Sunday, May 15, 2011

John 10:1-10

“The Gate Of Suffering Is A Savior Of Sacrifice”

To listen to this sermon in podcast, click HERE:  110515SermonPodcast

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Allen V. Harris

Much has been made about today’s scripture text by folks with many different perspectives and, perhaps even, agendas.  To some it is a text of comfort, reinforcing in practical terms the image of Jesus as Shepherd and we as the sheep “who know our shepherds voice.”  It is also a significant text for those who wish to reinforce that faith in Jesus is the only possible path to salvation, quoting, “Whoever enters by me will be saved.”  And then there’s the final line in the passage that feels almost tacked on, yet which I quote ad naseum: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  In fact, I quoted that very line in my sermon on Wednesday at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

All of these are perfectly valid interpretations, certainly.  Jesus is like a Shepherd!  Jesus is the way to salvation!  Jesus does bring abundant life!  But there is something I discovered some years ago in my biblical studies that brought all these together in a different and somewhat surprising way.

What I discovered has to do with the image of Jesus as the “gate” in the sheepfold.  Now, so few of us anymore are connected with agrarian living and taking care of animals that it is understandable that the depth of this image escapes us.  Furthermore, what most of us do know about livestock involves much more modern and much more Western practices of taking care of cattle.  When we think of sheep and cows and such, we tend to think of fences.  I grew up in Southeastern New Mexico and West Texas where nary an acre of land wasn’t partitioned up and demarcated by fences.  In the southwest, you find the wooden or metal post with lots of barbed wire.  In the south it could be the pipe fence and the northeast it might be a stone wall of Robert Frost fame.  In the Midwest you can find the wooden post and rail and upper Northwest the familiar wooden cross-buck fences.  In any case, our images of shepherding and sheep are woven together with fences.

Not so in other parts of the world, both in ancient of times and to this day in some remote regions.  Sheep would have been herded across the landscape; anywhere they could find enough vegetation on which to survive.  And at night, rather than hustling your animals into a safe and secure pen, you would find the best natural recess in a cliff or hilly outcropping you could, and get the sheep in that contained area.  Then, knowing that there would be many, many possibilities for danger over the course of the night, from one of your unsuspecting lambs wandering off, to the hungry jaws of a wolf, desert fox, sandcat, or predatory bird, to the posse of bandits intent upon steeling your livelihood, the shepherd would lay down in the opening and try to get some sleep.

This is what is transforming for me in the text.  The image Jesus uses flies by our untrained ears too quickly, and the prettier aspects of the text consume our attention.  (As a side note, I find it fascinating that in this text is the little disclaimer, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”)  We don’t understand what he is truly saying to us.  Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep.”  This is not a throwaway line nor is it a simple image.

Jesus is, like the shepherds of the lands around which he lived and taught, is willing to lay his body down in the openings of our lives where danger and death are most likely to come in order to be the sentinel between life and death.  The shepherd, by so placing himself in the position of a “gate,” would be most likely awakened when the marauders or the predators attempted to get in, or the wayfaring lamb tried to wander off.  Literally putting himself in the way of danger, the shepherd would risk his life night in and night out trying to protect the sheep in his care.

Echoing the images of the “Suffering Servant” described in Isaiah Chapter 53, “upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way,” and embodying his very own words to his disciples in John Chapter 15 when he spoke of the greatest commandment, to love one another, when he shockingly pronounces, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Here’s what I take from this, which is another way of saying here is what annoys me the most about how this text is usually interpreted and used.  Much is made about the words we use for Jesus, almost forcing folks to use the word “savior” for him, as if in the very designation itself there is salvation.  I don’t get that, especially in light of our scripture text for today.  For me, the proof of Jesus as savior is in what he is willing to do, and has done, for me, and for you, and for the rest of us beautiful but all-too-often less-than-brilliant sheep.

In the same way I don’t put a whole lot of stock in the terminology of relationships. What’s the difference between a partner, a husband, a lover, or a significant other?  Hell if I know, I just want to know I can rely upon you for my very life and me for yours!  Do you have to be my biological brother to be brotherly to me?  No!  I have dozens and dozens of aunties and uncles who are unrelated to my father or my mother.  Most have never even known them!  “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Jesus asks in Matthew 12.  “And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”  Are you my “friend” because you say you are or you say I am, or because you are willing to lay down your life for me, and I for you.  Quite frankly, I want the actions and can do without the words, thank you.

So, do we get caught up with worrying about whether or not others are willing to say the words, “Jesus is my Savior,” or do we spend our time helping people to know that whatever you call him, this one is more deed than word, more reality than perception.  This one whom we know as Jesus of Nazareth is like a sacrificial human gate on the rough and dangerous sheepfold of life.  Whatever you call him, I don’t care.  I just know he was willing to lay down his life for me, and he is willing to do the same for you.  It’s called love, but more importantly, it is love in action.