The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke narrate the story of Jesus – where he traveled, what he taught, and who he healed. John took a different approach to his gospel. He focused on elucidating who Jesus is.
Further, John thought in terms of figures of speech. It does not require a seminary education to reach this conclusion. He tips us off in the very first sentence of his gospel when he writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And it does not end with the opening chapter. Throughout his gospel, John employed numerous metaphors to paint his portrait of Jesus.
John knew that there was no one single figure of speech that could capture the essence of the man from Nazareth, so he peppered his gospel with seven “I am” statements to help us grasp the complexity and completeness of Jesus. It is in John’s Gospel that Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” But before we can completely unpack the meaning of that description, Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world.”
All right, we need to wrap our minds around bread and light. Got it. However, then Jesus says, “I am the true vine,” and then “I am the resurrection and the life,” and then “I am the way and the truth and the life.” And while we are still grappling with these metaphors, today’s passage serves up yet another. Jesus says, “I am the gate,” and then in the verse that follows today’s reading, “I am the good shepherd.” You simply cannot read the Gospel of John and turn Jesus into a cardboard cut-out. He is as multi-dimensional as one can imagine.
If you followed along closely as I read today’s passage, you may have realized just how many metaphors John can cram into a handful of verses. He provides us with sheep, sheepfold, shepherd, thieves, bandits, pasture, gate, and gatekeeper.
Commenting on this multiplicity of metaphors, a colleague says, “It’s tempting to treat this section of Scripture as if it’s written in some obscure code. As if our job is to crack its many secrets. What exactly does the sheepfold represent? Heaven? The Church? Our hearts? Who are the thieves and bandits? Are they different from the strangers? What about the gatekeeper? Is the gatekeeper God? The Holy Spirit? Jesus himself? No, wait, how can Jesus be the gatekeeper if he’s the gate? Doesn’t he say he’s the gate — twice? Actually, how can he be the gatekeeper or the gate, if he’s the shepherd?”1 It is tempting to dig so far down into the weeds that we become sidetracked.
The passage obviously echoes the well-known 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my Shepherd.” This was a powerful metaphor in an agrarian society where sheep and shepherds were commonplace. But does it work for 21st Century North Americans, many of whom have never even seen a shepherd?
I think it does. Jesus refers to himself as the shepherd and his followers as sheep. Sheep are vulnerable animals who need someone to guide and protect them. Sheep cannot simply survive on their own; they rely on someone to lead them to food and water, and to protect them from predators. Jesus warns his followers to keep an eye out for those he refers to as thieves and bandits.
However, it’s not the warning that captures my attention. Rather, it is the odd metaphor he uses for himself. When we hear Jesus say, “I am the bread of life” or “I am the light of the world” or “I am the resurrection and the life,” we smile and nod. But our passage today includes this peculiar “I am” statement. Jesus says, “I am the gate.” What is that supposed to mean?
I think a couple of things. First, a gate is used for protection. The shepherd leads the sheep into a sheepfold – a large animal pen – and then closes the gate behind them so that no predator can invade. They can shelter in place when danger is nearby.
However, closing off the outside is not the only function of a gate, is it? A gate is also the opening that allows one to leave a closed-in space in order to venture out into other pastures. A new idea may be like a gate that opens our mind to a deeper understanding. Poet Mary Oliver writes, “I have become older and, cherishing what I have learned, I have become younger.”
When we are imprisoned by guilt, Jesus opens the gate to forgiveness. When we are too wrapped up in ourselves, Jesus opens the gate to a life of service.
One theologian says that the “most important single move in the life of faith is to escape the prison of self, the dungeon of self-absorption.”2 Jesus frees us to live a life of love.
Jesus calls himself the gate, then tells us where this gate will lead us. He says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jesus is the gate that opens up to an abundant life.
These days many are searching. They are searching for a rich, beautiful, soul-nourishing way of living.
