Christ the Gate

+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on May 3, 2020 +

Texts: Acts 2:42-27; Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

Video: LINK

One of the hallmarks of the Gospel of John is a series of seven statements by Jesus, spread throughout the gospel, in which he says “I AM”…something.
They’re essential to John’s understanding of Jesus because they help explain who he is.
You see, I AM is the divine name revealed by God to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Sinai, “I AM WHO I AM.”
So when Jesus says “I AM” the ____, he is not only claiming the divine identity that is so essential in John’s Gospel but also trying to help us understand God more, to better understand who Christ is.
And these statements include some of the most well-known and beloved statements in the gospels –
“I AM the bread of life.”
“I AM the light of the world.”
“I AM the resurrection and the life.”
“I AM the good shepherd.”
“I AM the way and the truth and the life.”
“I AM the true vine.”
They tell us of God’s love for us, they remind us how Christ brings us together, they give us hope for the fullness of life in God.

“The Good Shepherd” by Laura James

But there’s one “I AM” statement that always sounds a little strange to my ear—and it’s the one we heard today.
“I AM the gate,” Jesus tells us.
The gate?
What does that even mean?
Is that supposed to bring me comfort and connection and hope?

So perhaps it would be helpful to put this statement in its context.

A few weeks back, on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, we heard the 9th chapter of John’s gospel, the story of Jesus healing the man born blind.
You may remember how we heard about this man who had been rejected by his family and forced to live on the streets and beg to scratch out a living.
We heard about the toxic theology that pervaded and even Jesus’ own disciples ask him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
And we saw Jesus come to this man, embrace him, and heal him.
But even then, we heard how this man was still rejected by his faith community as they drove him out.
And how Jesus again came to him, embraced him, and brought him into the new family he is bringing, a new community where he is loved and supported and embraced for who he is.
And then Jesus keeps talking and says what we heard in today’s gospel reading.

Jesus says that he is the gate—or the door, in Greek—that opens and welcomes the sheep into the sheepfold, gathering them together in green pastures, as the Psalmist says.
But also the gate that shuts and protects the sheep from the thieves and the bandits that come to steal and kill and destroy.
1280x1280The gate who guards the sheep from those things that would harm them so they can have life and have it abundantly.
And if you ask me, that is the core of the entire gospel of John: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Now, there are some who hear this message from Jesus and assume this door imagery to be exclusionary—that Jesus is serving as a literal gatekeeper choosing to let some people in and keep some people out.

And maybe that gives us some pause.
Gates don’t necessarily sound like things we want, do they?
They remind us of being locked out.
They enforce an idea of scarcity or fear.
They keep us out of certain communities or bar us from where we want to go.
Especially now, gates may remind us of the restrictions we’re experiencing.
Of stay-at-home orders or closed parks that have been gated off.
So perhaps we feel especially resistant of this metaphor right now—we don’t want to be locked in…or out.

But a gate also opens and give freedom, don’t they?
The doors stand open and offer welcome to the wayward and the lonely.
So what kind of gate do we think Jesus is?

Way back in chapter 3 of John’s gospel, we hear that famous verse which tells us that Jesus came into the world because of God’s abundant love not to condemn the world, but so the whole world might be saved by Christ.
A few verses after today’s reading, Jesus tells us that he has other sheep who are not of this fold who he is bringing in too so we can all be one flock, one fold, one community with one shepherd. So we can all experience abundant life together.

And it’s important to remember the audience here.
Jesus is talking to that man born blind who was abandoned by his family and to the faith leaders who rejected him.
And Saint John is writing his gospel to a community who had been kicked out of their families and exiled from their faith communities because they followed Christ.
So it’s to those people that Jesus is offering an open door, a gate of security, and an abundant life.
Jesus isn’t talking about bringing division or exclusion or harmful theologies, he’s telling us that he has come to heal those wounds, to welcome those who are outcast or isolated, to protect them from those who would harm them.
That he’s come to bring us to bring us into relationship with God and into community with each other.
A community that cares for each other like what we hear of the early church in our reading from Acts where the community used their resources to support each other so they could all experience abundant life.

I think that’s why our lectionary includes this passage in this fourth week of Easter—after three weeks hearing about appearances of the risen Christ to his followers, we are now being reminded of what it means for us to live into the resurrection life that dawned that first Easter morning.
Of what it means to follow our crucified and risen Lord and help bring about a new community that springs out of his life and teachings.
Of what it means to live in the abundant life he brings.
To learn again what it means to follow Christ who is the Way, who is the True Vine and the Bread of Life, who is the Light of the World, who is the Resurrection and the Life, who is the Good Shepherd, and, yes, who is the Gate.

