Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.John 10:7-10
Today is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The Fourth Sunday of Easter every year is a day when we remind ourselves that Jesus is our shepherd. But in the gospel reading assigned for today, John 10:1-10, Jesus doesn’t actually say that. He says it right after today’s reading. What he says in today’s reading is that he is the gate for the sheep. “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.”
This is one of the famous “I am” sayings of Jesus. There are seven in John’s Gospel: “I am the bread of life … I am the living water … I am the light of the world … I am the way, and the truth, and the life … I am the true vine … I am the resurrection and the life … I am the good shepherd …” And today’s, which I think is the least well-known and must unique: “I am the gate.”
Many of these “I am” sayings of Jesus’ have obvious meanings. But today’s “I am” saying is not quite as obvious. What does it mean that Jesus is the gate, or in other translations, the door, for us, his sheep?
I suppose you might say that Jesus is the door because he is the way into heaven. He is the way in which we are brought into the kingdom. But doesn’t that make him the key, rather than the door?
In other places in Scripture, Jesus is described as the one standing at the door. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” Jesus says in Revelation. “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). That makes more sense, doesn’t it?
In still other places in Scripture, Jesus miraculously passes through locked doors in order to find his disciples. So, after the Resurrection, the disciples are locked behind doors out of fear. But Jesus miraculously comes through those locked doors to tell them not to be afraid, that he is raised from the dead and that he will be with them to the end of the age. But here, in today’s gospel reading, Jesus is the door itself. How can this be?
The Shepherd Who Is the Gate
The explanation that I find most compelling is based on a common practice among shepherds in Jesus’ day. At the end of the day, the shepherds would gather all their sheep in an enclosed area – called a sheepfold – that had only one way in, and one way out. And then the shepherd would simply lay across that entrance, in order to protect their sheep from predators during the night. If a predator were to try and enter the sheepfold, the shepherd would awake and fight it off. And the sheep slept securely. Because their shepherd was now their gate.
When I visited the Holy Land, I was able to really picture this. I visited the fields outside Bethlehem, where it is thought that the shepherds were living when the angel came to announce to them the good news that Jesus had been born. And in these fields were caves. And it is thought that the shepherds would actually gather their sheep in these caves at night, and simply lay across the entrance, to keep the sheep in and the wolves and other predators out. It became easy for me to picture a shepherd serving as a gate for the sheep.
So, in today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us that we are his sheep, and he is our shepherd. And he promises to be our gate, or our door, at the end of the day. He lays across the entrance to his sheepfold – not to keep us out, but to protect us from all that would snatch us away.
He lays across the door, as he lays down his life for us, as he lays on a cross for us, as he lays in a tomb for us: so that we may have life and have it abundantly. Jesus is our shepherd, and our gate, and that is a good thing.
Journey or Battle?
I once read that all the great stories of the world can be grouped into two categories: stories that show us that life is a journey, like that of the Odyssey, and stories that show us that life is a battle, like that of the Iliad. When you think about it, much of our life can be grouped into these two categories. Sometimes our life is a journey, an adventure. We get a new job, move to a new community, fall in love, start college, have a baby. Life offers many such adventures. But at other times, life is a battle. We get sick, a relationship ends, we lose our job. We face any number of trials in life that take us from the adventure of life, and make it hard just to get through the day. It seems to me that this pandemic has turned many adventures into battles. And a lot of us are just trying to get through the day.
It’s interesting to read the Bible with this in mind, by the way: To read it seeing the people in the Bible either living the adventure of faith, or facing life’s inevitable battles.
But here’s my point: When life is more like a journey, we need a shepherd who will lead us into the unknown, who will be our guide on this adventure. But when life is more like a battle, we need a shepherd who will fight for us, and protect us from danger. And Jesus promises to be both. He is is our shepherd, and he is our gate. He leads us on this journey through life, and he protects us when life becomes a battle.
We need both of these, at different times in life. And in today’s gospel reading, we focus on the latter – we focus on Jesus being the shepherd who protects us, who promises to be our gate.
The Shepherd Who Protects Us
Can we admit to ourselves that we are not able to defend ourselves from all of our predators? That we, like sheep, need to be protected from many things? That we need a shepherd who is willing to serve as our gate, so that we can find rest for our weary souls? If so, how thankful we are that Jesus himself offers to be our shepherd, and our gate!
But it’s worth asking, who exactly are our predators? What does Jesus protect us from? We can all agree that we need protecting. From illness, from danger, from those who steal from us or hurt us, from evil and corruption. There are many things that we need protection from.
But God’s word teaches us that what we need protection from, more than anything else, is ourselves. We are our own worst enemies, it has been said. All we, like sheep, have gone astray. We have all sinned. There is no distinction.
And just because we are sheltering at home doesn’t mean that we are free from sin! Far from it! Sin is lurking at the door, scripture reminds us back in Genesis 4, and its desire is for us. And sin is one of the most dangerous predators of all for a very simple reason: sin separates us from God. The shame of it, the guilt of it, or the denial of it, separates us from our Creator, from our God. And so, God sent Jesus, to protect us from sin, to protect us from ourselves, by forgiving our sin and reconciling us to God. And we need protection.
I came across a story this week told by a midwestern sheep farmer and blogger, Erin Davis, of a wayward sheep. She writes:
Because the proverbial grass is always greener on the other side, our sheep are constantly stretching their necks to try to nibble the grass outside the fence. Occasionally, one will barrel through the wire to get to the “good stuff” she’s been denied. So it was that we discovered one of our sheep outside the pen one hot day last summer. The solution should have been easy. We simply opened the gate. But due to stubbornness or oblivion, the ewe remained outside the fold. We called and whooped, summoning her back to the comfort and safety of her flock. Instead, she kept ramming herself into the fence. Time and time again. The gate was wide open, but she defaulted to futile attempts to make her own way.Erin Davis, shereadstruth.com
Isn’t that a great image for sin, for what we ourselves do? We are engaged in this futile attempt to make our own way, to ram our way through, due to stubbornness or oblivion, when all along Jesus is standing at the gate, summoning us back to the comfort and safety of his flock.
Jesus, we are reminded today, is both our shepherd, and our gate. He leads us on life’s adventure. And he protects us from life’s dangers. And, above all, he came to protect us from ourselves, from our sin.
“I am the gate,” says Jesus. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture … I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
What wonderful words these are to hear! Whether we are facing an adventure right, or a battle. Whether life feels more like a journey at the moment, or a contest. Jesus promises to be there for us. To lead us, to guide us, to protect us, and to give us life, abundantly.
May all of God’s sheep find comfort in these words today. And may we hear in these words an invitation to come to the sheepfold to find protection, and to find life, and to find the pasture that only the Son of God, our good shepherd, and our gate, can offer us. Thanks be to God. Amen