Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Acts 2:42-47+Psalm 23+1 Peter 2:19-25+John 10:1-10

Every year on this 4th Sunday of Easter, we get a shepherd story. This day is popularly called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of this, based on verse 11 of this chapter when Jesus calls himself just that, the Good Shepherd.

It can be a challenge to preach on this theme year after year, because, really, what do most of us know about sheep? I believe I told you last year about my days as a shepherd, tending the sheep at St. Peter’s in the Great Valley in Malvern, Pennsylvania, where our cover photo was taken. One of my favorite Twitter follows is a sheep farmer in the Lake District of England, where the often beautiful and sometimes brutal world of sheep farming is on full display. And, what can I say, I’m a big fan of Shaun the Sheep, a stop-motion animated series set in the north of England about a smart and adventurous sheep named Shaun who does his best to liven-up the mostly mundane lives of the other livestock. Seriously. It’s very funny.

But beyond my own shepherding days and my vicarious interest in sheep on Twitter and in cartoons, how much do any of us really know about sheep farming?

This is the first thing that makes it hard for us to understand what Jesus is trying to say. In fact, all of his references to agriculture and even net-fishing are not things that we generally experience firsthand. His original audience would have understood about sheep, but even they didn’t really get what he was saying. In verse six, we read, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” At the end of this Good Shepherd part of John’s 10th chapter, it says, “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”

If they didn’t understand, those who were with him in the flesh, how are we supposed to?

In Matthew and Mark, the text is explicit that Jesus spoke in parables – stories – that they did not understand a lot of the time until he explained them, usually in private, to his disciples. Here in John, we get less explicit explanation, but we do get some clues about meaning.

I read somewhere this week that there is now a shortage of jigsaw puzzles because so many people are hunkering down at home looking for things to keep them occupied. I love a good jigsaw puzzle, and maybe that’s why I like John’s gospel so much. You can stare at one or two little pieces of it and wonder where those things belong or what on earth they mean, but then, when you take a piece from here or another from there, the pieces sometimes begin to fall into place.

There are seven times in John where Jesus says the words, “I am.”

“I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35, 41, 48, 51)

“I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12)

“I am the gate for the sheep.” (John 10:7, 9)

“I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11, 14)

“I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25)

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

“I am the true vine.” (John 15:1, 5)

Now, I could preach a sermon on each one of these, and I think I probably have, but taken in sum, as pieces of a puzzle, they all tell us something about who Jesus is: the one who feeds, protects, shows the way, and saves us. A gate can be something that keeps you safe inside or it can be something that locks you out. Today’s gate imagery looks very different, depending on which side of it you might be on. Sadly, this is one of those exclusionary passages that folks love to use to say who is in and who is out, who is saved and who is not.

I don’t believe that’s the way Jesus means it, though.

Sheep are brought into the fold for the night for protection, to be looked over for injuries, to be fed when there isn’t enough grass in the pasture, and then they are sent out again. They don’t get to stay inside. No, the shepherd leads them back out to pasture, leading them to food, by streams of water, through the valley of the shadow of death where the predators are.

Jesus does not say that he opens and closes the gate for the sheep. He says that he is the gate. When we have closed ourselves off from the world, figuratively speaking, shut out those in need; judged those we deem unworthy; tried to claim the resurrection as our personal talisman; Jesus frees us. It is Jesus who is the gate of our heart, of our faith. It is Jesus who calls us together to be fed with the Word of God and the Bread of Life and then sends us beyond the sheepfold.

It is not our work to say who comes and who goes out. Jesus is very clear that he’s got the sheep not within the fold, and he’s going to take care of that. If Jesus is the Way, all we need to worry about is following that way.

These “I am” statements, continuing with the puzzle analogy, helped get Jesus into trouble with the religious leaders. There is actually an eighth appearance of the Greek words ἐγὼ εἰμί (I am) at the end of chapter eight when Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58). Jesus is saying he has been around since before Abraham the patriarch, before the creation of the people of Israel, or, as John begins this gospel, “In the beginning was the word.” I am. “I am who I am,” God says to Moses on Sinai. I am, Jesus says.

We cannot grasp God, who and what God is. But we can get clues, like pieces of a puzzle. And the overarching message is that God is a God of love. Jesus came to show us the height and breadth and depth of God’s love even to the point of death. And then he broke the bonds of death, declaring to us that death does not have the last word; that life and love triumph.

So if we are considering the gate as a barrier to anything that doesn’t look like love, we are doing it wrong. Our puzzle has not been put together quite right. The gate is the way to the liberating and life-giving love of God in Christ Jesus.

In his video message this week, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry posed the question, “What does love look like?” As we consider re-opening our community, our businesses, our schools, and our places of worship, what does love look like? As I see it, that means being as careful as we can to keep people safe and well. No, there will never be any guarantees of that, but the care of people is the first concern.

What does love look like when you’re talking about a gate? It protects everybody. It frees everybody. It opens our hearts to the world in love and compassion. That’s what love looks like.

ASEPSermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas