Living in London as we do, the language of shepherds and sheep can seem a little alien, as sheep aren’t a very common sight around here (although I’ve always found it rather funny that one of the perks of being made a Freeman of the City of London is being allowed to drive sheep over London Bridge without having to pay a toll).
Having said that, despite most of us relying on supermarkets to get our food, those of us who are regular churchgoers will be familiar with Jesus using metaphors about shepherds and sheep, and today’s gospel reading was one of those occasions.
Here, Jesus takes that metaphor to the next level saying I am the gate for the sheep . If the idea of sheep and shepherds can seem distant, talk of a gate is something familiar to all of us. A gate is something every day and can be comforting. When we talk about a gate, it could be something as mundane as a garden gate, but sometimes a gate can have troubling images. A gate can be seen as a barrier with implications of boundaries. They can mark the line between inside and outside, or between public and private. There are gates at the entrance to Downing Street which are heavily guarded. Often we need a security code to get through a gate. Increasingly, we see people living in gated communities where large gates are erected to keep the riff-raff away from their comfortable lives.
We live in a time when barriers seem to have become huge cultural and political issues. I’m sure we all remember a certain former American President wanting to build a physical wall between Mexico and the USA, or others who want to police with increasing ruthlessness the attempts of some who cross borders over land and sea to escape war or persecution.
The problem we have with seeing these gates as a barrier is that we can all too easily miss the point of what Jesus is saying. When he says I am the gate for the sheep , we could fall into the trap of seeing him as some sort of security guard policing the boundary between those who are in God’s kingdom and those who are stuck outside, but that is categorically not the case. In saying that he is the gate, he is not saying that he’s God’s security guard quite the opposite in fact. He emphasises that it is a relationship with him where abundant life is found.
It’s all to easy to think of a pen as being somewhere closed where you are trapped and imprisoned, but he says that Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture . You see, the gate is always open.
So let’s take this metaphor one step further. Often, Jesus is referred to as the shepherd and we are the sheep. We enter the gate into the sheep pen, but what is the pen?
Well, using my metaphor, the pen is this very building we are in right now. Jesus waits at the door and all are welcome here. That door remains open and we cab come and go as we please into the pasture which is Upper Norwood. Sadly, that last bit is the one that so many people forget though.
I don’t just mean St John’s here, as this can apply to just about any church of any denomination, where we all feel safe and secure in our enclosure here without venturing out into the pasture the gate can still be a barrier. If we look a little further beyond the passage we read this morning, a few verses later Jesus said there are sheep that do not belong to this fold.
Remember that throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus socialised with those normally regarded as sinners. He was also willing to embrace Samaritans and Romans who, while not sinners (or no more than anyone else) were still despised by the Jews, but he didn’t insist that they abandoned their religion or their own way of life before he helped them, only that they recognise the truth in their own lives.
When we venture out into that pasture beyond the wall of this church building and encounter those who some may regard as undesirable, how do we know that Jesus is not in the hearts and faiths of them as well?
Jesus is the gate, but not the sort of gate that requires a security pass or special access. He doesn’t represent some sort of elite club, but rather he is the Son of God who wants everyone to have abundant life. To have it, all we need to do is to meet and trust him.
Of course, we can all come up with a list of threats to our faith. Our society has the capacity to be just as exploitative as any other in history. In our society, just as much as it was in Jesus’ time, there are those who would wish to take advantage of us and lead us away from what makes for a good and full life.
When we come into this place, we come into a place of safety. Jesus offers us not just a safe place to rest the sheep enclosure but the freedom to come and go into the pasture beyond.
This is Jesus not as a gatekeeper, but as the one who genuinely brings the fullness of life, as he says 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.