a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [Year A]
John 10:1-10 and Acts 2:42-47
“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says to his disciples, “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.”
I am standing here by the new gate at our house, finished by some excellent handymen just last week. When we bought this house eleven years ago, a fence already enclosed the entire yard except for this section here and another one like it on the other side of the house. With a four-year-old who likes to go on many adventures, we decided it was time to keep him safe (and us sane) by finishing off the fence and making a gate that we could shut securely. Last Friday, when the last nail was driven in and the gate was ready to be tested, our son managed to find a way to climb up the back of the gate door, open it, and get out…while the construction workers were still here!! Needless to say, it was one of those moments where we all felt completely helpless. The workers eventually found a way to make sure the gate stayed fastened shut, but for a while there we were absolutely astounded at his abilities, and, considering Jesus’ words, a little concerned about our son’s future career path.
What I’ve learned over the past week is just how tricky a gate actually is. I can’t tell you how many gates I’ve actually passed through in this life, but I can bet you I’ve taken every single one of them for granted, along with the work it has taken to build a good gate. I’ve learned a gate has to do two things and do both of them well. A gate has to let people or animals in and out. And a gate has to keep people or animals inside and safe. Really a gate just has to do those two things, and do to them there will need to be things like hinges and latches and level ground involved. It sounds basic, but these two things are actually difficult to get right, and a good, solid working gate is something to treasure. And being a good gate is hard work. It gets a lot of use. And a lot who pass through it probably take it for granted.
I believe these are precisely the things Jesus is talking about when he compares himself to a gate. He sees himself as that important combination—a person who can open up and lead people to abundant life and someone who can keep people safe and secure.
The kind of gate Jesus has in mind would have been readily accessible to the imaginations of his followers. He is talking about a gate of a sheepfold. In the morning, when the shepherd comes to take the sheep out to pasture, the gate of the fold needs to open easily. The sheep go out and find grass to eat and water to drink and exercise for their legs. Jesus calls this abundant life. When they’re in the fold, the sheep are still alive, of course, and could stay there for a while, but to live the way they were intended, to really flourish, they need to be out in the open, out where food is plentiful. That is abundant life, life in its fullest sense.
Of course, right now a lot of us are probably thinking: if I could just leave my house I would live life in its fullest sense! In a way, we’re waiting for the gatekeepers of public life to say, “Open up! Go be out in public again,” even though we know resuming some sense of normal pasture life will likely take a long time and different complicated phases and stages. Families and individuals look to these people in authority to offer guidance on sheltering at home and aspects of social distancing just as business owners wait for governments to give a pathway for greener pastures.
But that’s not mainly Jesus is really talking about here. Jesus isn’t talking about the life afforded to us when we get to gather in large groups or go out to graze in restaurants. Life in its fullest sense is that life we experience in God’s kingdom, in each and every moment when God’s glory in Christ is revealed. There is something about Jesus’ relationship with us, whenever and wherever we are, that lets our hearts roam free to love, that lets our minds explore ideas, that lets our relationships with others develop and grow through forgiveness and reconciliation.
The grace of Jesus is a gate—it opens us up to faith when we encounter doubt and despair. The compassion of Jesus is a gate—it hinges on self-giving and empathy. The risen life of Jesus is a gate—it breaks open the great reality that there is more beyond this life. This is abundant life, and any good shepherd wants this for his sheep.
Last week in our Coffee and Doughnut Time one of our homebound members who is on complete shutdown in her living facility on the Southside logged on through Zoom and shared with us that one of our college students had sent her a letter and how much that had meant to her. And this woman also shared how nice it was to be able to worship with us on-line from the confines of her apartment. That was a taste of the abundant life—Jesus, the open gate, allowing the compassion and service of a college student to find her and make her feel part of our flock.
And likewise, the gate sometimes must be shut. The gate keeps the sheep—the vulnerable, easily scattered sheep—safe from forces that would bring them harm. I think of ways that people’s faith have been helping them in this time when we all feel so vulnerable. Many of you have shared stories about how prayer and regular devotional time or meeting on Zoom with a Women’s Circle or a small group have helped give a sense of safety and solidarity with one another. Some families with young children have shared how they sit down at the dinner table each evening or the breakfast table each morning and watch video devotions together, and I bet for just a few minutes the crazy, dangerous world feels shut away. Or perhaps the crazy, dangerous world feels a little more understandable. That is Jesus, the gate, the one who with his words gives us life who keeps us sheltered and safe from those who would climb in and try to take us—things like anxiety and fear and loneliness.
A large part of being safe is being together, especially if you are a sheep. Safety is found in numbers, in being with the flock. We hear in Acts how at its infancy the church thrived on gathering as a body. Each of the four main things to which they devoted themselves were all community-based activities: fellowship, breaking bread, sharing prayer requests, and listening to the apostles’ teachings. Those still form the core of the church’s life today, and it is hard to do them in social isolation.
Safety—physical safety—isn’t in numbers now. For a while safety is in isolation, and so there is this tension in our faith. I can give thanks for the ways our digital communications are bringing us together but I am also in mourning because there are uniquely ways God shepherds us when we’re physically together that we’re not experiencing now.
Regardless of our separation and the loneliness of little individualized pastures we’re grazing on now, the one who stands by the gate does call us by name. We are each known to the shepherd and as we go out and come in, as we venture into new and renewed relationships and as we find shelter from forces that would harm us, we are greeted and called by the God who knows our stories, knows our identities, knows who and whose we are.
This week I got to speak on the phone with George Allan, a member of our congregation who is still hospitalized with COVID-19, but who is improving. He was telling me about the night he was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He had fallen in the night and wasn’t able to get back on his feet. Alone and weak, he inched himself near to his Alexa device and said, “Alexa, call 9-1-1.” Alexa said, “George, I cannot call 9-1-1.” Apparently Alexa devices are prevented from making emergency calls. (I was not aware of that, but it’s good to know). So George said, “Alexa, call Steve.” Steve is George’s son, who lives in Oregon. Alexa said, “George, do you want me to call Steve’s home number or cell phone number?” George told him to call Steve’s cell phone number, Steve answered, and was able all the way from Oregon to get George the help he needed. Because Alexa knew the sound of George’s voice, and because Alexa was so near that George could call out and be heard, George was able to be helped. In fact, his life was probably saved.
I’m glad to say George is able to laugh at it now, but that is like the relationship we have with our God, who stands by the gate and loves each of his sheep. And saves them. One by one he calls them, and they come to know his voice because they are near him and trust him. You see, at some point faith is more than knowing about God and is more about stepping into a relationship with God. It is about sharing the experiences of faith with other sheep of the sheepfold and figuring out ways the same God has been active in all our lives. This is how we learn the voice of the shepherd who saves us.
May you know his voice as you walk with him and talk with him under quarantine. May you rest in the confidence that on the cross, Jesus truly opens the gate to every bit of abundant life you need even in the valley of the shadow of death. The thieves and bandits have already killed and destroyed him. And all of us have taken him for granted, to some degree or another. But he has come back for us, risen and alive, to claim us and call us by name.
May you be safe—safe in the security of Jesus’ eternal words and within a love that will never let you go.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.