These first ten verses of John chapter 10 contain two iterations of the same metaphor – Jesus images himself as a gate by which he provides care and intimacy, protection and security, provision and abundance for his sheep. This image has been coopted by theologians and Christians across the ages, paired with something Jesus says later in the gospel about being the way, truth and light as a kind of prooftext that Jesus somehow stands guard against access to the One he calls Father. And, I suppose, that is one way of reading this passage – after all, the purpose of a gate is to control the entry to an enclosed area. What is so ironic to me about this usage, though, is that even in the metaphor the gate does not keep away the thieves, bandits, and strangers.
What seems more significant to me in this passage is the theme of recognition. And if we look at the larger context in which our passage lies, this becomes even more clear. This literary unit begins with Jesus healing a man born blind, which leads to considerable controversy among the religious leaders and lawmakers. Unable to accept the testimony of the man who had been blind, they throw him out of the community. Jesus, and by extension, the one who Jesus healed, were threats to the sense of religious
certainty the leaders both claimed and promised through their teaching. Those who should have recognized the work of God were unable to see; in contrast, the blind man’s physical sight was restored, but so was his spiritual sight, his ability to recognize Jesus as the Son of Man.
Jesus explained that he came to bring sight to the blind and to blind those who claimed to have sight. The religious leaders took offense to this and so Jesus gives them a figure of speech to try to help them understand. The sheep in the pen belong to the Shepherd; he calls them by name; they recognize his voice because they know him. There are other voices – voices that belong to the thieves, bandits, and strangers. Those voices belong to the ones who are intent on killing, stealing, and destroying – they
bring words of division, operate within ideologies of scarcity, make false promises of protection. But the sheep do not recognize their voices because they do not know to whom they belong.
The mutual recognition between the Shepherd and the sheep is born out of relationship; the sheep trust the Shepherd because they both know and are known by him. When Jesus says that he is the gate, he is not suggesting that he bars access to this relationship – he does not keep some sheep out and let some in. He is the gate in the sense that through him, the doors to deep and abiding relationship with the God who creates, redeems, and sustains are thrown open. The Shepherd calls each of us by name and all we must do to answer is follow.
And in order to follow, we must learn how to recognize the voice of the Shepherd, to distinguish it from all of the other voices that belong to the ones intent on killing, stealing, and destroying. Through dedicating ourselves to the teachings of the apostles, to prayer, to fellowship with one another, and to the breaking of bread, we attune our ears to the tone and tenor of Jesus’ voice. We begin to see that what separates his voice from all others is what Michael Curry calls a “rubric of love.” Jesus’ words to us, his guidance and his commands will always lead us to deeper experiences of love.
Though our Gospel reading today ends with the image of Jesus as gate, the next verse in John chapter 10 has Jesus shifting the metaphor to Shepherd. Jesus is the Shepherd who cares for us, who guides and leads us, who opens the way for fellowship with God. He is the Shepherd who knows each one of us by name. There is something beautiful about this image – an intimacy about God’s knowledge of me in all of my particularities. Jesus knows me not just as one specimen of the human race, but as Natalie Johnson, as the strange bundle of peculiarities that make me, me.
It is this Jesus, who knows and loves me and you, that opens a path to a kind of life that actually delivers on its promise. It is life abundant! Full of beauty and wonder and awe. There is no end to the abundance that Jesus offers us, there is only more!Jesus is calling you to this life of abundance.
Do you recognize his voice in your life? Do you hear him calling you by name, telling you that he loves you? No matter where you are in your life, no matter your physical or mental state, no matter your skepticism or flat out exhaustion – Jesus is meeting you where you are at and he calls out to you. He invites you to know him as he knows you, to love him as he loves you. He desires to lead you into green pastures and beside still waters. Will you answer him today? Will you follow him into the depths of abundant life?