I am the gate
| John 10:1-10
||Sun, April 21, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Very truly, I tell you”. Jesus begins oddly. He says the word “Amen” twice ... at the beginning, rather than the end, of his brief sermon. But all y’all are learning that we say “Amen” after we hear the truth spoken, not before. Growing up we imagined that singing “Amen” at the end of every hymn meant “the end”. Later we heard that it intends an affirmative “so be it”. But to shout “Amen” is to stand up in the jury room and say of the testimony of a witness: “True, true”. Maybe it would be worth reminding ourselves of this in our practices here. Perhaps some of you might venture to translate “Amen” into English on occasion ... and to blurt out “True, true” when a courageous witness risks telling the truth that you affirm in this pulpit. Today Jesus is his own “Amen Corner”, saying before he begins: “Amen. Amen. Such blatant claims to truth catch our attention. Truth is hard to come by in a world where everything seems relative, where every nation and family seems complicated with ambiguous and conflicting truths. Ears perk up when someone dares to speak not an opinion or an interpretation or a comment but to tell the truth.
“Very truly, I tell you” says Jesus. Then he uses a figure of speech - a parable, a metaphor - about sheep and shepherds and sheep-stealers. Jesus is a master of these simple stories from every day life, a great illustrator of sermons. Except no one has a clue what he’s talking about. As John reports: “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Them. Remember them. They are the Pharisees who last appeared in the story of the man born blind ... the man given sight to see Jesus for who he really is. Well, of course, the Pharisees don’t understand. They’re not Jesus’ disciples. They’re the bad guys. They’re his enemies. Be careful now. Don’t go too far with me on this one. We could get ourselves into trouble ... after all, do you - do we - understand his figure of speech? Frankly, it’s not all that easy to get his meaning ... if you know what I mean! Maybe “them” is “us”. Maybe.
“Amen. Amen” says Jesus. Then he continues: If someone sneaks into the sheep pen you know they’re a rustler who is up to no good. The shepherd shows up at the gate, is let in by the gatekeeper and recognized by the sheep. The sheep follow the shepherd because they recognize his voice and because he calls them by name. The sheep don’t follow strangers because they don’t recognize the voice of a stranger. Amen? Amen! It’s true, so far as it goes. This is how it is with sheep and shepherds and sheep-stealers. But what in heaven’s name does it have to do with us, with the church and the world and with Jesus? Perhaps we best confess that like the Pharisees we don’t understand what he is saying to us. After all, he is prepared to interpret it to them ... and us.
“Amen, Amen” Jesus continues. Now he begins to explain his meaning, to make everything crystal clear: “Truly, truly, I tell you, I am the gate of the sheep”. The gate? But Jesus aren’t you the Good Shepherd? I mean this is traditionally ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday’, not ‘Gate of the Sheepfold Sunday’. Sure enough, later in this same chapter Jesus declares “I am the Good Shepherd”. But that just adds to our confusion. Jesus is the gate ... and the good shepherd? It turns out that Jesus can be as confusing a preacher as the rest of us! He begins with a simple parable ... that nobody seems able to understand. Then his explanation adds to our perplexity. There’s a certain solace in this for all of us dime a dozen preachers who look out at more than a few confused and perplexed faces on more than a few occasions. Perhaps one of the problems is that we expect that Jesus is easy to understand, really. Perhaps we have decided ahead of time that Jesus speaks a message that does not perplex or confound. Perhaps we want to - need to - believe that understanding what Jesus is up to is not really all that difficult. Perhaps we are mistaken in these assumptions. Maybe sitting at Jesus’ feet is like wandering into foreign language class. Maybe it will take awhile to understand what he is saying.
“Truth. Truth. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them ... The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” This is dangerous truth-telling. Jesus claims that others who offer life lie about their intentions. Some come claiming to save, to bring life, to lead the sheep to green pastures and still waters. But they are, says Jesus, thieves and bandits. He doesn’t explain further. He doesn’t name names. But the sheep know. They know the strangers who have come into the fold trying to lead them astray. Sweet voices that promise life and safety, happiness and success but finally deliver only disappointment. The church hears these tempting voices in every age. “Follow me to greatness” they say. “Don’t wait for the shepherd’s voice, come with me.” Don’t wait. Perhaps that is the hardest part for us these days. Waiting for the good shepherd’s voice when we only hear the voices of impostors ... .rustlers ... soul-stealers offering a quick-fix. After all, the world is in deep trouble. The days are short. Waiting hardly seems faithful in such a time.
