Passing through Jesus

Unlike the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke in which Jesus teaches through parables, John’s Gospel doesn’t include any parables.

Instead, Jesus reveals himself through his much-beloved “I AM” sayings: “I AM the bread of life.” “I AM the light of the world.” “I AM the resurrection and the life.” “I AM the way, the truth, and the life.” “I AM the true vine.”

In this morning’s lesson, Jesus serves up two more: “I AM the gate,” and “I AM the good shepherd.”

Just like the others, these I AM’s of Jesus are instant messages that structure the grammar of our own identity: I AM a disciple of Jesus! I AM among his followers.

By the power of God’s Holy Spirit, let your discipleship be nourished by the Word, and let its light lead you to a deeper understanding of God’s holy truth.

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. 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.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” (John 10:1-20)

When she was a girl, my Grandma Fielder raised sheep, and when I was a little boy, she used to tell me stories about lambs following her around everywhere she went.

Lona loved her little flock but always pointed out that sheep are kind of stupid. They do dumb things. They are prone to wandering off, getting lost, and finding themselves in a pickle – like the sour experience getting stuck headfirst in a dark fissure of the good earth.

As my grandmother always said, sheep are stupid!

But the one thing they do really well is recognizing their keeper’s voice, and the voice of their shepherd is the only voice to which they respond. Pay close attention to what happens when a modern-day shepherd in the Feroe Islands calls out to his flock.

A few things catch my attention.

For starters, the very-first syllable of the shepherd’s voice stirs his fog-shrouded sheep. Far off in the distance, the bleating begins the very moment the sheep hear the familiar and trusted sound of his distinctive speech piercing the cloudy, misty curtain of separation between them and him.

For the sheep, it’s all about the shepherd, who persists in telegraphing his hollers of invitation and welcome.

For you and me, it’s all about Jesus, who like the shepherd is persistent in calling out to us through Scripture, and through the voices of others, and through the circumstances of our lives.

Those deep reverberations of the Lord’s voice are supposed to stir us, too.

The sound of the Lord’s voice is supposed to stir us and spur us to repentance – as we’ve been learning in the Scripture lessons of these recent Sundays: Turning your life in a new direction, escaping the hazy smog of sin and brokenness that envelops us, and coming to see the world and all of God’s Creation with the eyes of heaven.

The sheep are stirred by the very-first sound of the shepherd’s voice, and they come a-runnin’. When they hear the shepherd’s voice, the sheep don’t just amble over to him. No, they kick it into high gear and make a beeline for him, the sound of his voice serving as a homing beacon that guides them over rocky terrain and through the misty gray.

It’s that kind of fast reaction that Jesus hopes you and I will offer when we hear the divine voice that is chock-full of irresistible grace.

The sheep are stirred by the very-first sound of the shepherd’s voice, and they come a-runnin’. And when they arrive at his feet, the shepherd wastes no time in feeding them. Even the stragglers – the late-comers – are welcome to feast on the food that the shepherd pours out.

And so it is with Jesus. The first and the last – the least and the lost – are welcome to feast on the nourishment that Jesus provides – the very bread of heaven, baked with generous portions of forgiveness, mercy, and love that the Lord slices up and serves out for everyone’s spiritual feeding.

The sheep are stirred by the very-first sound of the shepherd’s voice, and they come a-runnin’. When they arrive at his feet, the shepherd feeds them. And what happens next is truly amazing – the once-scattered sheep are brought together by the shepherd’s voice into a kind of wooly community – a diverse body that includes white sheep, spotted sheep, and even black sheep! All are welcomed into the close-knit flock that the shepherd gathers with just the sound of his voice.

In Christ, there are no walls that divide, no differences that separate, no “us” vs. “them.”

In Christ, there is rich nourishment and deep relationship for all.

In Christ, there are many members of his body who surprise and astonish with a diversity of riches that increases the value and blessing of the entire community.

In Christ, there is a place of safety and belonging, a place of healing and nourishment, a place of oneness and togetherness, a place of power through humility, a place of forgiveness over vengeance, a place of welcome for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the outcast of every stripe.

