I am the gate
I’m sure that most of us have a gate opening onto our property –perhaps your gate is locked with an entrance code; perhaps it has an electronic bipper to open it when you arrive in the car; perhaps it is high to prevent the dogs getting out, or strangers from peering in. But for most of us, a gate is something to protect us from the outside world – from strangers, from those with intent to harm us, from burglars. It is a barrier to keep people out, unless we want to invite them in.
And often, I fear that the passage that was the Gospel reading today is read in the same way: it is read with negative connotations behind it. We heard that Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” And since forever, it seems, people have used these words to enforce false boundaries to shore up their own power, labelling as the proverbial “thieves and bandits” anyone who is “unorthodox,” whether that means you have the “wrong” gender, sexuality, race, doctrine, belief, politics, liturgy, etc. And with this, comes the idea that Jesus only loves who we consider to be “orthodox” – those people we approve of. Of course, Jesus doesn’t love everyone, because not everyone is “saved”.
We are on the inside, because we are those snowy white, saved-by-Jesus sheep, and Jesus is there, as the very gate, as the barrier to keep the rather dirty, grubby, not quite what we imagined sheep on the outside. Because what Jesus says goes. And as he said, “Whoever enters by me will be saved,” and that means only those who believe in Jesus will be allowed in, or in the words used in John chapter 6 No one comes to the Father except through me.
Exclusion. That’s how these words have been used, over and over. But Jesus is not, nor ever has been, about exclusion. If he had been, then he would not have been a friend to the excluded in his earthly life: he would not have been seen with tax collectors, with prostitutes, with sinners…
Stop and think for a moment. What is the purpose of the gate? It is precisely to create an opening in the fence. It is precisely to allow travel through the wall. It is a means of liberation, not a means of exclusion. The gates we have to our properties are not just there to protect us, and keep us in. They are there to let us out into the world. When Jesus says, “I am the gate,” it is his way of inviting us both in and out. He is telling us that he is our way to safety, to entering a restful place where we know we are loved and protected. But he is also telling us that we will need to go back out through that gate into the world. It is his invitation to leave safety and security and go back out into a world of challenges and stumbling blocks.
You may not be aware that in ancient times, the sheepfolds did not actually have gates in the way we might imagine. Instead, several flocks would gather in an enclosure for the night, and it was the shepherds themselves who lay in front of the entrance, who formed the barrier, keeping all the sheep – whoever they belonged to - safe from predators, but also allowing any stray sheep to enter for safety. They really were the gates. Jesus, as the good shepherd, was also the gate. And it is he, not the sheep inside the pen, who chooses who he lets in. And it is he who leads his sheep out of the pen into the world, after the night’s rest is over.
So, when Jesus says, “I am the gate”, he is saying “I bring both safety and liberation. I am willing to sacrifice myself, to keep you safe, but I am also there to lead you when you leave the safety of the pen.” He is saying “I love and protect all the sheep. No exceptions”
I have heard those words “whoever enters by me will be saved” used to say that anyone who is not Christian will burn in hell. I have Christian friends who believe this most firmly. Maybe you also believe this. I have always found it difficult to square this belief with the belief that our God is a god of love for all. Can we truly say God loves everyone, no exceptions – and then also believe God will condemn anyone who is not a believer to eternal fires?
No, I believe these words simply mean I am the gate. I decide who will enter the sheep pen. Whoever I let enter the sheep pen will be saved and protected. No-one can come to the sheep pen except through me.
And as no good shepherd would lie in front of his sheep pen, and let a stray sheep wander around to be devoured by wolves, without feeling something for that sheep so I believe Jesus will not guard those who have entered his Kingdom and allow those who somehow lost their way to be devoured by the fires. Jesus will let anyone into his sheep pen.
He is not about exclusion; Jesus is about inclusion. We need to recognise that his love is liberating; it is life giving; and that love is for everyone. No exceptions.