Tuesday, May 9, 2017

I am the Gate

I am the Gate from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Psalm 23 (KJV)
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. 
3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 
5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. 
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

John 10:1-10
1"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 bought 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.

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.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

"Breathe in God's mercies...Breathe out God's mercies to others...Breathe in God's mercies...Breathe out God's mercies to others...Breathe in God's mercies...Breathe out God's mercies to others..."

I had a chance to take a couple of classes with Dr. Rodger Nishioka while I was in seminary, and every class opened with that call to prayer. As he launched into his professorial prayer, we pupils were left with the reminder that serving the Lord can become as natural as breathing. Dr. Nishioka's call to prayer re-directed our natural tendencies towards devotion to God and to serving others.

When Jesus speaks in parables, I like to think of him taking a similar approach. While I, and other preacher-types, cloister ourselves away to develop motifs and images for our sermons, our blessed savior is out walking with his followers and sees an ordinary event, and re-interprets it to reveal the face of God, peering through the cracks in creation.

I imaging him walking along, and seeing a sheepfold, and pointing it out to his followers: "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." The sheepfold imagery is unveiled in front of those who had just seen Jesus heal a man born blind. Jesus's figure-of-speech teaching falls on the ears of the Pharisees who comically debated the healing before driving the newly-sighted man out. Having seen God's works revealed in the healing of a man born blind, Jesus's followers and the Pharisees are now confronted with this sheep-and-shepherd parable.

Now, as I read this story in the weeks following Easter, I'm reading it through the resurrection that we know is yet to come. I'm reading it with words of the benediction from the book of Hebrews with which I bless us before we depart in my mouth."...the God of peace who brought back from the dead that great shepherd of the sheep, our Lord Jesus Christ," Jesus has shown the power of God, now he is about to make a great "I Am" statement where he reveals something of who God the Son is.

I am expecting "I am the Good Shepherd." We've even set it up by with reading "The LORD is my shepherd..." Go ahead Jesus, tell us who you are, and then we can shoot judgy glances at whomever we decide are climbing in by another way, thieves and bandits and strangers.

But Jesus sidesteps my expectation. "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep." The gate? But I had this whole "thou leaders me beside still waters..." thing I was going to do. You know, how our life in Christ is always easy and we never have to struggle with anything besides drinking up the providence of God!

But we stopped short of "I am the good shepherd." We're still at "I am the gate." I'd imagine the disciples, who already did not understand what Jesus was saying to them, were also thrown off. Instead of a person, Jesus compares himself to a mechanism. “I am…” the means by which the sheep are kept in the sheepfold. “I am…” the way that the shepherd enters, and by which the sheep depart to follow.

Jesus of Nazareth, fully human, fully God, is what enables us God to be with us, and what enables us to follow God out into the green pastures and beside the still waters where the LORD is leading us. Without Christ, we would either be isolated inside the pen, or scattered throughout the fields.

The church has a good shepherd, but we have not always been good sheep. We do follow strangers, we do get taken up by thieves and bandits, and we end up following and proclaiming news that is not all that good. The church throughout its history has made missteps that are more likely to drive people away from the LORD than to bring them close.

With all the shouting of strangers, thieves, and bandits, sometimes our fellow sheep cannot even hear the voice of the shepherd for a time.

As a pastor, one of my functions is to be a a kind of theologian in residence. I love getting questions from the church, and wrestling with the heavy duty issues that those questions often represent.

The question of “who is saved?” comes up frequently. Many churches are structured with the assumption that most everybody belongs to a church somewhere. We’re really comfortable with the idea that it doesn’t matter where you worship, so long as you belong to a church, you’re saved.

But the landscape has changed around us. More and more of us know people who do not belong to any congregation. We meet people who are not members anywhere, and aren’t really looking for a place to worship God. More than meet them, we befriend them and love them, and worry about them.

So folks ask me who is saved. They’re worried about those whom they love who either haven’t heard the voice of the shepherd, or don’t recognize it when they do hear it.

“So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.’” Without the gate, all the sheep are cut off from the shepherd. Without Jesus, all people are cut off from the presence of God. Jesus does not, however, say “Belief in me is the gate.”

Maybe that’s a narrow distinction, but it is, I think, an important one. Jesus is the means by which we are saved, belief in Jesus means that we have recognized the gate for what it is.

But the gate is built in already. The LORD, who is our shepherd, can enter in and be with us already. Because the gate is established, the shepherd can keep calling the sheep until they learn to recognize his voice as belonging to one who loves and protects them, not to a stranger.

“I am the gate, Whoever enters by me will be saved…” It is not in answering the shepherds call that we are saved, it is in entering the gate through Jesus, who we know, during this Easter season, has already died and risen to bring us into salvation.

The gate also allows us to leave the sheepfold. We’re not stuck there. "As the gate leading to the pasture, Jesus is the way the sheep must pass to attain the food of God's promise.” The gate provides salvation, but also requires discipleship if we want to find ourselves led beside still waters, paths of righteousness. “I am the gate”, Jesus says, and God brings us in and leads us out to find pasture. Our salvation is not up to us, but our living life abundantly means we have to trust our shepherd, the LORD, and we have to pass through the gate, Jesus, many times as we continue to learn to trust and to follow.

Sometimes it’s nothing complicated, just going along with our fellow sheep. Sometimes it’s what we would do anyway, but the discipleship in this passage means that instead of doing those things for our own benefit, we do it through Jesus. Then even our breathing can become a prayer.

"Breathe in God's mercies...Breathe out God's mercies to others...Breathe in God's mercies...Breathe out God's mercies to others...Breathe in God's mercies...Breathe out God's mercies to others..."

We are learning to recognize the voice of the LORD, our shepherd. “The Son [is] the one gate through which God is fully known.” If we want to learn to recognize our shepherd, we’ve got to learn to pass through the gate. We see God most fully in Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ the Lord.

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