I’ve discovered this spring that my chicken enclosure needs to be rebuilt. Years of snow and rain have finally taken their toll and the wood is quickly rotting away. Now, building a new fence isn’t all that difficult. It isn’t very complicated. The gate however, that’s a horse of a different color. The gate will take a little more thought. It must line-up correctly, swing back and forth easily, and be durable enough to last. The gate, I would contend, is the most important part. Because in the end, it’s the entrance.
Speaking of gates. I remember a Peanuts cartoon from many years ago, in which Charlie Brown is asked what “security” means. He describes the experience of riding in the back seat, while your parents are in the front seat, driving. “You can sleep worry-free,” he says, “because they’re taking care of everything.”[i]
It’s these two concepts of what it means to be “a gate” that lay at the heart of today’s narrative; the gate as an entrance and the security that the gate provides.
But before we dig too deeply into this familiar text, I think we need to look at one of the main literary tools used by the author of this gospel. You see, John, brilliantly, presents Jesus as the incarnation of God by way of Moses. Remember there’s no birth narrative in this gospel, but John makes this theological connection by recalling the time when Moses was up on the mountain asking about God’s name? Do you remember God’s answer? “I Am who I Am.”
Well, John uses that statement to indicate to us that Jesus is God through the seven “I Am” statements uttered by Jesus in this gospel. Jesus said, “I Am the Bread of Life, I Am the Light of the world.” He also said, “I Am the Resurrection and Life, I Am the Way, Truth and Life and I Am the True Vine.” That’s five of them. And today, we have the other two “I Am” statements in our text. Jesus says, “I Am the Gate and I Am the Good Shepherd. In John’s narrative, the Great “I Am”, God, has come down to earth in the human person of Jesus who self-identifies as “I Am”. But the interesting thing about Jesus using these “I Am” sayings is that they cover the entire spectrum of human needs and Divine provision. I mean, we all need nourishment, right? We need light and love and we often need a shepherd to lead us on the right path. But we also need, as it says in our text for today, “a gate” to access the path. I would contend that our faith is that access point. Our individual faith as well as the faith of this community constitute this metaphorical gate.
But let’s slow down for a moment and consider this image. Jesus as a gate? Seems kind of, id don’t know, weird, doesn’t it? A gate? Well, the disciples found it weird as well. As matter of fact, the text tells us that they didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to teach them. So, he tried again. He said, “I assure you that I Am the gate of the sheep. Whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in, go out, and find pasture.”
Now, one might be tempted here to us these words to narrowly define who’s saved and who is not. “Whoever enters through me will be saved.” This passage does get used that way. But that “narrow way” and “workers are few” type of theology falls apart in the very next sentence. “They will come in, go out, and find pasture.”
My friends, viewed from this perspective, it turns out that the metaphor of a “gate” isn’t so weird after all. A gate swings both ways. A gate isn’t a barrier, rather it’s an entrance. Jesus isn’t a barrier either, he’s an entrance. And since we are called to be and to continue to become living reflections of Jesus; reflections of his life and works, that means we too are called to be entrances. We are symbolically the gatekeepers of the faith.
People will come in and they may go out again, but hopefully they will find pasture. The point here is that we are be a gate that swings wide open including all who wish join us in this fold. A fold that cherishes and values a “Christocentric” faith.
In other words, in the United Church of Christ and in this congregation, we are centered on the actions of Christ; on how he treated the alien, the immigrant, the poor, and the outsider. And as a Christ-centered community of faith we seek to challenge ourselves, and those around us, to be all that they can be, to be agents of love and compassion, and to be on the front lines of the debate concerning issues of Justice and Peace. As it says in the waning verses of our passage today Jesus, the Good Shepherd himself, came so that the sheep, all the sheep, “might have life and live that life to its fullest.”
But how does all this play out in real life? What does it mean to be a “gatekeeper”? I read an interesting quote this past week that seems to address this question. “If you want to build a ship,” it said, “don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”[ii]
I think it’s important for us to invite people to take on the task of becoming gatekeepers rather than commanding them. Do you see the difference? It’s a “come join us on the journey” rather than a “thou shalt” way of being. And this is important! It’s important to understand that each of us has a sphere of influence. What we say and what we do effects other people and the earth itself.
It’s like the preverbal pebble in the pond. When thrown in it only makes a tiny splash. But from that tiny splash comes concentric rings of waves reaching and effecting every shoreline. The same is true when words of hate or lies are uttered or acts of violence take place. Our words and actions can produce positive rings of waves or destructive ones. Being centered on Christ means being intentional and careful with both our words and our actions.
That’s the first thing and the second is this. Every day God provides us with opportunities to demonstrate our better selves; opportunities to give, opportunities to serve, opportunities to love. Being God’s gatekeeper means listening to the voice of our heart, the voice of conscious, and the voice of reason. And these voices are an echo of the voice of the Still-Speaking God.
The voice of God is encouraging us, calling us, and inviting us, to not lose our focus on the core understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Being a gate means standing up for peace and harmony and speaking out against injustice. Even when it’s the unpopular position.
And finally, being a gatekeeper means being under the protection of “the Gate” himself. There’s a certain reassurance in knowing that we “belong to God” and that we are loving others “as God has loved us.”
My friends, as we depart this place today, our task, as I see it, is to listen for the voice of God. God has called each of us by name and God willing we will be lead out into the world with the sound of God’s voice still singing in our hearts. May it be so. Amen.
[ii] Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Night Flight. 1931.