Dr. Steve Lindsley
(John 10: 1-10)

If I’m honest, there are two things that I struggle with in our passage today. The first is something I struggle with a lot when reading John, and that is that Jesus is hard to get sometimes.  And I’m not alone – John himself says that Jesus used this figure of speech, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 

We have four gospels in our Bible, four accounts of Jesus; and of the four, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are like three close siblings.  They are the most accessible, linguistically speaking; they mean what they say and say what they mean. The Jesus in these gospels is relatively approachable and understandable.

John, on the other hand, is like that distant cousin who doesn’t quite fit in at the family reunion. When John’s Jesus speaks, it’s beautiful for sure, but the language is much more ornate, symbolic, kind of “out there.”  And because of that, it’s sometimes hard to discern what Jesus is trying to say.

Our passage today is a perfect example of this.  Jesus is speaking metaphorically – a common thing for Jesus in John’s gospel, but it’s not just one metaphor he uses but a whole bunch he kind of mashes together.  There are sheep and there’s a shepherd.  There’s a gate, and there’s a gatekeeper.  And there are thieves and bandits.  And yes, all of this imagery would’ve been very familiar to both the audience Jesus was speaking to and the audience John was writing to – sheep and shepherds and gates and gatekeepers and thieves and bandits were familiar aspects of life in first century Palestine.

But something being familiar and something being understandable are not necessarily the same thing, are they?

And, to be honest, this is not Jesus’ finest storytelling moment, either.  Most of the time a metaphor is presented in such a way that it doesn’t need an explanation; but here, Jesus is kind of all over the place. What do all these mixed metaphors mean?  What is Jesus trying to tell us?

I will always remember the best advice I got about trying to understand the Bible – advice which, notably, I received from both my preaching professor in seminary and my 9th grade Sunday school teacher: and that is when trying to understand a passage in the Bible, don’t just read the passage itself.  Read around it.  Read around it.  And so when we read around John 10, specifically what comes before, we find the well-known story of Jesus healing a blind man. Now the whole story is 41 verses long, but the interesting thing is that the actual healing is just the first twelve verses.  The remaining 29 chronicle the drama that was the miracle aftermath; the Pharisees doing everything they could to discount and discredit this healing because of what it would mean for the world – and specifically them – if this miracle did, in fact, occur.

And so they accuse the man of being a liar – fake news.  They interrogate his parents – maybe they’re in on it as well.  They go back to the man and try to convince him that he is somehow in the wrong; and all the while the man is like, “Look, people – all I know is that I used to be blind and now I see.  What about that do you not understand?”

Throughout all of this drama, Jesus is there; but he’s more of an observer, kind of off to the side, letting things play out.  Until this moment, John 10, when Jesus interjects himself into the conversation and unloads this metaphor mashup of sheep and shepherds and gates and gatekeepers and thieves and bandits.

And that is when we realize that the audience Jesus is speaking to here is a very specific audience: namely, the ones who were seeking to discredit the formerly blind man, the ones whose power and privilege depended on everything staying exactly as it had always been, the ones who were more than a little unnerved anytime those without sight – literally and metaphorically – were finally able to see.

So that’s helpful to understand the context of the passage – it gives us something to hang our hat on.  But as far as what Jesus means – again, I struggle with that.  All of which is compounded even moreso by the second thing I struggle with in this passage – which, ironically, comes in the moment when Jesus speaks most clearly:

I am the gate, he tells them.

I got a problem with Jesus as the gate.

And I know, I know, just a few verses later, Jesus would say he’s the good shepherd – and that’s the one we focus on because we get the idea of Jesus as a shepherd, and it makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  Shepherds care for their sheep.  They corral the sheep.  They take the sheep to pastures for grazing.  They stay up all night to protect the sheep from threats.  The word “shepherd” is mentioned well over 100 times in the Bible in reference to Jesus or to God.  Our Psalm today that Josiah read earlier is perhaps the most well-known of them all: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.  We get the idea of Jesus as the Shepherd.

But how many of us get excited about saying, “The Lord is my gate?”  There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about gates; inanimate objects made of cold steel or brittle wood.  But the real problem I have with Jesus as the gate is less about what they are and more about what they are designed to do.

My good friend Tim Hughes Williams, a Presbyterian pastor, tells the story of the neighborhood he, his husband, and their two kids live in in Baltimore.  Their neighborhood is called Reservoir Hill, and has historically been predominantly African-American.  The adjacent neighborhood, known as Bolton Hill, has historically been predominantly white.  At one point in Baltimore’s history, though, the two neighborhoods were one, composed of primarily upper-class white folk.

Until sometime in the early 1900’s, when an African-American lawyer named George McMechen moved into the neighborhood.  This prompted a swift backlash from the neighbors, and in short order a city ordinance was established that explicitly prohibited black and white people from living on the same block anywhere in the city.  Tim cites this law as our nation’s first instance – but sadly nowhere near the last – of a city legislating segregation by neighborhood.