“I AM the good shepherd,” Jesus says.

And, Jesus says, “I AM the gate” through which we need to enter.

Wait! What? No one can actually pass through a gate any more than you can walk through a door in your house. You pass through the doorway – the empty space that opens up once the gate or door is opened or moved aside. Unless you’re a ghost, you can’t literally pass through a gate or a door.

Yet the inability to pass through a gate or door is precisely what makes the image useful. Because a gate or door is solid and can be locked, it is the gate or door that prevents the good from escaping and the bad from trespassing. Jesus is the gate who preserves what is good and protects from what is bad. 

But how do you pass through the gate of Jesus?

First is something I read a while back. A traveler in the Middle East ran across an Arab shepherd eager to show off his flock and the secure enclosure where his sheep nightly slept.

“When they go in there,” the shepherd said proudly, “they are perfectly safe.”

But then the traveler noticed something strange: The pen had no gate. “Yes, that’s right,” the shepherd said. “I am the gate.”

“What do you mean?” the confused traveler asked.

“After my sheep are in the pen, I lay my body across the opening. No sheep will step over me, and no wolf can get in without getting past me first. I AM the gate.”

The gate is the one who lays himself down to keep what is good on the inside and to keep what is bad on the outside. And whether the good is kept safe from the bad, the point is that it will be the gate – perhaps the very body of our Lord – that makes a world of difference.

Thieves and robbers harm and destroy. They take life and livelihood. But as the gate, Jesus protects life in the watches of the night by protecting from evil and promoting life during the day by giving the sheep access to green pastures. It is all about life and life abundant – life to the fullest in Christ Jesus, who IS the gate.

Still, it’s tough to wrap your head around that “passing through” part – whether we’re talking about an actual gate or the body of a shepherd. Ordinarily, the gate needs to be moved aside, or the body needs to be stepped over, around or on in order for anyone or anything to pass into whatever the gate encloses.

In a sense, isn’t that what Jesus does by coming to this earth and pitching his tent among us?

Jesus empties himself, gives way, opens himself up by giving up the perks of his divinity and glory to come to us as a humble servant. Jesus lets himself be stepped on, shoved aside, and nailed to a cross until finally he dies. yet by God’s power and grace he was raised.

And the resurrected Jesus could do things he couldn’t do before – like being able to pass right through locked doors to appear in the midst of his disciples just as they are sitting down to eat some bread and fish.

However odd the idea, let me suggest that the same Jesus who said he was a gate through which we need to pass is pointing in some way to what we need to become in him through our baptism.

In baptism, we die, we drown. We are crucified with Christ. And, we are raised with Christ. And like our risen Lord, we aren’t the same after our baptismal dying and rising.

Having died with Jesus, we now bear the ability to pass right through him into the newness and fullness of the life that he promises. Jesus is a two-way gate: He not only locks up behind us to keep us safe, but he also unlocks and swings open so that we can enter into a life dripping with more fullness than we can know.

It matters not whether we are going into the pen or out into the pasture, it is Jesus himself – and his crucified-but-now-resurrected body – that we pass through. We are purified by our baptismal journey through death and back to life again. We are changed, altered, re-oriented, re-energized.

This rhythm of baptism’s passing in and out of Jesus the gate is re-enforced at the Lord’s Table, where we see the body and blood of Jesus laid down for us, the body and blood through whom we pass into newness of life, the body and blood that passes through us in the ritual act of eating and drinking!

We have a living gate, a gate not of wood or steel but of flesh and blood – a living gate that is “swung aside” not because some wood swings on hinges but because Jesus’s body was killed on the wood of the cross. Having been crucified and then raised, Jesus’s new body has the wondrous ability to pass through doors and, by baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to be passed through by each of us as the gateway to new life.

Ancient words, ever true – like the Cross itself, changing me and changing you.

Thanks be to God.

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, June 26, 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Scott Hoezee and Gail R. O’Dea inform the message.

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