Easter 4A: Shepherds and Gates – Which is it?!

Readings

  • Acts 2:42-47
  • Psalm 23
  • 1 Peter 2:19-25
  • John 10:1-10
You can find the readings, in the CEB and NRSV translation, by clicking this link.

Sermon

I don’t know if you know this, but today is a particular day.  The fourth Sunday in Easter is called ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’.  And today we have a text where Jesus affirms that analogy, sort of.  I’m guessing you are all good listeners and noticed immediately that in this little speech about sheep and sheep pens and thieves and bandits and shepherds –  Jesus says pretty emphatically that he IS ‘the gate.’

This reading on this day presents a particular brand of confusion and exasperation for many pastors, preachers, and bible readers alike.  I hear questions like: Is Jesus be the shepherd, the gate, and the gatekeeper all at once? Is Jesus just the shepherd?  Just the gate?  I don’t understand!

One of the first things I truly enjoyed in a Seminary class was the discovery of how many things Jesus gets to be in the Bible.   “How can Jesus be the shepherd, the gate, and the gatekeeper all at once?  The same way he’s the way, the truth and the life in ch. 14; the true vine in ch. 15; the light of the world in ch. 8; the resurrection and the life in ch. 11, the true bread of heaven which the father gives in ch. 6…,”[1] and on and on it goes.

Jesus is many things, to many people, and in many different ways, reaching out to build connections with the world as Redeemer, Saviour, and Teacher.

I don’t think people, as a whole, have a hard time thinking about Jesus, or God, as a shepherd figure.  Even those people who’ve never seen sheep in a field, or seen real shepherds do their shepherding thing.  I think it’s fair to say that anyone who has even the slightest familiarity with Psalm 23 gets a sense of what it means to each of them as soon as they hear the first three traditional lines:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
    He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
    he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.  [Psalm 23:1-3, NRSV]

I think there is a universal sense of belonging.  This is also true of the gospel of John – the writer wants us to understand that we are known by name and constantly cared for, never lost or forsaken[2] – the sheep of God’s pasture.

So, Jesus the Shepherd, we get.

Jesus, the Gate?  That might take a little explaining.

And it may be helpful to go back in time a little bit.  Pastor Edward Markquart, from Seattle, explains it this way:

“During the time of Jesus in the land of Palestine, during the evening, the shepherds would bring the sheep down from the hills to protect them at night when the wolves and mountain lions were hunting their prey.  At night, the shepherds would gather their sheep together and lead them into large pens. These large pens were called sheepfolds. These sheepfolds or sheep pens had large walls which were made out of rocks. The walls of the sheep pens were about five feet high. On the top of the four stone walls were briars or prickly branches. These briars or prickly branches would be used for the crown of thorns on Good Friday. The shepherds put the prickly briars along the top of the wall, so it was like our barbed wire today on the top of walls. The result of all of this is that the mountain lions and wolves couldn’t get inside the sheep pen.

Now, the door way was about two feet wide. This wide. Not wide at all. It was a small entry. It was like one small gap in the wall. So I ask you: what was the door made out of? This is crucial. Was the door made out of wood that a carpenter had constructed? Was it made out of wool, a wool blanket that a weaver had woven? Was it made out of stones that the shepherd had piled up? Was it made of out sticks, all laced together to form a barrier? Was it made out of leather, a hide from the sheep? Was it made out of linen, like a linen cloth hanging there in the gap in the wall? What was the door made out of? Wood? Wool? Stones? Sticks? Leather? Linen? What was the door made out of? That is the key to the story.

There was no door. The shepherd himself was the door. At night, the shepherd himself would sleep there in the small opening of the rock wall. He would sleep there, by the fire, with his rod and staff. If any mountain lion would come, the shepherd would fight it off with his weapons, his short stocky club or his long pointed staff. Literally and actually, the shepherd himself was the door.”[3]

The shepherd himself was the door.  A living gate.

Jesus is the door, or gate, the gatekeeper, and the shepherd.  All at the same time.

A strange image, but perhaps, an entirely comforting thought.

And perhaps, also a challenging one.  Because Jesus, as the gate, allows the sheep to come and go, with the shepherds, who are invited to come in and are equally invited to go out.

For as long as I can remember I have heard of pastors being referred to as the shepherds of the sheep.  It is clear from this description that the intent is that the sheep are then the people of a congregation – a fold, if you would.   Though we rostered leaders are called from the midst of the people, and set apart as ministers of Word & Sacrament or Word & Service, I’m reluctant to claim the title of ‘shepherd’ for just myself or my colleagues.  And, I’m dubious about referring to the members of a faith community as sheep, unless we’re extending that image to all people – regardless of their involvement in a congregation.  Which, to be honest, gets all the more confusing because the sheep are then led by sheep who are somehow also shepherds, or are potentially thieves and bandits, proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing who have scaled the walls of the sheep pen.

So, instead, “I would lean toward ‘the church’ being the shepherds and the sheep being the world.”[4] More to the point, and pointedly putting this whole analogy firmly back on Christ where it belongs: The whole world is sheep.  The world, being a place where all of humanity, all of God’s creation, is named and known to God.  We are sheep.  We are loved and named and known to God.

We are all called and invited into the sheep pen, and find salvation, through Christ.

We are all called and invited to go out and find pasture and live life to the fullest.  Through Christ.

We are all called and invited to be the church: the branches reaching from the vine; the salt and light that exists to season and shine; the body of toes, knees, and shoulders that are connected to the head, Jesus Christ; the ones who enter the water and word in order to die to sin and rise anew, who take in body and blood, ‘given for you’; and who are invited to be like shepherds to the rest of the world, that all might be loved and led through Christ.

We are all called and invited to be all of these things.  All at the same time.

And it’s all possible.

Through Christ.

Let us pray,
Holy Trinity, we live in a world where even computers generate letters and phone calls in which we are addressed by name, always vying for our attention and to gain something from us.  It isn’t always easy to hear your voice.  Give us courage to rely on your promises that we are all loved, known, and invited.  Give us eyes to see you as you make yourself known to us, and ears to hear as you call and invite us into the world you are always shaping.  Amen.


Sermon Inspirations

  1. Jaime Clark-Soles. “April 13, 2008: Commentary on John 10:1-10” Preach This Week: Gospel Reading.  Working Preacher.
  2. Mark Davis. “Figurative Speech with a Twist!”  May 1, 2017.  Left Behind and Loving It.
  3. Edward F. Markquart. “I Am The Door.”  Series A: Easter 4A, John 10:1-10.  Sermons from Seattle.
  4. Peter Woods. “Jesus the Gate, and Paddy Plenty.”  May 9, 2011.  The Listening Hermit.

This week’s image is entitled, “The Shepherd’s love,” created by StefyMante, in 2010.  The image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.  You can find out more about the painting here.  The image has been cropped for the purposes of this blog.


[1] Jaime Clark-Soles.  “April 13, 2008: Commentary on John 10:1-10” Preach This Week: Gospel Reading.  Working Preacher.
[2] Jaime Clark-Soles.  “April 13, 2008: Commentary on John 10:1-10
[3] Edward F. Markquart.  “I Am The Door.”  Series A: Easter 4A, John 10:1-10.  Sermons from Seattle.
[4] D. Mark Davis.  “Figurative Speech with a Twist!”  May 1, 2017.  Left Behind and Loving It.

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