This week’s sermon runs the risk of being far more lecture than sermon. But, I have learned that y’all sometimes value lectures, if I am placing it in the midst of understanding your faith better. I may cringe at what I feel like I’m doing, but y’all seem really to enjoy it. Now, I have a bit more trepidation because I have been in a number of conversations with colleagues this last week regarding “virtual” or “spiritual” communion and its place in the life of the modern Church. So, this sermon runs the risk of addressing those discussions rather than the discussions you have been having around your houses. If such is the case, I apologize. If it feeds you, . . . well, then, we know God is most definitely at work in this.
As you have gathered by the music and the prayers, this is Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s a challenging week to preach because there are only so many ways that one can say “Jesus is the Good Shepherd” or “we are sheep.” Heck, if one compares people to sheep, people get mad. They have this idea that sheep are stupid. Sheep are not stupid. They are VERY focused on what they can see, and they are very stubborn—like humans. Thankfully, this week, we are reading the selection from John’s Gospel. In John’s Gospel, this teaching is actually part of a much bigger selection. In fact, this teaching by Jesus in chapter 10 begins with the story of the man born blind from birth.
At the beginning of chapter 9, the crowds ask Jesus if the man sinned or his parents sinned. The understanding is that the man is punished by God. No one should be born without sight. So, to be born that way means somebody did something to upset God. Jesus, of course, responds that nobody caused the man to be born blind. God had allowed him to be born blind that God’s glory might show forth in the work and person of His Son. Jesus famously heals the man with mud made from spit.
The crowd, naturally, tries to figure out the significance of the event. Sight is not restored naturally. From John’s perspective, it is another sign which points to the Anointed status of Jesus. His healing power is unique because He is unique in His relationship with the Father. The Pharisees and others, though, as is almost always the case in John’s Gospel, miss the meaning of the sign. They argue a bit about it before Jesus has to step in and correct their misunderstanding. That is what prompts this teaching by Jesus.
I should note that the section does not end until the crowds notice the difference between John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth. John never performed signs of power; yet all he taught about Jesus, about God’s Anointed and Beloved, are true! If John was the one sent to make straight the paths and to prepare the way of the Lord, who does that make Jesus? Many believed in Him because of that understanding. But that’s a different week!
Back to our little pericope though. Jesus calls Himself the gate to the sheep pen. What does that image mean?
Have you ever worked on a farm? I know they are fund to drive by, and we love to look at all the concentric rectangles and squares made by the fences, but have you ever experienced the purpose and needs served by the gates? Usually, it is a lesson earned the hard way for us city folk. If we work a farm and find an open gate and close it, what happens? After the owner yells at us, we learn that gates are open for a reason. Usually it is a food or water reason. Maybe the stream is through that gate. Maybe the troughs are through that gate. Whatever is there, the animals need it and know it, whatever it is, is through that gate. If we unknowingly close a gate, we often cause animals to make paths for themselves. They will look for loose spots in the fence or barge through the hedges or do whatever they can to get to their need. Sometimes, they will hurt themselves in their efforts. And the owners are not pleased with us.
The opposite is also true. What happens when we open a closed gate? We are allowing animals access to an area from which they were prevented or restricted. If it’s the outer gate, the often end up on the farm road. If we are lucky, no one hits the animal with their truck or tractor. If we are unlucky, though, the animal might be wounded or killed. If we open a gate, we are freeing an animal to go where it wants rather than where we need it to stay.
I’ve seen a few good laughs and conversations on the screen during this. I guess Tennessee is rural enough that many of us Adventers have done farm work or know folks who have. We’ve heard the admonitions to leave the gates alone, ignored them because of our assigned task or perceived wisdom, and received the earned responses. Right?
So, what purpose do the gates serve? Generally, protection or access to a need, like food or water or more land to graze. Sound reasonable? Then, what is Jesus teaching the crowds and us? Right, that He provides access to food and water and that He protects us! In modern terms, we’d say He gives us our daily bread, and He protects us from evil or temptation or from the consequences of our sins. Any argument with that understanding? Good! It sounds like we are all familiar with the teaching of Psalm 23, doesn’t it?
