The image of Jesus as a shepherd is perhaps one of the most beloved in Christian history. Through music, visual artistry, poetry and more, we are assured—and teach our children—that we are cradled in the arms of the Good Shepherd who willingly laid down his life for his sheep. We know this, of course, because Jesus said so himself. But Jesus himself was borrowing some imagery from the Hebrew Bible, where the prophet Isaiah said that the Messiah would “gather the lambs with his arm” (Isa. 40:11).
But this passage from John is both rich and, frankly, perplexing. Before Jesus ever gets to the “I am the Good Shepherd” bit that we all want to hear, he declares, “I am the gate.” He also mentions a gate keeper, who decides whether or not to let the Good Shepherd into the fold. This parable has several “moving parts,” and Jesus himself claims to be at least two of them. Who could blame his listeners for being confused initially?
In order to wrap our own heads around this text, we need to back up. Several weeks ago, our lectionary text was the whole of chapter 9, in which Jesus’ healing of a man born blind led to considerable controversy. The chapter closes with Jesus lecturing the Pharisees.
Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, “Surely we aren’t blind, are we?”
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains (John 9:40-41).
Now we learn that he wasn’t done speaking with them.
“I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying (John 10:1-6).
Because our Bibles all have chapter and verse numbers in them, we imagine that because we’ve moved from chapter 9 to chapter 10, Jesus has now moved on to another subject. But in making that assumption, we miss the point. Jesus is still talking to the same Pharisees to whom he said, “Because you claim to see, your sin remains.” The Pharisees, in Jesus’ new parable, are the thieves and bandits who attempt steal their way into the sheep pen in order to lead the sheep astray. They may think they’re shepherds of the people, but Jesus assures them that they’re not. Real shepherds enter by the gate, and the sheep follow them out of the pen because they know the sound of their shepherd’s voice.
“I am the gate,” Jesus said. That’s… not where we might expect Jesus to place himself in his analogy, is it? In fact, there’s both a shepherd and a gatekeeper in this analogy, and either of those could, arguably, be Jesus. But Jesus gave his listeners the interpretation of his own parable, and according to him, Jesus is the gate.
Before we move on to more familiar territory (like resting comfortably in the arms of the Good Shepherd), we need to sit right here. Gates bring to mind something that separates those from the inside from those on the outside. But while some in the Church have spent the last two thousand years suggesting that this gate creates an exclusive community, declaring that the only way into the sheep pen is through Jesus (and quoting Jesus in chapter 14, where he says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me), Jesus here makes it clear that his goal is not to invite more and more sheep into the protection of his pen, but to lead his sheep out of the pen! The sheep on the inside are not all safe, Jesus-y sheep. Some of them appear to belong to others, and some of them appear to be stolen. This, too, is an indictment against the Pharisees who, rather than care for the man and rejoice with him over this miracle, have just thrown out of the synagogue the many born blind! Being a sheep in this fold is not a safe position! As the Gate, Jesus opens to allow his own to leave the pen in search of the green pastures and still waters that comprise the abundant life that God has in mind for His children! His leading the man born blind to an abundant life is this Gospel’s most recent proof that what Jesus says about himself is true. Just like the sheep in Jesus’ analogy will not follow a stranger because they do not know his voice, so the man born blind refused to listen to the Pharisees, but turned to Jesus, an illustration of the sheep who recognize the voice of the real Shepherd.
It is the Gatekeeper who determines the circumstances of the Gate’s opening. Much as Jesus would say in his final discourse that he is the vine and his Father is the Vine Grower, here, Jesus is the Gate and—it seems clear enough—his Father is the Gatekeeper. The Gate opens by the Gatekeeper’s initiative. If the Gatekeeper didn’t think the sheep ought to have an abundant life, he wouldn’t have opened the Gate.
Let’s tarry here just a moment longer and make an even more pointed observation. If God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the Gatekeeper, then you’re not. I’m not. The Church is not. It is the history of the Scottish Church, Presbyterianism generally, and even that of my current congregation (not currently, I stress, but historically), to act as gatekeepers where, for instance, access to the Lord’s Table is concerned. I was once given the gift of a little oval coin, dated 1838, from the Scottish Church of Monzie, Perthshire, Scotland, just like the one pictured here:
This coin is a communion token, required by all good Presbyterians in order to be granted admittance to the Lord’s Table. These tokens were bestowed upon the worthy faithful, following examination by the Elders of the church to ensure moral and doctrinal uprightness. They were for members of that particular congregation only. Non-members were eligible neither to receive these tokens, nor the sacrament to which they afforded admittance.
