Rev'd Daniel Irvine
Well today we have one of the many times that shepherd imagery is used throughout the gospels and indeed throughout the whole of scripture. The Bible provides an abundance of images and metaphors that speak of leaders as shepherds, that talk of God’s people as sheep, that talk of God shepherding those people, we even have the vivid images of the Messiah both as shepherd and as the sacrificial lamb.
But today we have something a little more complicated. A metaphor that contains several layers. Its intricacy is even recorded by John when he says that those listening failed to understand and so Jesus must break it down for them.
One of the complexities is that in this gospel passage Jesus is talking about not just being a shepherd but of being the “Gate”.
Now it is true that shepherding practice in the ancient Near-East meant that in the fields at night a shepherd, having made a makeshift pen for the sheep out of brambles, would lie down and sleep in the only opening and thus literally become the gate of the sheepfold. But shepherds did lots to care for and tend their sheep. Why would Jesus focus in on this particular aspect of shepherding? And what might we stand to learn from it?
Well traditionally, whether deliberately or not, the text has been used to reinforce a theology of exclusion, where anyone who doesn’t fit the right mould, be that in their practice or any other aspect of their identity is kept out of the fold. When this idea is clung to by the powerful and those in the establishment, the message that comes across tends to be that “not everyone will be saved”. That only those who do things the “right” way and fit a certain stereotype are allowed into the safety of the pen while all others are kept out.
But a reflection I came across by an American minister, The Rev’d Whitney Rice, has helped to challenge that view and to create a much more thoughtful approach to this text that fits much better to what we have come to know about God through Jesus Christ. (You can read more here)
She does so by simply reminding us what the purpose of a gate actually is! It is not designed to keep people out, or in. That is the job of the wall. (After all Donald Trump is not hoping to build a “gate” along the Mexican/US border!)
A gate is designed to create an opening in the fence, to allow travel through the wall. It is a means of liberation, not exclusion.
And not only that, it is able to accommodate two-way travel! So that Jesus, as the gate, is inviting us to both come into to rest and safety, but then also to go back out into the world and continue his work, finding and bringing back others.
So the next time we are tempted to retreat back behind our high walls and look to defend our comforts and traditions with siege like mentality, remember that Jesus is the gate in all our walls, encouraging us to venture beyond them and promising us safe return when our work is done.
During our time in isolation we have been forced to leave behind many things that we once thought might be necessary to our faith. We have had to go beyond our comfort zones and think about everything we do in a new way.
When the time finally comes that we can once again meet together in our buildings, let us not flock to them as though we are retreating back into the sheepfold.
But rather let us gather together in order to be sent out once more, through the Jesus Gate, into the world in which we live. Embracing the new so that we might more effectively share the truth of that one thing that really matters most of all.
And in doing so may we all work ceaselessly in the service of God’s kingdom, not constantly huddled in a sheep-pen, but out in the world, where our lives and our homes can act as beacons of God’s love, which has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ, for all the world to see.
In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.