pointed out to me that this Sunday is not so much “Good Shepherd” Sunday as “I am the gate” Sunday. I think that’s accurate. I can’t remember have a Good Shepherd Sunday in which shepherding made such minimal appearance, but then maybe I’m just blocking that out of my mind. Good Shepherd Sunday so often seems to be a day when I want to say to Jesus, "That metaphor’s just not working, dude. You’re getting all tied up in knots there. Who are the sheep exactly? Who are the thieves and robbers?" So just a couple of words to get this passage in context before actually finding some reason for this metaphor.
Do you remember a few weeks ago during Lent, hearing that really long gospel reading about the man born blind?
It ends with Jesus saying he came so that “those who are blind may see and those who see may become blind,” which makes the Pharisees perk right up and say, “You’re not saying we’re blind, are you?” And Jesus saying, well, um, yes (though not in exactly those words).
There’s a reason I’m telling you all of this. And that’s because today’s gospel picks up right there and is actually a continuation of that narrative. Jesus’ audience is these spiritual leaders who had kicked the man born blind out of the synagogue and the man who had been kicked out.
And that’s why I think the metaphor of the gate is an important one. Jesus is saying to the people who drove this man out of the synagogue, "You’re not the ones who determine who’s in or who’s out. You may think you control that, but you know what? You don’t. I am the gate. I’m the one who determines that.
"And here’s what else: 'in' and 'out' isn’t even where you think it is. The locus is somewhere else entirely. You think you’re kicking someone out, but you don’t even know where the sheepfold is. And I tell you what," Jesus says, "it is not determined by membership in the synagogue."
As best I can tell looking at the text, the man born blind is still standing there during all of this. And I can only imagine after this traumatic day, unexpectedly seeing for the first time and being subject to an interrogation by religious officials who harangue you and won’t believe a word of what you say and being driven out of the synagogue…it must have been a balm to hear that this insult of being “driven out” didn’t matter, that there was somewhere else, and in this somewhere else, He. Was. In. And no one could take that away from him. No thieves and bandits could take that away. He had been given life, abundantly.
There are two things I think we can take from this story for ourselves. The first is a caution, and the second a joy.
The caution is this: We are not the gate. We don’t get to determine, in our great wisdom, who is in or who is out. Though we may establish levels of behavior we want to see lived out in our churches and communities, we need to remember that these levels are based on our personal taste and comfort and have little—-maybe even nothing to do with where someone stands in the kingdom of God. And they certainly have nothing to do with anyone’s intrinsic worth or value.
And the joy is this: If Jesus says we’re in, then we’re in. We’re not out just because someone says we’re out. No one has control of the center but Jesus, and the center may be far from where we are told it is. Being in the sheepfold may have little—maybe even nothing to do with the standards of proper Christian behavior we have set for ourselves. Being in the sheepfold instead has everything to do with where Jesus is.
Jesus is the true and only gate. All our other petty rules and standards are unimportant. If you feel you must guard the community against incursions, remember you are not the gate and the locus of community may not be where you think it is. And if you feel you are an outsider, know this: the people around you who tell you you are an outsider, they have no authority to do so. In fact, they may be wandering lost in the wilderness somewhere. The center is where Jesus is. That is where you will find abundant life. That is where you want to be.