[This message was delivered in virtual fashion for Gates Presbyterian Church on May 3, 2020, the fourth Sunday of Easter. Hence, you will note my play on gates and Gates. This can also be viewed on the Gates Presbyterian channel on YouTube.]
I like gates. And I love Gates. I mean, I like gates and I love Gates Presbyterian Church. In John 10, Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd. But he also identifies himself as the gate. That has me thinking about gates. I like gates, except not always. I have trouble with the idea of gated communities.
I don’t like about the concept of gated communities when it means wealthy people live inside and they don’t want the wrong people to enter. We don’t want thieves and robbers getting into our homes. I certainly don’t want my home to be robbed. But I am concerned when gates are used to enforce class divisions. That has happened too many times: gates have been used to keep black people out of all-white communities and to keep the rich from having to see the poor. Those gates trouble me.
Perhaps no community is more gated than a jail or prison. I have visited people in jails many times. It is always sobering when I stand in front of an iron gate and wait for it to open. An officer presses a button and there is a buzz of electric current. I walk through the iron gate and hear it close with a loud thud behind me. I am aware that I am inside a gate that doesn’t swing to let natural movement in and out. When my visit is finished, I walk back to that gate and stand again waiting for it to open. I hear that buzz opening the iron gate and I walk through it and hear it close loudly behind me. I like gates that swing both ways, letting animals and people go in and out. And I love Gates Presbyterian Church, a community with a swinging gate, letting us go in and out, finding rest and recreation, nourishment and nurture, community and communion.
Ask most people that have read John 10 how Jesus identifies himself there and they will say “the good shepherd.” That is correct, but there is more. Before Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, he calls himself the gate. Five times the word gate is used in these ten verses. There is movement from a literal wooden gate to a human gate. Jesus begins by describing the use of the gate: it lets the sheep go in and out. Inside the sheep pen they rest and are relatively safe. They leave the sheepfold, through the gate, to find pasture, to graze, to exercise, to eat and drink. I like gates. And I love Gates Presbyterian Church.
Sheep need gated pens, because sheep are vulnerable. They are not stupid animals, as too many sermons have suggested, but they are not endowed with much to defend themselves. Unattended sheep are easy prey for wolves, wild dogs, and any hungry predators. That’s why they need skilled shepherds. Psalm 23 reminds us that the Lord is our shepherd; with his rod and staff he protects and comforts us. This despicable COVID virus has reminded us that we are vulnerable. I am told that due to my age, I am in a vulnerable population. I am—and so are you, whatever your age. The human race is a vulnerable population. Always we are a vulnerable population. But COVID-19 has reminded us in a new way. We are vulnerable. Like sheep. Especially sheep without a good shepherd.
Understanding Jesus as our good shepherd is fairly easy. Countless stained glass windows and paintings have etched that image on our souls. But when have we seen a stained glass window or painting of Jesus as the gate? He says “I am the gate…” twice in this passage. There is something here, something we must not overlook. An actual shepherd in the Middle East was explaining his work to some tourists. The shepherd was not a Christian and not familiar with this passage. When he showed them the sheepfold, they noticed that there was an opening, but no gate. One tourist asked the shepherd, “where is the gate?” He answered, “I am the gate. When the sheep are in the fold at end of day, I lay myself down across that opening. My body keeps the sheep in and the wolves out. I know the way of the wolves and the sheep trust me.” That is precisely what Jesus is saying. He is not only the shepherd, but he is also the gate of the sheepfold. “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
Those two actions of coming in and going out are essential to the health of the sheep. And they are essential for our spiritual health. On Sunday mornings we come in and are reminded of who we are and who our shepherd is. Then we go out to serve our shepherd in everyday life. We are honoring that this morning even in this virtual way. Here on the fourth Sunday of Easter, we are reminded that the risen Jesus is our good shepherd and we are the sheep of his pen.
This is a liminal time. We hear the word subliminal, but rarely the word liminal. A liminal time is an in-between time, a transitional time. We are between what was and what is coming. Hence it can be scary for some and exiting for others and both for some of us. It is pregnant with the sense of emerging opportunity. Our word liminal comes from a Latin word that means threshold. And what is a threshold, but an opening, a doorway, a gateway. Yes, a gateway.
Some have used the phrase “new normal” for this liminal time. When this plague ends, we will find a new normal. But it won’t mean leaving everything behind. It won’t mean throwing out the baby with the bath water. We will leave some of the old behind, but not all. We will be more careful about washing our hands. But we will have learned things, like social technology, that we will continue to use to serve more people in new ways. I look forward to shaping a new normal. Liminal time is opportune time. God is always doing new things. For followers of Jesus, a new normal is never set. Jesus brings us abundant life: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Abundant life is not static and old; it is fresh and new and getting better.
Jesus is our shepherd and Jesus is our gate. That will not change. The church is not a building, but as people—that will not change. The nature of life in the sheepfold—that will not change. Acts 2:42 describes that life, what Jesus promises as abundant life. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and community, to the breaking of bread and the prayer.” I am struck by the second and third of the Acts 2:42 distinctives: the community and the breaking of bread. Or we could say, the community and the communion. Our need to quarantine and honor social distancing has put a strain on how we do community and communion, but it hasn’t stopped them. And it can’t stop them.
William Willimon tells of a glimpse of community and communion inside prison gates. It was several decades ago in South Africa, when apartheid, the separation of blacks and whites, was the law of the land. A black Methodist pastor was arrested for no reason, except his skin color, and detained in prison without charges or trial. A white Methodist pastor visited him. He brought a small communion kit. The white guard led him to the cell and opened the gate and then closed it. He watched from the other side of the gate as the two, one white and one black, began to break bread together. Then the white pastor looked at the white guard, representing the apartheid government, and spoke to him. “We are Christians and we believe Jesus invites all to his table for communion. Would you join us?” The pastor offered the bread and the cup through the iron bars. Hesitating for a moment, the guard then accepted the gifts and communed with them. Then they held hands and invited him to join them. He did, through the iron bars. They prayed for peace and justice in their country. Three South Africans, two white and one black, one committed to uphold racial separation and two committed to break down the wall of racism, experienced a taste of Jesus breaking down a harsh wall and opening a gate of community. A swinging gate.
I like gates that swing. And I love Gates Presbyterian Church. Gates, let’s keep that gate swinging. Jesus is our good shepherd and Jesus is our gate to abundant living. Our swinging gate.