What do think is the purpose of a gate, is it to keep something out or keep something in? We put baby gates up to keep little people in the place where we want them, or out of dangerous areas (or is it to teach them mountaineering?) We lock gates and put signs on saying "Beware of the dog" in the hope that this will deter all but the foolhardy. The gates outside our church are locked shut. The unwritten message is plain enough, there has been too much damage caused by keeping the door unlocked.
We're talking here about care, about safety, protection and security. Without the gate the child may wander into the kitchen and upturn a pan of scalding water. Without the gate the postman might enter into a one-sided argument with the Rottweiler. Without the gate, many churches have seen precious items stolen, graffiti scribbled and altars desecrated.
"I am the gate for the sheep" says Jesus. Whoever enters through this gate, through Jesus will be saved. We're talking of a gate that offers safety. From what? From the ravages of wolves and the undesirable attention of thieves and robbers, says Jesus.
But does that mean that as soon as we enter, Jesus slams the door closed to keep us safe within his sheepfold, safe from harm and from all who might tempt us back outside into the big old horrible world out there. Is it a case of once we're through that door we can cry "Yes Made it!" breath a sigh of relief and settle down to a life of nibbling pasture?
Well, I don't think it is actually. The trouble with this sheepfold is that apparently the gate is not one that is continually slamming shut behind each new arrival. It's not a gate that has a warning about the perils and dangers of entering pinned to it. In fact Jesus says that those who enter through Him are free to come and go as they please "He will come in and go out, and find pasture"
What sort of protection is that? A sheepfold where the sheep are free to wander in and out of? What happens when the wild animals start gathering? Surely it would make more sense to get out the barbed wire or the electric fence? After all, the whole idea of this sheepfold is surely to keep the sheep from being attacked. How can you do that if the sheep are free to come and go at will? Where's the sense in that?
Let's leave those questions hanging there for a few minutes and link into the other "I am" that Jesus talks about
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep"
"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me "
"The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the flock."
"Ok" says Jesus to those who are listening to him with puzzled expressions on their faces. "If you can't quite picture me as a gate, how about a shepherd? Ah, I can see a spark of light there. You know about shepherds, dont you? The shepherd's job is to care for and protect the sheep, isn't it? It's the shepherd who leads his sheep through the gate and into the sheepfold to keep them safe from wolves, thieves and bandits."
Through the gate.
Let's look a little closer at the shepherd and see how we can tie these two "I ams" together. Firstly, we read that the shepherd gives life to the sheep. Outside the sheepfold on the hillside the sheep have to be constantly watched, and at night there is always the threat of attack by wild animals or thieves.
Fear is the controlling emotion through the dark hours between dusk and dawn. Within the sheepfold fear is lifted, there is shelter from the strong winds, companionship, food to eat, all that is needed for life.
But then, we read that the shepherd not only gives life to the sheep, he gives his life for the sheep that they might be saved from death. It wasn't a cushy little rural number being a shepherd in those days, you were expected to keep a very close eye on all those sheep that you had been entrusted with. They were a valuable commodity and the shepherd would have to pay from his own pocket for any losses.
If the wolves or thieves attacked then it was the shepherd who defended.
You wouldn't expect a hired hand to do this, says Jesus, he'd just run away from the danger because he doesn't have the same responsibilities. But for the shepherd, well he knows everyone of those sheep by name. He's counted them that often he could tell instantly if one was missing.
To us one sheep or cow looks much like another, but to the farmer and the shepherd who spend their whole life caring for their animals these are individuals with their own particular ways and personalities. They're family. They're special. Not only that, but the sheep themselves recognise the voice of their shepherd; they have learnt to trust this person, they feel a part of this family because within it there is safety.
St Paul has this to say to the Ephesian Elders "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the Church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock so be on your guard!"
Pulling the various strands of this passage together what do we have then? What was Jesus telling his listeners? In fact, whom was he actually talking to?
Well, it seems that Jesus was addressing his words to the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were still desperately trying to collect enough evidence to get Jesus silenced. They hadn't got a clue what he was going on about, but they were absolutely convinced that Jesus was trying to undermine their authority as the true spiritual leaders of the day.
Whether it was the style of Jesus' teaching through allegory and parable, or simply that they were blind to the truth that was standing in front of them who can say. That they failed to connect Jesus' words with Ezekiel chapter 34 which shouts out "Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not the shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourself with the wool and slaughter the choice animals but you do not take care of the flock." is pretty obvious. Yet it was certainly a passage that they would have been familiar with.