Are you genuinely grateful for the blessings you enjoy or are you the victim of expectation creep? Does gratitude kindle in your chest deep feelings of joy or does discontent keep driving you to chase after a higher and higher standard of living? Each time you reach your expectations, do they creep just out of reach so that you are always striving for an elusive goal? What constitutes an abundant life?
An abundant life is characterized by many things. It is a life of gratitude; one in which we are forever giving thanks for the blessings of life. It is a life of purpose. We use our unique gifts to touch the lives of others in positive ways which not only buoys them, but brings us satisfaction. An abundant life is a life of generosity. Sharing our resources with people in need sparks joy in our lives.
An abundant life welcomes the grace of God. We are not perfect. We do things we ought not do, and we fail to do things we ought to do. We can wallow in guilt and illicit people’s pity or we can accept the fact that we fall short of God’s way and embrace God’s grace. Then, in accepting God’s grace for ourselves, we can come to see that God’s grace is incredibly expansive. God loves and forgives those we have a difficult time loving.
A colleague recalls a story her theology professor told when she was in seminary. He once saw a political rally in Atlanta. He said there were “people lined up on both sides of the street, placards in hands, marching and shouting slogans. A man on one side of the debate walked over to a woman on the other side. They began speaking. He told her that he was a Christian and asked if she was saved. She told him she was and that she was very involved in her church.”
“The man then asked her if she knew that she was going to hell for what she was standing for at that rally. The woman replied, ‘I look forward to eating at a table with you in heaven.’ After hearing her words, he looked her straight in her eyes and said, ‘If I get to heaven and you are there, I am promptly getting my hat and choosing to go to hell!’”
“That man was so enraged by her claim that God’s grace could include even her, someone with whom he vehemently disagreed, that he would rather choose condemnation than see that kind of grace lived out for eternity.”3 To live an abundant life is to embrace rather than reject the expansive love of God.
Many imagine that an abundant life is the result of one’s circumstances. When life is beautiful and we have all and more than we need; when love is shared and the road we travel is smooth and straight, life is rich and rewarding. Such moments are precious and we ought to fully embrace them. However, I don’t think that fully captures what Jesus means when he speaks of an abundant life. An abundant life is also a life filled with grace and gratitude regardless of our circumstances. An abundant life can also be obtained when the road we travel is grueling and life turns harsh.
The Reverend Dr. Darren Kennedy is a professor at the oldest Protestant seminary in the Middle East. Growing up, he was a member of Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City. He recalls “a young man named Paul Childs who was his youth leader. He remembers that Paul was social, funny, athletic, and a bit mischievous – that’s what made him such a great junior high youth leader. Kennedy looked up to Paul as an ideal model of a Christian. He loved people and reflected the love of Christ to him when he was a teenager.”
“Paul was also a competitive triathlete and on September 7, 1986. Paul was so far ahead at the bike stage of the race that a police officer waved a truck across the course. Paul came over a crest, struck the truck, and died instantly. It was a tragic accident with terrible consequences. Thirty-five years later, Kennedy still carries Paul’s picture in his wallet.”
“Paul’s parents were members of the Village Church, and they did something astonishing in spite of their crushing grief. They knew that what happened was an accident. It was utterly void of malice. They also knew that there was a good chance that feelings of guilt would destroy the people who were involved. It became unbearable for Paul’s parents to think that Paul’s life could have been lived so fully for grace, only to torment others in his death. So they called one of the pastors of their church and said, ‘Could you please invite the police officer, the truck driver, and the two race volunteers to come over to our home for tea and lemon bars?’ The four went to the parents’ home and they all wept together. They spoke of Paul, they spoke of forgiveness, and they spoke of hope.”4
The tragedy could have made Paul’s parents bitter and resentful. It could have saddled the police, truck driver, and race organizers with searing guilt. But because Paul’s parents had a deep faith in the one who said, “I am the gate,” they opened the gate to healing and hope. Clearly, they knew something about what it means to live an abundant life.
May each of us draw closer to the abundant life God urges us to live.
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