Monday, May 1, 2017

Good Sheepgate Sunday


The Fourth Sunday in Easter is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday. It's the day we hear one of John's passages about Jesus the Good Shepherd. We always say (or sing) the 23rd Psalm. And we focus on the one who came to shepherd us to the place where we belong--God's own sheepfold.

This year, lectionary Year A, we hear what Jesus has to say about sheep in John 10:1-10. "Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit," he tells them. He goes on to explain what they already know--that the shepherd is the one who knows the sheep, the one for whom the gatekeeper opens the gate, whose voice the sheep recognize. In an editorial comment, John lets us know that "they did not understand what he was saying to them." So Jesus explained this "figure of speech" (John's words, not mine) to them, saying, "I am the gate for the sheep."

And, just like that, I, too, don't really understand what Jesus is talking about. Sometimes the explanation is harder to grasp than the figure of speech. Jesus is the gate? I thought he was the shepherd. In fact, he is the shepherd, too, but that doesn't come out in this year's lesson. John 10:11ff. is in another year's reading. And the exegetical challenge for this year's preacher is preaching sheepgate instead of shepherd.

Jesus is the gate. Jesus is the one by whom the shepherds come in and out. Yes, he's the shepherd, too, but that's another sermon for another reading. Stick with the gate. Allow the first image Jesus used to stand for itself.

Perhaps the preacher would do well to notice to whom Jesus is speaking. In a first draft of this post, I mistakenly typed that Jesus was speaking to his disciples. Whenever he has something pastoral to say to "them" and "they" don't understand, it's easy to assume he's speaking to the twelve. But this time he's speaking to his opponents. He's addressing those who do not recognize his authority. He's explaining himself to those who will not accept his God-appointed ministry. And what are his words to them?

Anyone who comes in by climbing over the fence or slipping in the back is a thief and a bandit. Only the shepherd comes through the gate. Only the one who knows the sheep and who is known by the sheep comes in through the gate. And Jesus isn't only coming in through the gate as the shepherd. He's also the gate through whom other shepherds will come--those who come after him and who come in his name to shepherd God's sheep into green pasture. This is an Easter passage. This is a Pentecost passage. This is a others-will-come-after-me-and-do-the-same-work-I-do passage. This is about preachers and pastors like me. Are we coming in through the gate--through Jesus--or are we sneaking in the back door?

What makes a good shepherd the Good Shepherd is that he lays down his life for the sheep. What makes a pastor a good pastor is that he shepherds the sheep as Jesus would. Jesus is the gate. Jesus is the way. Those who come through Jesus--through the one who gives up all for the sake of others--are the ones who know the sheep and are known by the sheep. Are our pastors giving up all for the sake of the flock? Are they approaching the flock through the true gate? In Jesus' day, those who pretended to shepherd God's flock by leading them for their own benefit were the thieves and bandits who went in another way. In our day, those who preach a message other than grace, who lay heavy burdens upon their congregations, who line their pockets by demanding more and more from their flocks, are those who have come in by another way. This year, on Good Shepherd Sunday, we remember not only the Good Shepherd but we remember that he is the means by which true shepherds are judged. May the leaders of Christ's church always enter through Christ himself.

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