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry’” (John 6:35).
“Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” (John 8:12).
“Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26).
“Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
And today’s gospel reading offers us the bonus of a repeat in the space of a few verses – because the disciples didn’t get it first time! He told them, “I am the gate for the sheep”. (John 10:9), and again, “I am the gate”. And to make it triply clear just after today’s reading Jesus makes it even more pointed: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
I have to say that for once St. Lectionarius (the Lectionary which sets our Bible readings!) has been inspired. In other translations Jesus says, “I am the door”.
At the moment ‘the door’ is very much in our thinking – whether it’s the front door or the back gate – and we can easily feel like sheep penned in by isolation, social distancing or when making those essential journeys and sticking to our own two meter space.
So what has this passage from John’s gospel to teach us today? Well – if the Bible were ever to be relevant this is it! And to understand it we need to set Jesus words in his situation.
When Jesus said, “I am the gate…” he knew the image that should come immediately to the minds of his hearers. In Biblical times, a shepherd was literally the gate or the door of the sheepfold.
When the sheep were in town, there was a pen with a real gate where the sheep were kept. But when the sheep were grazing out in the fields, the shepherd created a makeshift sheepfold with branches and brambles… once the sheep were safely in the fold, the shepherd would lie across the opening… the shepherd would literally be ‘the gate’.
As ‘the gate’, the shepherd could control the coming and going of the sheep and keep the flock safe from wolves and other predators. And sometimes he would be injured or even killed by the wild animals who wanted to feed on his sheep.
And this is the analogy His hearers would have understood when Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever comes in by me will be saved; they will come in and go out and find pasture. I have come in order that you might have life - life in all its fullness”
Unlike our doors which at the moment are keeping us in lockdown the shepherd was the door who both protected and freed the sheep to enjoy peaceful grazing. Because of the shepherd-gate the sheep lived happily.
Jesus went on to say, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11). And because of this we, his sheep today, can live despite all that is going on in our world! Because the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us on the cross we can “have life - life in all its fullness”.
Now that’s difficult to understand with our lives as they are today. We need to go back to the ‘present continuous I am’. Jesus is our gate and our shepherd ‘in the moment’ and ‘in every moment’.
It’s too easy to base our faith on ‘the past’ – and it’s wonderful to look back and see how God has been active in history. We can read in the Bible how God looked after his people – how sometimes He had to allow suffering – but how He was indeed ‘the good Shepherd’ of Psalm 23. But it’s fair enough to say ‘that was then, not now’.
We can look back on our own past experience – that degree in Theological Hindsight. Perhaps we’ve been through difficult times before. Jill, our two eldest boys who were then very young and myself certainly have been – back in the summer of 1974 - lockdown for days under shell-fire in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus - to say nothing of the uncertainty which followed in the following months. Looking back certainly strengthens our faith and helps us to deal with the present – “God was with us then – so He can be now.”
We can rest in the knowledge of sins forgiven – of Jesus’ promise of the future later in John’s gospel that “in my Father’s house are many rooms.” We can trust in the promise of heaven if the worst happens. But in all honesty, that’s easier to say than accept when we’re surrounded by hundreds dying every day. This situation will test the strongest future faith.
Past and future faith may help – but this is a time when we live in the present – the immediate – a coughing fit or a sweat and it’s test-time!
This is a time when “I is” is the key. This is a time when “I is the door” is the most relevant. As we’re now painfully aware doors are the way out – they lead us to the real world. So if Jesus is ‘the gate, the door’ what happens when we go through?
Jesus tells us, “I am the gate. Whoever comes in by me will be saved; they will come in and go out and find pasture. I have come in order that you might have life - life in all its fullness.” He makes us three promises.
“Whoever comes in by me will be saved.” When we open the door of our lives to Jesus He invites us to come in to His – the sins or the door which separate us are forgiven and He is right there whenever we need Him. Isolation and social distancing are no more – at least in our relationship with Him! Unlike at the Supermarket we don’t have to queue for ages to get through the door – we have instant access.
“They will come in and go out and find pasture.” People often think that life in Jesus’ sheepfold means we’re penned in by rules, locked-down by traditions, that our lives have to conform to this rule and that rule and rules way into the distance. Jesus gave us one rule – “Love one another as I have loved you.” Life with Jesus is freedom – often challenging as at the moment, often confusing because we might not know where ‘the Shepherd’ is leading us, but always full and worth living because the ‘I is’ is with us.
And that brings us to the third promise: “I have come in order that you might have life - life in all its fullness.” Notice that the promise is “life in all its fullness”. As we know at the moment, “fullness” doesn’t mean total peace and contentment – “fullness” means ‘everything included’. Following Jesus doesn’t make us immune from the trials and pain of life – but it does make us open to the ‘fullness’ His presence with us in the instant, of spiritual eternal life which adds a totally new and different perspective on life as we know it today.
Jesus leads us to abundant life… Jesus leads us to real and eternal life… Jesus leads is to more and better life than we ever dreamed of… only when we live with Him does life truly become worth living.
You are watching this at home because we are living in a new dimension. If you want to know more, you want to ask questions, or you want to open your door and ask Jesus into your life do please email one of the St. Paul’s Ministry Team and we’ll arrange a conversation – our addresses are on the St. Paul’s Woodford Bridge website.
May God bless you all – and give you peace in this troubled time.