So within this passage there are underlying themes. The first concerns those who would call themselves religious leaders and teachers. There are many, says Jesus who would like to think there is a tradesman's entrance to the sheepfold, the Kingdom of God if you prefer (which is how I interpret the idea of the sheepfold).
They think there's a back door that can be squeezed through, or an open window that can be prized open enough to gain access. But they will be found out for what they are - Jesus uses the terms thieves and robbers for those who would try and lead their followers through anything but the front door.
Have you ever been to an event or club where the guy on the door has stamped the back of your hand with a mark as you enter, so that you can prove you came in the right entrance and didn't sneak in some other way.
Well, says Jesus there are many who try and try and sneak in some other way, sometimes without realising what they're doing. But it's the shepherd who leads his sheep through the gate, who knows his sheep, who cares for his sheep. Those who try and enter by any other means will be revealed for what they are
Paul in Galatians says "I bear on my body the marks of Jesus"
As for safety, for being saved, for salvation, there is only one entrance, says Jesus. It's not through the Law, fancy words, sacrifice or rituals. It's through me. Those who came before had ulterior motives, they had their own self-interests at the heart of what they preached. They were effectively thieves and robbers. They stole not only money but souls.
"I am the entrance gate," says Jesus. "They came to steal and destroy. I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full."
Although John in his Gospel has Jesus as the centre of this passage with the two "I ams" I'm sure it's to the listeners that these words are aimed, every bit as much as the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. There is a very real sense in saying that within these few verses is summed up the whole mystery of the Gospel, the Good News of Salvation.
Let's pick up on the important points
We are precious in the eyes of Jesus. He doesn't just know us in the sense that a farmer knows his cows by the name of Daisy or Ermintrude. "I know my sheep and my sheep know me - JUST AS THE FATHER KNOWS ME AND I KNOW THE FATHER." This is the depth of the relationship that Jesus wants to establish with us. It's the love of a father, family love, a two-way relationship of trust, care and faith. Not only that, but he loved us before we even knew him, and goes on loving people into his sheepfold, his Kingdom. "I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd."
We are loved to the ultimate. "Greater love has no man than that he lays down his life for a friend." What does Jesus tell us here? " I lay down my life for the sheep No-one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord."
There are others who would distract us, scatter us, persuade us to venture far from the safety of the sheepfold - these are the thieves and the robbers that Jesus talks about. But if we stay close to the shepherd this false teaching will not deceive us. "The sheep know the shepherd's voice, but they will never follow a stranger; in fact they will run away from him because they do not recognise a stranger's voice"
The picture we form in our minds of a sheepfold might be one of being hemmed in, claustrophobic maybe. Yes, it's safe in here surrounded by solid walls and a doorway that's guarded by the one who knows everyone who belongs here, but I need to move around, stretch my wings now and then. No problem! Remember I talked about the doorman who stamps your hand with a mark as you enter?
Well one of the reasons for that is that it serves as a pass-out, you show your hand and he lets you go in and out as you will, because he knows you belong there legitimately. Did you catch verse 9 where it says " he will come in and go out, and find pasture"
True believers are at home in Christ; when they go out, they are not shut out as strangers, but are free to come in again; when they come in, they are not shut in as trespassers, but are free to go out. They go out to the field in the morning, they come into the fold at night; and in both the Shepherd leads and cares for them, and they find pasture in both: grass in the field, fodder in the fold. Their needs are catered for.
This is the freedom of the sheepfold, of the Kingdom of God, which is the sheepfold that we as believers belong to. Within the fellowship of the Kingdom of God we are fed and watered by the Spirit, but our spiritual life and fellowship is not confined to the four walls of a Church, it goes out with us as we leave surrounded and protected by his loving arms.
Fifthly it is through Jesus that we find entry to the sheepfold. There is no other way to know the intimate fellowship that is possible with Jesus and His Father. And no one is ever forced to follow that path. Jesus never mentions sheepdogs herding up the sheep. They hear and follow the shepherd's voice, they listen to his words. We are only ever loved into the Kingdom of God, never forced. Loved to the ultimate, loved to the point of sacrifice on a cross.
What this passage teaches us more than anything else is how much we are loved. We were loved even before we entered the Kingdom of God, before we heard the Shepherd's voice and followed. Loved to the cross and beyond. Outside these walls, within our circle of family, friends and work-mates there are many who are also hearing that voice.
It is our responsibility to lead them in the right direction, to love them into the Kingdom; to the safety of the family of God; to the knowledge that they are precious in the eyes of God and to salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Good Shepherd of His sheep.