Keeping Watch on the Sheep Gate -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter 4A (Good Shepherd Sunday)
John 10:1-10 (New Revised Standard Version)
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. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
With the fourth Sunday of Easter upon us, the Revised Common Lectionary moves away from accounts of the resurrection appearances and returns to the task of identifying who Jesus is and what he is/was up to. This Fourth Sunday is called Good Shepherd Sunday. The lectionary invites us to read from Psalm 23 and John’s Good Shepherd discourse. The reading for Year A focuses on the first section of John 10, where Jesus identifies himself with the gate to the sheepfold, declaring: “I am the gate to the sheepfold.” He offers himself as the only point of entry and exit. Many have come and will come and will suggest otherwise. They will try to mislead the sheep – God’s people – into believing that they are the shepherd of the sheep, but the sheep know the voice of their master, and they will follow only that voice. Of course there will be those who, like bandits and thieves, seek to infiltrate the sheepfold, and lead them astray.
Throughout John there are signs of the underlying tension existing between the synagogue leadership and the emerging Christian community. There are disputes about who is the holder of the true faith, and separation has become almost inevitable. So, anyone who has experienced a church split can understand the realities present here. Both sides claim to represent the truth. Both are in competition for the loyalty of the people. So, the possibility of reconciliation has become almost impossible, and for John and his community, they will cast their lot with Jesus, whom they believe is the way to truth and to life in its abundance.
With this tension in the background, there is another issue at hand. And that has to do with the nature of leadership. John raises the question as to who is qualified to lead and teach the ways of God. He warns of bandits and thieves who are intent on harming the sheep. Beware of them is the message. Then there are the true shepherds – who emulate Jesus the Good Shepherd. The sheep know the voice of the true shepherds, and they will only follow these shepherds. In other words, there is a built in level of trust. Besides the shepherds, there is the image of the gatekeeper. The gate keeper is hired to watch the gate only open it to those with the proper credentials, leaving the false leaders/teachers to try and climb the wall into the sheepfold. As to the identity of the gatekeeper, we’re not told – but Paul does talk about discernment within the community, so perhaps we’re talking about those in leadership, who are charged with watching who comes and goes so that falsehoods are not disseminated. In a faith community like mine that values individual discernment and chaffs under hierarchy, this is a word that can be difficult to hear. But who is responsible?
In this context of discussing leadership in the order of the Good Shepherd, it would be helpful to understand what a shepherd is? I expect that very few of those reading this post have lived amongst the sheep or the shepherds. I grew up in cattle country – cattle are very different from sheep. But more than that, I grew up in small towns and cities, doing city-types of things. I’m not really familiar with the agrarian lifestyle that undergirds much of the biblical story. So, I must walk with texts like this with a great deal of caution. I need to be careful that I don’t import my own expectations into these images.
In the verses that follow our text, we hear Jesus identify himself as the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep (reference to the cross). Those who seek to emulate him and serve as shepherds are to act similarly –but what does that mean. There is within the church an attraction to the image of the shepherd. We want our clergy to be shepherds, which in my experience suggests being chaplains not leaders. But a shepherd is not a chaplain. A shepherd leads and guides the sheep to their pastures – to places of safety and sustenance (Psalm 23). Hired hands, however, are concerned about themselves and flee when trouble comes (conflict?). So what kind of shepherds are we looking for?
But this is to get ahead of ourselves. This may be Good Shepherd Sunday, but in verses 1-10 of John 10, Jesus is speaking of himself not as the shepherd but as the gate to the sheepfold. He is the way – the only way – into the realm of God (the place of safety). Others will try to gain access by climbing over the wall, but they are mere bandits. They are out to deceive and to harm. They are like wolves intent on killing the flock. But the sheep know the voice of their shepherd, and they will follow only that voice.
When the shepherd enters the compound, and determines that it is safe, the shepherd call the sheep to enter through the gate. In this passage, Jesus identifies himself with that gate. He uses the phrase “I am” (ego eimi). This phrase, which appears often in John, is a marker of John’s Christology. It is a reminder that for John Jesus reveals the presence of God (John 1:1-18). The thief comes to kill and destroy, but Jesus comes to offer life in abundance – but one has to enter the gate, which is Jesus.
What should we make of this language – Jesus being the gate through which those who will be saved will enter? There is but one gate and there is but one shepherd. The reference to those who came before him is problematic if taken in a supersessionist manner, so that the Jews were without salvation and without grace until Jesus showed up. We need to recognize this reality, but at the same time here in it the call to watch out for the wrong shepherds, the ones who will kill and destroy. Can I mention a few? David Koresh, Jim Jones, preachers of a prosperity gospel?
Molly Marshall offers important insight on Jesus’ vision of the community and its relationship to the shepherd.
Forming a flock and protecting it from scattering portrays Jesus’ intention for an indestructible relationship between sheep and shepherd. Likewise, the church must be known by its relationship to Jesus. When Christological awareness ebbs in congregational life, that is, when the story of Jesus is neglected, the church becomes unmoored and rudderless. [Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2: Lent Through Eastertide, p. 446]
The health of the church is related to its relationship to the shepherd, and I don’t mean the clergy. I mean, Jesus. If the church becomes disconnected from its Lord, then it will find itself adrift and prey to philosophies that are destructive.
As we ponder this phrase -- “I am the gate” – it’s important to recognize that Jesus isn’t placing himself as one gate among many. There is only one gate, and those who wish to participate in the Realm of God must enter and exit by that gate. The shepherds are called to help lead God’s people along this pathway.
I will admit that I struggle with the exclusivist language that I find here and elsewhere, especially in the Gospel of John. Being active in interfaith efforts, and working with folks from other faith traditions whom I greatly respect, I’m attracted to a pluralist vision. But at the same time, I’m not sure we are well served with the kind relativism often undergirding pluralism. The Gospel of John reminds us that Jesus wasn’t a pluralist. He had a broad vision, but it was anchored in the Judaism of his day. He preached a message of welcome, but he had a strong sense of what it means to walk with God. In another passage in John, we find Jesus saying “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6).
I think it is wise to struggle with the complexity of this message. I believe that our relationships with one another across faith boundaries can be strengthened by affirming the particularities of our traditions, even as we respect the particularities of others. But for those of us, who seek to follow Jesus, it is good to be reminded that his the gate, the way, the truth. There are many calling for our allegiance. We who live in the remnants of Christendom know how this works. Our allegiances are often divided. We’re tempted to act in ways that are contrary to the Gospel. We even pressure those called to be shepherds to bow to these realities – nationalist and tribal realities that destroy rather than give life.
Let us walk through the Gate to the Sheepfold -- knowing that it is Jesus who is the gateway -- the means of participating in God's realm.