Let’s push Jesus’ teaching a bit more, though. Who does not know to or refuses to use gates properly? New workers. That’s right. Particularly new workers who were not trained properly, right? Who else? They are in Jesus’ teaching. That’s right! Thieves and bandits. Thieves and bandits try to get in by other means. They climb walls, they dig under fences, they avoid the watcher of the gate, to extend the image of verse three. When will Jesus use this term again in John’s Gospel? When Judas betrays Him and brings the armed guards.
In speculative theology, there is a discussion about Judas, about whether Judas is to blame for his actions to betray Jesus. Some argue that he was simply filling a necessary role and therefore not liable for his own actions. I see a couple nods. Others, in a bit of an effort to redeem Judas and make his betrayal of our Lord seem more palatable, like to float the idea that Judas was a zealot and simply trying to force Jesus to take the crown and throw off the rule of the oppressive Romans. I see more of you watched some of those stupid shows during Holy Week like me since we were all quarantined. I admit I was pleasantly surprised, none of the ones I watched claimed the Apostles were aliens.
We know the answer to this question now, because you and I have the perspective of our Lord’s Passion, Death, Resurrection, Ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit in our history, but was Jesus’ work or ministry about taking a crown and leading an army in rebellion? Was Jesus’ ministry about exultation alone? Or was there a required path of suffering prior to that glorification? I see some great expressions. Judas, whatever his motivations, was not about doing God’s will. Like the other eleven Apostles, He did not understand Jesus’ teachings on His death, Resurrection, and Ascension. Like Peter, Judas may have had his own plan or expectation in mind. But, where the other eleven followed Jesus even though they lacked understanding, Judas chose to do things his way. That is NOT to say Judas was beyond the scope of Jesus’ salvific or redemptive purposes. Had Judas repented, what likely would have been our Lord’s response to him? I think so. I think Judas would have found grace and mercy in his friend, just as did Peter, who denied His Lord three times before the cock crowed.
Speaking of salvific or redemptive purposes, what does the sheep pen represent in Jesus’ teaching? Ok, but let’s unpack that a bit. What does salvation mean? Ok, we go to heaven. I’m sure some think that the primary purpose. Any other answers? True, it’s where we experience the fulfillment prayed for in the Lord’s Prayer. There can be glimmers of it here on this earth, but many folks think it unrealized fully until the end of this age. Any other ideas?
Let’s think back to the man born blind from birth. What would have been his answer to that question about salvation? Seeing! Absolutely. But can we call it healing, for general purposes? Think of the man’s life until he meets Jesus. He cannot play. He cannot work. He is forced to beg at the city gates and depend upon the generosity of others. Those others, upon whom he depends for generosity, think what about his condition? That he is being punished either for his parents’ sin or his own. Do you think there was a whisper or three about him? Do you think, as a blind man, his hearing was a bit more acute? What would be the effect of those whispers? He would learn he did not belong. He would likely internalize all the whispers. I am accursed by God. I have no share in God’s blessings.
So, what does Jesus really heal for the man? In giving him his sight, Jesus restores him to the community and to himself! Can you imagine the discussions for the rest of his life? Man, do you remember when the Rabbi healed Fred’s sight? Man, that might be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Too bad that Rabbi thought He was sent by God, huh?
By virtue of that sign of power, that healing, the man becomes a focal point for the town. Every time people see him, they will be reminded of the healing power of Jesus. Every time they are reminded of that healing, they will be forced to wrestle with the person of Jesus. How did He do that? Why cannot anyone else? You know, there are these stories that He rose again after His death, but that’s just not possible, right? Of course, neither is restoring sight. By virtue of his healing, the man born blind will now point others to God’s saving grace. He will be a visible reminder of God’s plan for Abraham’s descendants and of Messiah!
Back to the gate statement. It is important because it goes to Jesus’ identity, but it is important, too, for Christological and even systematic reasons. Greek, like many languages, includes the implied pronoun in its verb form. Just like hablo means I speak in Spanish, eimi means I am in Greek. Jesus, though, uses the pronoun ego, which means I. In effect, Jesus is emphasizing the I in I am. Such emphasis is missed by us because our verb forms require the pronoun to make sense. We need more than hits or says or laugh. We need the reference to know who is doing the action.
