This Sunday is often nicknamed “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because of the images that come from today’s Gospel. Images of God and Christ as shepherd, and followers as something like sheep run throughout the scripture readings.
The first reading we heard this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, talks about the diet of those early sheep, if we are allowed to refer to those first followers of Jesus as “sheep.” They fed on a steady stream of teaching, fellowship, prayers, and the ritual breaking of bread, recalling how Christ broke bread with his disciples. Those first Christians didn’t keep the good stuff for themselves, either. They went to the temple, they shared their food with one another and those who came their way, earning goodwill among all. So, it’s no wonder that “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
The second reading also echoes the theme as it equates the life lived before Christ as being one of “going astray like sheep.” Before understanding the depth of God’s love—before seeing Christ as God-with-us—Peter says we were like sheep. We were busy darting this way and that, going toward anything that looked like food or fun, losing our way, not really caring, and not even noticing when sometimes we simply fell off a cliff, in pursuit of something that caught our eye. But now, Peter says, now we have returned to the shepherd, we’ve come home to ever-forgiving, ever-renewing love. We’ve come back to the shepherd, to the guardian of our souls.
It is Good Shepherd Sunday. But if we look closely at our gospel, the part that identifies Jesus with the shepherd doesn’t appear in the section we read. It’s in John 10:11 that Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In the section of the Gospel for today, Jesus talks more about how one reaches the shepherd, the sheepfold, the place of welcome and refuge, the place of safety. And the way one reaches this place is through a gate.
In today’s Gospel, Christ speaks of himself as the gate. “I am the gate for the sheep … I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
The gate is the way, the opening. The gate involves a choice—one can either goes through it and see where it leads, or one can try to get more information about what it opens to. Or one can simply stand back, decide not to even try to enter. Standing back perhaps afraid or feeling unworthy, like the invitation hasn’t yet arrives.
We regard and navigate the gates of faith in various ways. Sometimes we see a gate ahead, but it’s so overgrown with other things that it won’t really open. The gate needs to be cleaned off in order to work. Maybe vines and weeds have gotten in the way. Maybe the hinges are shot or the latch is tricky. To enter the gate of Christ, sometimes our image of Christ has been overgrown with old ideas, with bad theology, with the wounds of personal experience. All kinds of things can obscure who Christ wants to be for us, and so Christ as gate to heaven, gate to God, is not easily opened.
At other times, we might sense the gate ahead, but try our own way instead. We might try to cut through the brush all alone, or scale the wall, or get around through some other method. We do this with the gate that is Christ, as well.
I have great respect for other religions and other paths of spirituality, but there is a unique opening Christ provides. God-in-human-form is not at the heart of Judaism or Islam or Buddhism. Those and other ways can be roadmaps, but as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, there is something rare and individual about seeking God through Jesus Christ. The gate that is Christ is not a wide-open, always easily entered thoroughfare. It can be narrow, as he says when he tells the disciples, ““Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easythat leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14).
In baptism, we open the gate that is Christ together and help the baby, or child, or adult step through. That movement of repentance and falling into the arms of God, and in so doing, moving through the gate of Christ—that movement sets a pattern that stays in us all our life. We simply recall that way, that movement, and let God pull us through—again and again and again.
We can sometimes get confused that WE are the gate by imagining that the work of salvation is ours to accomplish—ours to build the church, ours to accomplish justice, ours to create love. And while we are the Body of Christ in the world (his arms, his legs, his mouth and his heart), it is through the love of God, the power of God that we’re able to accomplish anything. And so we remember that Christ is the gate, and no ourselves.
And finally, the gate that is Christ can seem too difficult at times. It can look too heavy to move, too complicated to operate, too much of a different time or era. But if we walk up closer, if we team up with others and accept their help, the gate begins to open. We do this by praying with others and learning from them. We do this by studying with others. We do this by working and serving with others. The gate can appear to be too challenging in some way, but if we walk up close, if we step through, we find it to be easy.
Though of you who have studied Jerusalem or visited there may know that the Old City is a city of gates.
Eleven in all, today seven of these great gates and entrances are still open. One of the most famous is the so-called Golden Gate, sometimes referred to in scripture as the Beautiful Gate. This one is in the eastern wall of the Temple Mount just across from the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives. Tradition says that after Jesus had visited Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, he used the Golden Gate. It was this gate through which Jesus must have entered the city on Palm Sunday and the one through which he probably left the city to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was the Golden Gate that Jesus passed through forty days after the Resurrection and near the site from which we left this earth in the vision of the Ascension.
In the book of Zechariah, the prophet tells that the messiah will come through the Mount of Olives, through the Golden Gate. So it was partly to put a stop such hopes that in the 16th century, Suleiman the Magnificent, sealed up the Golden Gate. And it stays sealed today.
The closed-up, sealed Golden Gate of Jerusalem is a powerful symbol of what our faith should NOT be. We don’t gather in a museum, as beautiful and historic as our churches may be. We don’t muse over archeology and find our meaning there. We don’t live in hopes for a messiah or even in the stories of where Jesus may have walked (or may not have.)
Instead, we’re called to engage a living Christ, to move through a living gate that changes, that opens in different ways, that calls and compels us to new faith each day.
May the risen Christ continue to make himself known to us, to open himself to us, and lead us to new faithfulness.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.