This Sunday, the Church celebrates the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s act of protest that gave birth to Protestant denominations. Martin Luther’s desire to reform the church came from a belief that God is present with each of us, and that no rules of man’s creation can interfere with that. In this week’s scripture from John chapter 10, we find that Jesus preached the same message in His day. The flock knows the voice of the shepherd, and it is to follow the calling of that voice. Vernon writes that, as it was in the case of reforming the Church in Jesus and Martin Luther’s times, so it is with reforming our own lives today.
“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. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
This is Reformation Sunday. It is a day to remember the call back to our core values. We are ‘saved by faith alone’ and the ‘primacy of scriptures’. This passage can easily be seen as the first reformation. It was Jesus’ re-forming a two thousand year old faith and recalling the core values of Yahweh—Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. Over time the institution of religion is prone to petrify into rules and regulations that end up placing the religious experience in the hands of the self righteous. When that happens, the flock suffers. The promises of love and inclusion become exclusionary and judgmental. It is one of the major secular complaints about religion in our day.
On first reading, these verses from Chapter 10 can be read to say that this passage supports the exclusivity of the Christian way—”I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.” It seems clear enough, only Christians get saved. But I will argue the exact opposite. The human desire to know ‘who is in and who out’ is what actually interferes with our ability to hear the core focus of Jesus’ teaching. Who is in or who is out—who ‘sees’ and who is ‘saved’ can not be determined by human measure. That is God’s prerogative. Jesus inverted (and re-formed) what seeing and what faithful meant.
This passage requires that we see both its literary and historical context. The literary context is that in John, there is a repeating pattern of sign (miraculous event), dialogue (conversation), and discourse (an explanation of larger meaning). Knowing this pattern allows us to see that Chapter nine provided the sign and the dialogue—Jesus healing of a blind man on the Sabbath–and these verses in chapter 10 provide the discourse. The primary focus for Jesus in this discourse was to challenge the religious leaders claim that they knew who was pure and acceptable in the sight of God. It is not about the unacceptability of Gandhi in the kingdom because he was not a Christian. Just as in Jesus’ day, being a good Jew was a whole lot more complicated than obeying Sabbath laws, following Jesus is a whole lot more complicated than our verbal confessions.
In the first century, only obedient Jews were truly pure and acceptable—others need not apply. It was very exclusive. The criteria for admission and the means to honor God was adherence to the law. And even then, it was difficult, if not impossible for non-Jews to be included on an equal basis. Religious authority of that day was determined by what was required to be included—what was required to be acceptable to God. The Sabbath laws were not just picky minutia, they were the gateway to God. But Jesus pointedly rebukes that opinion. (Later, his inclusiveness extended to the gentiles and was just as radical in its day as suggesting that the un-churched and ‘non christian’ are part of God’s kingdom).
By breaking Sabbath rules in the previous chapter, Jesus challenged the understanding and priorities of the conventional faith. He was re-forming two thousand years of tradition. All of the rules, regulations and commandments were summed up in: “Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself.” Human needs take precedence over rules, even Sabbath rules. He was pronouncing a rebuke and a judgment upon the Pharisees. As he told the blind man: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
Jesus insisted that our relationship with God is God-given and is not contingent upon our obedience. The protection and feeding of God’s children is God’s intention for us. Failure to see this spiritual truth is blindness of the Pharisees.
It is ironic that the most human reaction to such grace is not gratitude but an attempt to manage it and an attempt to figure how to keep it. To depend upon grace is to lose control of love but continue to trust its presence. Yet, every child seeks to ensure the continuance of their parent’s love by pleasing them. And sadly the reverse is true, children would rather feel guilty—to believe mistreatment is their fault and somehow ‘deserved’ than face the reality that ultimately they cannot manage either the good or the bad in their lives.
In this discourse, Jesus is explaining what it is most important. Jesus is the shepherd whose job is to protect and nourish. Anyone who does otherwise—especially in the name of righteousness, is leading under false pretenses. You might as well be a thief or a bandit. For Jesus, it is the spirit of the law which counts—not whether you are a Jew a Samaritan or a Muslim. The constant is that the shepherd exists for the welfare of the sheep — compassion is what matters. Jesus’ judgment is that mindfulness, inclusiveness and compassion are the indicators of our faith. Everything else comes second and is more likely in the service of self righteousness rather than service to God.
This makes our faith both simpler and harder. It saves us from thousands of hairsplitting definitions but leads us to a life of ambiguity and reliance upon God. As hard as we might try, we can only move in the direction of God’s will. Because we are not God, we can never be certain. But, though we can not measure where we stand or even whether we are doing right, we always remain protected and fed by the shepherd. Living in that paradox is the gateway to salvation. Jesus is both shepherd and gate. He protects, he nourishes and he shows us the way to abundant life. Independent of any material circumstance or suffering we encounter, we are safe with God.
The problem of real life is identifying Jesus’ voice amid the many voices claiming his name. Without putting too fine a point on it, Jesus said, actions speak louder than words. It is not OK to say you care for people while you ignore the widows and orphans. It is not OK to say you worship God when you disdain the immigrant.
There are many false voices and many tempting voices. People promise more than they can deliver and some promise dishonestly. Our political leaders continually offer competing claims about what is good for us. But as often as not, their interest is more likely their reelection or the interest of the few—not the good of the whole flock. Advertisers are constantly offering us things we didn’t know we needed—as if they are acting in our behalf. Consumerism is not the path to the abundant life. Religions and sects claim exclusivity and certainty and use their pronouncements to judge and reject those who think differently.
More personally, we always struggle with our true motives. It is hard to know if any particular thing we do is loving. We would like to believe we are acting on another’s behalf but we must always be aware that our self interest may be what is really at stake. Discerning God’s will in the face of our own desires is the never ending responsibility of a Christian. For a Christian, every act and every decision must be viewed through the lens of ‘what is loving?’
As we struggle with ‘doing right’ we want answers. But, in the famous words of Martin Luther, all we can do is ‘sin boldly.’ We can study God’s word, we can bring ourselves before God in prayer but we must act without the certainty of being right. We will make mistakes. In real life, the only certainty we have is that God is with us. That was the promise and the challenge of Jesus’ reformation; it was the promise and the challenge of the Protestant reformation and it is the promise and challenge for the reforming of our lives.
The shepherd is there for the sheep and we are called to follow him. He will lead us, protect us and feed us. His way is the gateway to abundant life. This is the criteria by which we are judged and the basis of our decisions and actions in the world.
It should matter that we are Christian. It should show up in the way we live our lives. Listen for his voice. Trust in his love for you. He is the good shepherd and the gateway to abundant life. Let it be so.