Our Gate and Shepherd
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Jesus said, “I AM the gate for the sheep.” (John 10:7). “I AM the good shepherd.” (John 10:11) These are not throwaway lines in the gospel of John, but icons. We are meant to look through them like windows that open into the inner life of God. Every time Jesus uses the phrase ego eimi,” I AM, he is connecting his own identity with the great I AM—Yahweh—whom Moses heard after he took off his shoes beside the burning bush because he was standing on holy ground.
It sounds as if Jesus has mixed his metaphors. It’s hard to imagine in what way Gates and Shepherds go together. That is, until we understand ancient sheepfolds didn’t have a door. Once all the sheep were safely inside, the shepherd would lie down in the opening and literally become the gate to the enclosure. The shepherd’s body was the gate. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Jesus says. (v. 11b) The shepherd placed his body between the sheep and anything that might harm them.
Ancient shepherds routinely lead their sheep into a pen, or “sheepfold” with lots of other sheep belonging to other shepherds. It was a safe place to keep them from harm, prevent them from wandering off, or getting lost. When it came time to leave, there wasn’t any problem sorting out the sheep of various shepherds. Once the sheep heard the voice of their shepherd, they sorted themselves out and followed, because over time they had learned to trust in the care and compassion of their particular shepherd.
Jesus is the door that closes to protect us, and the door that opens out beside still waters. Jesus the gate frees us from the prison of scarcity mentality. Jesus the shepherd shows us the path to abundant life, which has nothing to do with what we buy, put in our body, what we wear, or how we look. Trust in Jesus breaks us out of that pen.
Abundant living is a matter of walking through the right doors. The life to which Jesus call us is life that passes through the grace of God. Phony grace, false security, and make-believe shepherds abound—and so do misleading doorways.
Pastor Peter Marty has said, “The idea of Jesus being the access door to a new world of living and being is something that people in bondage tend to appreciate more easily. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once noted the advantage of celebrating Easter from inside a prison cell. You become entirely aware, he reasoned, that the door is the only way out. More than that: The door of a cell can only be opened from the outside. When Jesus speaks of saving those who pass through the door, he has rescue in mind. Those who find that door are saved not only from the pernicious activity of phony shepherds on the outside aggressively seeking their soul; they’re also saved from a potentially much worse enemy on the inside—themselves.” (Adaptations from Peter W. Marty, pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Kansas City, MO)
“For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” (1 peter 2:25) Both his shepherding and his sheepfold are essential elements of Jesus’ care for us. But in these bewildering times, perhaps we are more aware of our need for safe places where we can rest and be strengthened in the shelter of one another. In this unexpected era of alternative facts and shifting narratives, I am increasingly aware that I need sanctuary where God may strengthen me, create in me a clean heart, and put a new and right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)
In the middle ages, Christians who entered a radical form of solitary life, seeking the experience of God through prayer and interceding for the world, were called “anchorites.” In her wonderful book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard explained her own experience with that image: “An Anchorite’s hermitage is called an anchorhold; some anchor-holds were simple sheds clamped to the side of a church like a barnacle or a rock,” Dillard wrote. “I think of this house clamped to the side of Tinker Creek as an anchor-hold. It holds me at the anchor to the rock bottom of the creek itself and keeps me steadied in the current, as a sea anchor does.”
We need to find places and persons who will become our anchor-hold. We must examine where we will go, what we will do, and whose company we will seek to provide a steadfast, trustworthy experience that connects our lives indissolubly to God’s love. We need places where we can be constantly re-rooted in the knowledge that “resurrection is not a one-time miracle that proved Jesus was God. Jesus’ death and resurrection name and reveal what is happening everywhere and all the time in God and in everything God creates. Reality is always moving toward resurrection.” (Richard Rohr, “Dying into Life,” Daily Meditation, 5/7/17
Theologian Scott Hahn has said, “memory is more than just a psychological exercise of data retrieval,” but the “faculty that tells us who we are.” We need the Sacraments to remind us of the deep communion we share with all living things; and the abiding solidarity God has fostered among us, claiming and naming all people his beloved children.
Recently, Dorothy Butler Bass, who wrote a book called The Practicing Congregation, described what intentional communities of Christian practice look like. They are communities that focus their energies on supporting one another to enter into the sacred relationships—the sheepfolds—of their lives through the Jesus gate and not by any other way. They are communities that draw upon the experiences of other Christian brothers and sisters, both here and now and around the globe, but also especially those accumulated through the long history of the church, which are time-tested to be effective shaping our faith.
Practicing congregations become communities where people are constantly practicing –rehearsing the way of Jesus –by living simply, by seeking justice, by learning how to pray regularly, by worshiping ardently, by helping one another to share their stories that testify and give witness to Grace, by supporting one another to make personal, one-to-one connections, by remembering the Sabbath, and by observing other spiritual disciplines as seem fitting for you.
Let us create and name our anchor-hold. With the Holy Spirit, let us be a living sanctuary of hope and grace rising from these stones and becoming a sacred shelter among and between us, arising from us and moving beyond us, and flowing to us from those whom God has gathered in other places. Let the our hearts and minds be renewed so that our lives, our families, our society, and our world may be restored. Alleluia. Christ is Risen! R: Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!