“Amen. Amen ... I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved and will come in and go out and find pasture.” This is the truth that lies at the heart of the matter. Jesus is first not shepherd but gate. Remember? It’s in the Sermon on the Mount that he says: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Well, it’s no wonder that few find this gate. Most go looking for a gateway of behaviours and morals and virtues. We listen for the teachings of Jesus, imagining that these will lead us through the gate of living the correct life. But the gate to life is somehow not our doings but entering into Jesus’ own life. He is the gate. We are saved from despair into life - we are led into the dangerous territory of the pasture in safety - when we go through Jesus.
Do you see? The narrow gate that leads to life is right in front of us. It is staring us in the face. But we can hardly believe it. It is the cruciform gate of the cross. To go through Jesus into life is to walk right through the gate of death. No wonder so many don’t choose this way of life ... for it looks to all the world like a way of death. Yet the baptismal font stands as a gateway to the Lord’s table as a constant reminder and invitation to discover the abundant life that lies on the other side of dying to the ways that are killing us. The font is the place of drowning to who we have been and rising into new life in Christ. It is the entrance to the welcome table in the kingdom of God. Here, safely in the fold we are called by name. The Good Shepherd is a pastor beyond all pastors, remembering each troubled, gifted face ... each extrovert and every introvert. But more than a passage in to safety, the cruciform gate is also the passage out. It is the way into a terrified world for those who are no longer terrified. A people who are not terrified. This is, perhaps, the essential gift that the church is intended to offer the earth. We are being shaped into a people who are not afraid because we have been through the terror of dying and have been born again to a living hope.
This is the truth. Jesus “came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus is life giver for those who dare to pass through the gateway of his death into the new life of his resurrection. Of course, it is one thing for the preacher to say such a thing in the pulpit. But it is another thing entirely to muster up the courage to believe the preacher ... to believe Jesus ... and to walk into death in order to have abundant life. That is why testimony is so crucial. It is hard to believe that this is the truth about death and life. So when one of us walks the lonely road, dies to an old story about our worthlessness or about our pride and self-reliance ... and rises in Christ to a new life ... we need to hear it so that we can add that testimony to our memory and come to trust that it is the truth. This is the reason, I think, that this congregation captures the attention of others in the wider church. It isn’t because you are a model of the application of succesful techniques for church growth. People are intrigued by the story of University Hill because of your testimony about dying to who you were. Other congregations fear dying to who they are, fear letting go of a familiar identity, fear that Jesus’ cross-shaped gate actually does lead through death to life. So the story all y’all have to tell is powerful testimony to the truth. I know. It is the reason I am here. It is the thing that caught my imagination when you came calling back in ‘95. You sounded like a flock that had - to your surprise and amazement - discovered the gate to abundant life ... the gate that leads through Christ’s dying and rising.
“Truly, truly I tell you I am the gate.” He is the gate for coming in to the fold of safety. He is also the gate that leads out into the world of trouble. We do not pass through his death and rising once and for all. We live our life as a people going through this gate, in to safety and out to trouble. As a congregation we ponder what dangerously prideful ways we are called to die to so that Christ’s new life can transform us yet again. We wonder what fears we dare confront so that we no longer live terrified of being ridiculed or persecuted but, instead, trust in the good shepherd of this global pasture. Heaven knows that this terrified world longs to be salted with a daring people who risk new ways of life because they are unafraid of dying to the old ways. Our children long for such a people. The creatures of the earth long for such a people. Why, we all long for such a people. Now, I am telling you the truth - in dying to who you were and are, you are already rising in Christ and are, even now, becoming a part of this newborn people. It is the amazing truth. Jesus Christ is the gate through death to life. In him we are being saved into new life for the sake of the world God so loves. Amen?