What’s A Gatekeeper to Do?

 

Today our understanding of the role of a gate is a bit eschewed. We’ve got gated communities where in some places a guard has to be given authority to let a specified visitor enter. We’ve made deliveries to military installations where the underside of our truck was inspected with mirrors. We just had a terrible tragedy in Florida when a neighborhood watchman took the life of a teenager thought to be where he did not belong. When we read this passage where Jesus says that he is the gate those are the images that come to mind. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that over the centuries and even today, many of us have come to view Jesus as the security guard at the gate of heaven. Heaven is often described as the ultimate gated community, and it’s a hard place into which to get. You don’t get past Jesus unless you are on the short list.


 

John 10:1-10

         A parable, as you know, is a short discourse that makes a comparison, it expresses a single complete thought. The synoptic Gospels often have Jesus speaking in parables. John, in his Gospel, never describes Jesus’ sayings as parables. He characterizes them as proverbs. A proverb is a dark saying in which lofty ideas are concealed. In our text for today we are going to hear from Jesus a dark saying in which a lofty idea is concealed. If it makes you feel any better John tells us that the Pharisees didn’t understand it either. The context is set in the ninth chapter. It is where we find the story of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind and is as important to its understanding as the proverb itself.

The event occasioned questions about the relationship of physical disabilities and sin, questions about the man’s identity and then an examination by the Pharisees. Jesus’ popularity was growing. The people were listening to him, taking their cues from him and some were being cured. What first upset them was that Jesus broke the rules when he healed the man born blind on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were having to consider whether a sinner could do such work? Should they find some way to restrict Jesus’ access to the people?

After questioning those involved the Pharisees suspected collusion between the man and Jesus. They called the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” “Yes” they answered. “Was he born blind?” “Yes”. “How does he now see?” Members of the Sanhedrim had already decided that anyone who acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah should be excommunicated. So to the third question either to save themselves they claimed ignorance or they lacked the means of answering. No longer denying the Sabbath miracle they ask the no longer blind man to ascribe the glory to God—not to Jesus. He only knew one thing for sure (we sang about it this morning) – once he was blind and now he can see.

The Pharisees returned to how this deed was accomplished. They believed with all their heart that it was impossible for Jesus to not be a sinner. They knew it. They tried to lead the witness into an inconsistent statement. To their surprise they find in this man an independence and obstinacy to which they weren’t accustomed. He blurts out “Do you want to become one of Jesus’ disciples too?” He goes on to say: “here is a man who opened my eyes, yet you do not know where he comes from…. It is common knowledge that God doesn’t listen to sinners, he listens to those who are devout and who obey his will. If that man had not come from God he could have done nothing.” This infuriated them further.   They expelled him from the synagogue. That was no little thing. For all practical purposes it was a death sentence for it cut him off from all contact with others as if he were a leper.

That confrontation is the context for the ‘proverb’ that follows. We know that’s the case because John only uses the words “Very truly, I tell you” in the middle of a narrative. The scene within the proverb is that of a common stock yard that resembles a fortress where the flocks of more than one shepherd are kept under the care of a gatekeeper. In this instance the gate is a solid door, heavily barred and capable of resisting attack. A gatekeeper is charged with giving the shepherd access to the shepherd’s own sheep. The Pharisees know that Jesus is speaking about them and how they have treated a person to whom Jesus ministered, bringing him out of darkness into light.

It is to the man, recently excommunicated, that Jesus is explaining who it is that has power to give entrance to the true fold or to exclude from it. The proverb begins by describing as thieves and robbers those whose intent it is to steal or scatter sheep that don’t belong to them. Jesus acknowledges that those who use illegitimate means to get access to the sheep by climbing over the wall or through stealth have no right to the sheep. On the other hand, “he who enters by the gate is shepherd to the sheep”. In addition, the true shepherd is also known by how he treats the sheep and that he calls them by name. “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” There is also the complimentary response of the sheep. They are evidently smart enough to know the voice of their own shepherd and flee from an interloper. This is how the text reads:

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. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them”.

The question I brought to the text was who, in fact, is the gatekeeper? I didn’t find any answers. It finally dawned on me that the issue being addressed by the Pharisees and Jesus was Jesus’ legitimacy – his right of access to the sheep. They were supposed to be the guardians of the sheep fold. They were supposed to know the difference between true and false shepherds so they could open the gate to receive the one who would love and care for the sheep, mending their wounds, leading them to pasture, making them productive. In this instance, the gatekeepers failed to know the difference. They didn’t get it.

Meeting the blank stares of the Pharisees Jesus says: O.K. forget all this stuff about the fortified sheepfold, the role of its security guard and the difference between illegitimate and legitimate shepherds. Let’s just focus on the gate.

7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.  

Today our understanding of the role of a gate is a bit eschewed. We’ve got gated communities where in some places a guard has to be given authority to let a specified visitor enter. We’ve made deliveries to military installations where the underside of our truck was inspected with mirrors. We just had a terrible tragedy in Florida when a neighborhood watchman took the life of a teenager thought to be where he did not belong. When we read this passage where Jesus says that he is the gate those are the images that come to mind. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that over the centuries and even today, many of us have come to view Jesus as the security guard at the gate of heaven. Heaven is often described as the ultimate gated community, and it’s a hard place into which to get. You don’t get past Jesus unless you are on the short list.

In popular stories about heaven, Jesus subcontracts the security job to St. Peter, who sits at the gate of heaven checking credentials. And in turn, it seems that Peter has subcontracted the security job to those in the church, we, who in turn, stand guard over the kingdom of God, making judgments over who is worthy and who isn’t, who make sure the right people get into heaven and the riffraff are kept out.

But what is the purpose of a gate? Is it to keep people out? No! that’s the job of the wall. Gated communities actually should be called walled communities. A gate is an opening in a fence or wall. It’s a way to get in. Okay, but isn’t the point of a gate to let only some people in while keeping others out? So even if Jesus is the gate, he is still there to let the right people in and keep the undesirable people out, right? The trouble with that is that it doesn’t fit very well with the story of the Gospel.

St. Louis, with it enormous stainless steel open arch, claims to be the gate way to the west. The Statue of Liberty stands in the New York harbor–the Gateway to America. Are these gateways symbols of exclusivity? The symbols of a place where the elite get in and the riffraff get turned away? Do you recall the words on the base of the Statute of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” This gateway is exactly the opposite of what we know as a gated community. The gateway of the Statue of Liberty is the point of entry to a new world, a land of opportunity. Ideally a land where all can enjoy an equal opportunity to make a good life for themselves, free from artificial barriers of status and privilege. I can see Jesus saying those very words. In fact, he did say something very close to that. He said “Come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy laden…”

             Is this the type of gate that Jesus is talking about when he describes himself as the gate? I’m pretty sure it is, principally because of what Jesus says awaits us on the other side of that gate. Verse 10 tells us that what is on the other side of that gate is life. Abundant life.            

           Keeping the bad guys out is not what a gate is for. In Jesus’ world, gates and doors are entrances. They open easily. When Jesus says that he can open up a world of abundant life to you and me, he does not have in mind a selective process. Anyone can use the gate. “Come into this place. Enter here and enjoy the fountain of life that overflows into a river of compassion for the world. On the other side of this gate is life, abundant life!

 

“I saw no temple in the city; for its temple was the sovereign Lord God and the Lamb. And the city had no need of sun or moon to shine upon it; for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk, and the kinds of the earth shall bring into it all their splendor. The gates of the city shall never be shut by day—and there will be no night.” Rev. 21:22-25

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