“Cornered” by Shearwater ( Shared under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This year especially, I hear Jesus’ message of being the gate not as a means of exclusion but as good news.
I mean, seriously, now more than ever before I have appreciated my door.
We’ve heard for weeks now the importance of staying home and staying healthy—staying safe indoors and letting our walls and, yes, our doors, protect us from the coronavirus.
But as we’ve also heard, the idea of social distancing may be better referred to as physical distancing, a subtle reminder that while we are physically separated, we can and should maintain our social connections.
Because this is a time when we need our community more than ever, a time when we find new ways to support each other, to care for each other.
This is a time when we are finding new ways to be one flock together so we can all experience the abundant life Jesus has come to bring.

But what does abundant life even look like in a time of pandemic?
What does it mean to experience life when we are locked in our homes?
Now more than ever, it’s important to remember that the abundant life Jesus is talking about has never been about an abundance of processions, it’s not about buying and consuming to our heart’s desire, and it’s certainly not about sacrificing human lives to the almighty dollar.
Instead, it’s about seeing the abundance we already have—the love and mercy and grace we have received, about living lives free from greed and selfish desires, about using everything we have to love and care for each other.
If anything, this period of isolation has reminded me, reminded us, that the most important thing we have is each other, is relationship with loved ones, is community.
In the same way, living an abundant life is not about building up personal stockpiles or finding joy in buying more stuff or looking out for ourselves, it’s about building a community where no one lacks for food or shelter, where all can access medicine and healthcare, where every person is seen and valued for the beautiful child of God that they are.
Transgender_Lamb_Male_7dadbd89-f251-4f60-af40-f4b409229cfb_600x600It’s about no longer allowing disability, sex, orientation, gender identity, creed, skin color, national origin, or even quarantine to obscure or limit our connection with each other us but instead look through Christ’s loving eyes and see how we have been connected with each other into one community in the abounding love of God.
It’s about loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
It’s about modeling our lives and our society after the example of our Lord Jesus, the shepherd of the sheep and the gate of the sheepfold, whose whole life and ministry was based in radical generosity and self-giving love, whose greatest commandment is to love one another as Christ has loved us, who gathers us around the Lord’s table, even as we are physically distant, and looks us in the eye and says: “This is my body, given for you. Take and eat.”

There’s a lot of fear out there right now, isn’t there?
A lot of anxiety and waiting to get back into the world.
We know our economy is suffering.
We know there are so many people out of work trying to access their unemployment benefits or stimulus checks to pay rent or buy food.
So many of us are living in fear of viruses and loneliness and what will happen next.
But that doesn’t mean we should be sacrificing the lives of our neighbors to restart the economy.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore medical science and demand that Jesus keep us safe as we risk our health.
Rather, it does mean that it’s time for this community to shine.
It does mean that it’s time to live into the resurrection life.
That it’s time to reject the thieves and bandits peddling isolationism and fearmongering and scarcity and take comfort in the protection and assurance of Christ.
It’s time for the flock that Jesus has called together to step up and care for each other, to support our neighbors and ministry partners, to protect and watch out for each other, and use everything we have, all of our abundant resources so all people can all feel the abundant love and protection and life that Christ intends for us.

The Good Shepherd - John 10:1-16
JESUS MAFA. The good shepherd, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

In the midst of this pandemic, in the midst of our fear, while we are locked in our homes, Jesus is bringing us the good news we hear today: I AM the Gate.
I will protect you from the thieves and the robbers and the viruses and bring you into the green pastures of the sheepfold.
My rod and my staff will comfort you and I am preparing a table for you overflowing with the goodness only I can provide.
And I am showing you the community I have brought together, my beloved flock of sheep, yes, but also a group of people who are bound together in love, whose lives are rooted in self-giving compassion, who care for each other and support each other and help each other experience the abundant life I have come to bring.

I guess what I’m saying is, my friends, no matter how we’re feeling, no matter our restless nature right now, no matter the virus or despair or anxiety, Jesus has us.
And we have each other—thank God.
And through the guidance of our Good Shepherd, with the protection and security of the Christ the Gate, we can take comfort that Christ is with us, that Christ is leading us into verdant pastures, and Christ is building with us an abundant life that will outlive and outlast any pandemic.

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