s027g02 Lockleys Fourth Sunday of Easter 21/4/02

"I am the gate." John 10.8

It is perhaps useful to mention, lest anyone is confused, that we used to number the Sundays after Easter, whereas the new lectionary numbers the Sundays of Easter. So today is the 4th Sunday of Easter, we used to call the 3rd Sunday after Easter. This is a huge change of earth-shattering proportions, but God moves in mysterious ways ... :-)

Today, like every 4th Sunday of Easter, is called "Good Shepherd" Sunday. We begin with the statement by Jesus in John 10.11, the Collect for the Day talks about Jesus being the great shepherd of the sheep and we have Psalm 23 every year. The difficulty is that our gospel portion for today doesn't actually have this statement included. We read to John 10.10 and the statement about Jesus being the good shepherd is in verse 11. We do have an unidentified shepherd and an equally anonymous gatekeeper in our passage. But twice today Jesus describes himself as the gate. Today should properly be called the "Good Gate" Sunday.

My particular edition of the bible has a title at the beginning of the chapter, words which are not, in fact, included in the words of the Bible: "Jesus, the Good Shepherd". Now this is fine and a handy way of bringing people's attention to the thrust of the passage following, but inevitably it can also direct our attention away from important points. This is true for today, in this case, away from the central statement by Jesus, in that twice he describes himself as the gate.

We are much more familiar with the other "I am" sayings:

I am the bread of life John 6.35 (once);

I am the light of the world John 8:12 (once);

I am from above John 8.23 (once);

before Abraham, was I am John 8.58 (once);

I am the good shepherd John 10.11,14 (twice);

I am the resurrection and the life John 11.25 (once);

I am the way the truth and the life John 14.6 (once);

I am the true vine John 15.1,5 (twice).

I am sure that we are so familiar with them because each of these witness to a quality of Jesus which is fundamental to life itself. Each conveys some dignity or purpose to Jesus.

But here in today's gospel reading twice Jesus calls himself the gate. And gates are not especially glamorous. This repetition of the title only occurs for "the good shepherd" and "the vine", so being 'the gate" is up with the best of them when it comes to importance.

The reality is that gates, at least good gates, don't have "minds of their own". If they do have minds of their own and are hard to open or shut they need to be replaced. If they squeak at the hinges, they need oil.

But the hinges of this particular gate don't need oil, the gate opens easily to whoever wishes to enter. It could almost be an opening without an actual gate.

As one looks at that list of "I am" sayings, only one of them implies that Jesus has any control over the destiny of people. Bread, light, vine, life - all exist in their own place and are open to be taken up by anyone and used. In like manner, the gate exists and people choose to use it or not. The gate doesn't differentiate between who can enter and who can't, just as there is no qualifications needed to take up and eat the bread of life. All who choose to enter by the gate can do so.

I have often heard the other "I am" saying, "I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but by me." as if Jesus is the heavenly bouncer, keeping all the undesirables away, the riffraff. You know - all those who don't live up to expectations, those who don't have faith, or the right faith, or enough of the right faith. But it was precisely all these sorts of people that Jesus associated with, and indeed he was most likely killed by the religious authorities for doing so. But again, Jesus calls himself the gate twice. The "way, the truth and the life" only once.

It is only the figure of the shepherd who actually could choose between people. But this particular shepherd exists for the sheep, he lays down his life for the sheep, so the good shepherd is highly unlikely to wish to exclude anyone for whom he has died. If Jesus was killed for associating with others, then the efforts of the religious authorities to stop him doing this, then the resurrection means that those efforts were doomed to failure.

So the only qualification to entering, is that Jesus died and was raised to life for the person and they wish to enter. Because Jesus has died and been raised to life for all, there is no qualification to enter except the desire to do so.

However here a curious thing happens, for those who wish to enter need to realise that everyone else is as able as themselves to enter also. It was precisely this very openness that offended the religious authorities. They were not offended because Jesus claimed to be the gate, but they were offended that people other than themselves could also get in, and it seems rather more easily than they could ever have imagined.

They believed that everyone had to climb in, climb in by performing the religious rituals that they so enjoyed. It was inconceivable to them that one could get in any other way. So people had to live up to their expectations. So this is why Jesus describes them as thieves and bandits, because they take the gate away from people who might simply wish to enter. The shepherd, here, with the gatekeeper, having no particular identity, lead the sheep to the gate and through the gate. Why would one try to climb in when an open gate exists?

Actually it beggars belief that people would try to climb over a wall, when there is a perfectly good gate to use.

Now really, if there is a gate but it means only that there is less climbing to do - say if the walls are 10 metres high and the gate only one metre high. The "gate" is still pretty useless if people have to climb over it - even if it is rather more possible. No, a good gate is one which provides no obstacle what so ever to anyone who wishes to enter.

The real difference is between those who believe that there is climbing to get into heaven and those who realise that now no climbing at all is necessary.

Of course, if no climbing is necessary, this means that each and every one can enter, and of course it means that this is highly likely to have already happened.

But there is an interesting thing which happens when one realises that there is no climbing necessary to get into heaven. If there is no climbing necessary, one can forget about oneself and the likelihood or not of being able to get in, and one can look around and assist those who are having a hard time of it, those who are perhaps stumbling along the path - the blind and the lame immediately spring to mind. It is not that they won't get there without assistance, but that their journey is far easier with a helping hand. And being able to forget about worrying about ourselves and our salvation, we can be there for others, to give others a hand.

It is here that I am happy to affirm Jesus being the way, the truth and the life - which forms our gospel portion for next Sunday - but not because Jesus arbitrarily includes some and excludes others, but because Jesus enables us to reach out with a helping hand to others along the way. The helping hand is to assist them to travel with us as they and we are, knowing that there will be no fences to clamber over, either for them or for us.

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