By contrast, many denominations today celebrate what they call “open communion,” inviting non-members to participate at the Lord’s Table, the only caveat being that those participating be baptized Christians. This has been the official stance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for many years, and it is the reason for my saying at each invitation to the Lord’s table, “This is not a Presbyterian table, it is the Lord’s Table, and he invites all those who trust in him to enjoy the feast which he has prepared.”
Our denomination’s presbyteries lately have been voting on a proposed amendment to our Book of Order that would make our open invitation to the Lord’s Table even more open. Out of the 100 Presbyteries that have voted so far, ninety-seven of them have voted yes, and the amendment has therefore already crossed the necessary threshold for passage. It changes our stance from admitting all baptized Christians to participate in the Lord’s Supper to admitting all who feel led to participate, whether they’ve previously been baptized or not. In short, we have come to acknowledge that we are not the Gatekeeper—God is. The striking hypothetical is this: what if it is in the act of Christ’s radical hospitality and service to sinners, acted out in the Lord’s Supper, that someone encounters the Living Christ and subsequently becomes a disciple? Is discipleship a prerequisite for table fellowship, or might table fellowship lead to discipleship? Our denomination will, from now on, claim the latter.
Finally, we do, indeed, come to Jesus’ “second effort” at his analogy. Having first called himself the Gate through which the Shepherd enters the fold and leads his sheep out to pastures of abundance, now he says, “I AM the Good Shepherd.” The sheep of his flock know his voice, and follow him, because he is a trustworthy and sheltering leader. Jesus is a shepherd not merely in the spirit of his ancestor David, but as God’s Word and Will incarnate. His disciples listen to his voice and recognize him as the one who will bring them no harm and protect them as he leads them to the source of abundant life.
While Jesus claiming to be the Good Shepherd may, to us, sound like a benign claim of leadership and devoted protection, his listeners would have understood his reference to the prophets (especially Ezekiel) where God declares that God will be the Shepherd for his people, over against the “shepherds” or leaders who have heretofore led the people astray. At the very least, then, Jesus would be making a Messianic statement; but in the Gospel of John, Jesus is known to make even stronger statements by which he identifies with God, claiming his own divinity.
Jesus goes on to say he has other sheep that are not found in this particular fold. This statement is, again, a direct confrontation of the teachings of the Pharisees to whom he is speaking. They claimed that God’s people were the children of Abraham, those faithful to the tradition of Moses. But Jesus didn’t come to save the Jews—he came to save the world. Not all of his sheep were to be found in the Jewish fold—some were to be found elsewhere; and they, too, would follow the sound of their shepherd’s voice when they heard it. We in the Church need to take to heart Jesus words as well. Since we are neither the Gatekeeper nor the Shepherd, we are not the arbiters of who is a sheep of Christ’s flock and who is not.
In this chapter, we are given assurance that by following the sound of Jesus’ voice—by following where he leads us—we enter into a life of abundance and shelter. I’ve read that there is a saying in India, “The tree does not stand far from the apple.” We’re used to hearing, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” meaning that we tend not to stray far from the social systems from which we spring. But the Indian phrase is different. “The tree does not stand far from the apple” gives agency not to the apple, but to the tree. The apple is sheltered by the tree, whether it falls or not. Some apples cling to the tree, some fall in a storm or a prevailing wind, a few may be carried away. Surely some apples wouldn’t mind exercising a little of their own agency and roll away—to be sure, we Americans tend to venerate self-made individuals! But apples aren’t self-made. They’re produced by the tree; and assuming that they fall at all, the tree nevertheless stands near to them, continuing to shelter them under its boughs.
So it is with the sheep of the Good Shepherd’s fold. Sure, a few stubborn or careless sheep may occasionally wander away from the flock, but the Shepherd keeps a constant count and offers the guidance of his own voice in leading us to green pastures and still waters. We don’t wander through this life alone. We have someone who watches over us, who guides and guards us, and who even willingly lays down his life for ours.
And nothing and no one can take us away.