Not surprisingly, the result of this ordinance was that the formerly unified neighborhood was quickly divided into two, along the lines of race.  And over the years the two neighborhoods became not only more segregated but more divergent in their futures, thanks to further redlining laws that were cropping up in cities all over the country, including our own.  As time passed these laws functioned, metaphorically speaking, as a gate; furthering the divide in such a way that Bolton Hill – the white neighborhood – thrived and flourished, while Reservoir Hill – the black neighborhood – slipped further into decline.

There is now a single road that leads from one neighborhood into the other, the transition point marked by the brick sides of three-story Bolton Hill townhomes on either side of the road.  Recently the Bolton Hill neighborhood association decided that those stark brick building sides needed a mural to liven things up a bit.  Great!  But what kind of mural?  A small group was appointed to come up with a design and raise money for it; and out of all the possible designs that could’ve been designed, the one they submitted to the public for input was the mural of……a gate.   Two large, metal ornate-looking gates on either side of the road, extending the full height and length of both three-story brick building sides.  They called it, “The Gates of Bolton Hill.”

But those in Reservoir Hill wondered incredulously: how could you be so tone deaf?  The last thing needed was the mural of a gate – a constant reminder of the restricted access to this community. Every time a person from Reservoir Hill approached the only entrance to the other neighborhood, they would be staring at a three-story iron wrought fence.

The good news is that the gate design was ultimately ditched in favor of a more colorful and inclusive mural.  Even so, gates of all kinds continue to plague our society.  Gates are about access.  Gates are about letting some in and keeping others out.  And that is why I struggle with Jesus as the gate – because, truth be told, the church has excelled at using Jesus as a gate already, and not in good ways:

  • We’ve created gates out of our very places of worship – whether they are the slave balconies built in many churches in the antebellum south so masters could keep an eye on their slaves without actually having to worship with them. Or the gate we have in sanctuaries like ours – a lovely sanctuary for sure, but have you ever noticed how the table, the place where God and God’s people meet in communion, is positioned behind the pulpit and lectern, not in front of it; undergirding the idea that you have to pass through the Word read and proclaimed, liturgically speaking, before you can meet God?
  • We’ve created gates out of our rituals and our language, the deep meaning and symbolism of our faith that might be well-known to those of us on the inside but not as familiar to others; our insider language serving as a barrier to those who are trying to understand; even our very worship becoming a gate where we’re tempted to think, as one member once said to me, that if someone doesn’t like the way we do things here at Trinity they can just go find another church.
  • We’ve created gates out of our polity and theology in a hundred ways; ways that prohibit some from entering because of who they are or who they love; to the point where we’ve added language to our website and put a banner out on Providence Road just to communicate to the world outside that that kind of gate, a gate they are used to finding in churches everywhere, is not a gate they’re going to find here.
  • We’ve created gates out of our practice – we fail to cast our vision broad enough, our arms wide enough, our hope strong enough; resigning ourselves to seeing only what’s right in our immediate view and failing to respond to the opportunities that are just outside our vision.

So no, I do not like Jesus as the gate. Lord knows we’re doing a good enough job at being that on our own.

Although there is one redeeming thing about gates: they swing both ways.  And that changes things, does it not?  Because when gates swing both ways, they are less a one-way checkpoint and more an open channel. The latter is the kind of gate Jesus is.  The former is the kind of gate the audience Jesus was speaking to was, remember?  Remember those who pushed back on the healing of the blind man, those whose power and privilege depended on everything staying exactly as it’d been, those who were more than a little unnerved anytime those without sight – literally and metaphorically speaking – were able to see.  They were used to being the gate in the world they’d designed; a one-way checkpoint.

But Jesus makes it clear that the gate he has come to be is an entirely different kind of gate: Whoever enters by me, he says, will come in and go out and find pasture.  Come in and go out.  The gate swings both ways.

Jesus calls us into this place, away from the world outside our doors, away from all that would pull us in different directions.  Jesus calls us here so we can be community together.  Worship together.  Grow together.  Pray together.  Support one another together.  The gate swings in because we are called to be the beloved community of God.

But the gate swings out as well, because the church is not a club.  It is the body of Christ sent on a mission; and that mission is to engage the world with love and respect, with humility and grace, daring to ask what breaks God’s heart in our community and what we can do to help it to break a little less.

The gate swings both ways, because the lovely green pastures we all long for are not found on just one side.  It is in the church and it is outside the church.  It’s among the familiar and the unfamiliar.  It’s where we are and where we are not yet.  It’s even in those places where we least expect to find Jesus: even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you are with us.

I struggle with Jesus as the gate because of what we have made that out to be.  But a gate that connects the church to the world and the world to the church?  A gate that breaks down all barriers and makes miracles possible?  A gate that lets all of God’s children have access to those lovely green pastures?  Now that’s the kind of gate I can get on board with.

In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!



* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.