Harrowing Of Hell
April 30, 2023

The Good Shepherd and the Gate

Kelli Martin, Lay Preacher

I love it when Jesus speaks clearly. I enjoy his parables too, with their complexity and their layers and their occasional cryptic-ness. As Jesus followers, we know that ANYTHING he says is going to be awesome. He is JESUS!!

But when he is clear in what he is saying, there is nothing like it. It is giving, it is impassioned. It is singular and powerful. And it is empowering. Like he is giving us the key to life.

We have that kind of clarity in today’s story.

Right before today’s passage, Jesus is in his public ministry and he’s just healed a person. He’s given sight to a man who had born blind. Then Jesus schools the Pharisees on spiritual blindness, revealing that he has come into this world to open our eyes. Then we get to today’s story.

When reading this passage, we might be tempted to focus on the nature of sheep, or on the thieves and the bandits that try to distract us from the gaze and voice of Christ that hold humanity in an unyielding and loving and protective embrace. Christ does hold humanity like that. That certainly is a major point of this story. But what I love so much about this text is its movement. Jesus moves us from what we see, to what we hear, to where we enter, to where we dwell.

–See, hear, enter, dwell

And THOSE parts – where we enter and where we dwell – is what I fell in love with. Scripture says: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Jesus is the gate. Jesus is giving us a clear image! Jesus is telling us that he is the open door, that he is the threshold. Jesus is the way we get closer to God. Jesus is the opening that we go through to learn how to live our lives in the way God wants us to live our lives. Here at Epiphany we call that looking at life through the Jesus filter. And not just at Epiphany. In our everyday lives, the gate means we look through the Jesus filter. The gate urges us to always think, “What would Jesus do if Jesus had my life”? I remember when I first heard Doyt say that, at this learning church, this theological center that Epiphany is. “If Jesus had my life would he forgive this person who hurt me long ago?  If Jesus had my life, would I stop punishing and being hard on myself? If Jesus had your life, would you give what you can to the stranger without any strings attached? If Jesus had your life, would you care for and be a steward of what God has given to you? That’s what entering through the Jesus gate means.

Jesus is the gate. That’s him saying that what we have to do is show up. We show up in prayer, in corporate worship. You show up in your relationships and in our community. We practice all of that. It’s a practice, it’s a way of life. That’s the first step: we enter.

Then there’s something else. There’s always something else with Scripture! That’s the divine beauty of it. The Bible has this living, pulsating-ness to it! It’s where we return over and over, every week, to learn how Jesus’ words are reflective of the world that we live in. This is what we do at church!

So yes, we show up. But it’s not just showing up. WHERE we step matters. Jesus doesn’t say to stay in the sheepfold. It can be tempting to read it like that. To stay internal, to stay hunkered down within these safe church walls where we feel loved and protected and cared for. No, read it again. Listen again.

Jesus says “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Go in…and go out. GO OUT. We’re not supposed to stay within these walls, we’re supposed to be out in the world, letting the spirit of the risen Christ fill our thoughts, our actions, our decisions, our encounters, our relationships…and our hearts. We embrace what Jesus teaches us, whether it’s clear or not, whether it’s cryptic or not. The gate, THIS Gate of Jesus, this is not dogma, this is a framework Jesus is giving us! We embrace it, even when we encounter a stranger’s voice.

We can’t get away from voice in today’s story from John. It says, “They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 

That stranger’s voice can be mighty powerful. It makes me think of my own spiritual journey. The older I get, sometimes I find it easy to identify strangers’ voices, and other times it can be really difficult. Maybe you’ve had experiences like that too. We hear strangers’ voices of ambition or grind culture or self-interest. Or voices of ego like wanting approval from others or external validation. We even hear voices of institutions that lead to people being silenced or oppressed or deemed invisible. Often, we hear a cacophony of voices or ambiguity of noise inside of us. For example, I might realize it’s a stranger’s voice later on, rather than in the moment. Or I get impatient with my spiritual journey. I want to be like Jesus NOW. I want to have all my shadowy parts turned over to God NOW so God can access them and transform them right NOW. All this stranger danger leads us away from Jesus, away from community.

But that’s WHY we have the gate. Because we hear so many voices, that is why the image of the gate is compelling.  Jesus is the gate, no matter what era we live in, no matter how cacophonous or ambiguous those strangers’ voices get, no matter what is going on in the world, wherever we are in our lives. Jesus is the gate we return to over and over. We practice that. It is what we do when we walk through those church doors and worship every Sunday, when we take Eucharist every week, when we sing those hymns, when we go to Bible study…when we pray. And when we step out into the world.

Sometimes it’ll be clear where Jesus is leading us and sometimes it seems like we’re on our own. Some may feel that God doesn’t talk to them! God talks to you in the unique, beautiful way that you can hear it. God talks to you in the way you need God to. It is different for each person.  God made you in a unique and beautiful way so God talks to you in a unique, beautiful way. That’s what today’s passage means when it says “He calls his own sheep by name.”

Yes, Jesus is a singular voice and it is a powerful one. But we, the Body of Christ, our voices contain multitudes. That is how we are to be Christians. We see that in both readings today, the one from Acts where they go out in the world and share what they have with one another meeting one another’s needs. And from John – Remember sheep are not solitary animals, they are in a flock.

That is why Jesus tells us he is the gate. We know that we follow Christ. But he doesn’t have to say that. What he says is, “Come through me. I am an open door.” Isn’t that image so Christ-like? Isn’t that the most sacrificial, Christ-like thing there is? And what a beautiful image it is. The gate. What a profound, humbling, self-emptying image. Jesus is being clear about who he is. This is who our God is.

The more you reflect on this image of the gate, the clearer it is what Jesus actually means. So today in the postcommunion prayer when you are called to be sent out to do the work that God has given you to do…when we all say together as a community, to go out and love and serve the Lord, remember Jesus in your coming and going. Remember the gate you’re using. Take it at face value. It is wide open, it is expansive, it is inclusive no matter who you are or what your past is, there are no barriers. Take the gate literally. And today at the dismissal, when we say “let us go forth”, remember that Jesus is the gate you leave from.