In Jesus audience, though, the ego eimi would have a cultural understanding as well. Those were the words Yahweh used to identify Himself to Moses and others throughout the Old Testament. God is the great I AM. Now, we have this Rabbi/Prophet traveling around, claiming to do the will of His Father, claiming to be the Son of God, reinforcing that claim by asserting that He is the gate, by teaching that none can get to the Father, none can receive the blessings promised by the Father, apart from Him. He is the guard and the access. If we try to get in another way, say by good works, we are like thieves and bandits. We are doing it our way and not God’s way.
Why would God make it necessary for Jesus to be the gate? Easy. What can you or I offer in exchange for our lives. We know from the Scriptures that the wages of sin is death. Each of us on this screen today is, unless our Lord returns beforehand, doomed to die because of our sins. There is nothing we can offer to satisfy God’s justice to re-merit our life. Nothing. No gift, no work, no sorry. Nothing atones for our sins.
That is precisely why He came down from heaven. The only person who could offer a sacrifice on our behalf that meant anything would be someone who lived without sin. Only Jesus lived without sin, so only His offering atones for our sins against God and our neighbor. Now we remind ourselves why the Incarnation is so important. We cannot live without sin. Only Jesus always does the will of the Father. And God cannot ignore sin. As much as God is love, God is also justice. Were He to ignore our sins, He would be allowing injustices to continue. And Jesus, at all times, but especially during His Passion and death, must be singularly focused on the will of the Father. He chooses to accept the torture and humiliation. He chooses to accept the death of the Cross. Were His will to be unfocused for just a split second, were He to stray from the will of the Father for a seemingly inconsequential thing, we would be undone! Salvation would be undone!
Jesus suffers all these things for our sakes. He dies that we might live! Forever. And for His faithfulness, for His trust in His Father, God makes Him the Gatekeeper or the Name above every name or whatever title you want to ascribe Him. Now, the modern world rejects exclusive claims about truth. I get that. The only truth allowed to exist is the universal claim that there is no truth. You might say the world is a descendant of Pilate.
The world pushes back against His claim. No, people are basically good. If Jesus is telling the truth, lots of good people will suffer unjustly. How do we know He told the Truth? We have the witnesses to His Resurrection and we have our own Pentecostal moments. Most of us may not have met Jesus after His Resurrection as did the men on the way to Emmaus or Mary Magdalene or Peter, but our exercise of ministry, with power, in His name teaches us that He has ascended to be with the Father. That could not happen were He not seated there making intercessions on our behalf and sending the Counselor to aid us.
And, what kind of gate is Jesus? Does He deny anyone who accepts His offering of love and grace? Of course not. All sorts of wicked people find their way to Him in the Scriptures, and He lovingly restores each and every one of them to their Father in heaven and to their communities. Every time. To say nothing of the marginalized and the faithful. Yes, one cannot get to the Father apart from Jesus, but it is God’s desire that all should come within the reach of His saving embrace. So, when folks complain about our exclusivity, that no one gets in apart from Jesus the gate, they are correct. But they are flat out wrong when they think we think that God does not want the world to come to Him. He wants to draw the whole world to Christ.
What about . . . ? I get that question a lot. What about good people who believe . . . ? Two things. First, it is our job to introduce others to the Living God, the True God, through Jesus the Christ. He is the means of salvation promised by our Lord, and we know that promise true because of His loving and determined work on the Cross, His amazing Resurrection, His glorious Ascension, and the resulting coming of the promised Holy Spirit! We know Jesus told the truth because that all happened!
But, and this was one of the problems for many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, you and I do not get to decide who gets in the sheep fold and who does not. The One Who died, rose again, ascended to the Father, and promised He will come again is the One to Whom that authority has been given. Put a bit more bluntly, Jesus, the one Who willed Himself to stay on that Cross, chooses who gets His grace and who does not. Our job is to introduce, to invite, to testify His saving grace in our own lives. But it is He through Whom we and they must enter. That is God’s revelation to us, and it is certainly John’s message to us on this day, this day that we remind ourselves of the Good Shepherd and the Gate!
In Christ’s Peace,