Jesus uses two great images in our Gospel today to explain who he is. (John 10:1-10). He speaks of himself first as a Shepherd, and then as a Gate. That first image, the Shepherd, is the one we know best but, because we know it so well, perhaps we don’t think through all that this image means. Yes, we think of Jesus as the gentle shepherd cradling us in his arms and feeding us as new born lambs, and that is a lovely image, indeed an important image, to hold in our minds, especially when we feel sad or lonely or unloved. But we also need to remember that the principal job of a shepherd in those days was to defend the flock. Sheep were the constant target of wolves and lions and bears, and so the shepherd not only had to keep a sharp watch out for such dangers, but also to use whatever means he could to drive them away, and save his sheep.
If you remember the story of David and Goliath from the Bible, (King David as he became) (1 Sam 17:1-11 and 31-51) you may remember how he volunteered to fight Goliath when all the full-grown soldiers wouldn’t. He explained “Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this (man) shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” He then goes out to risk all, apparently unprotected except for a sling and some stones, and using his God-given courage and skill, he kills Goliath with one stone. That’s the kind of shepherd that Jesus is. He is the one who fights for us, even gives his life for us, to save us from sadness and death. That’s why we have those great words in our 2nd Reading (1 Peter 2:20-25) “By his wounds you have been healed.”
The second image that Jesus gives us today is when he describes himself as the gate of the sheepfold. The sheepfold is, of course, another way of talking about the place where God is, and so you might well ask why Jesus thinks we need a gate to get to God; for surely God is love and so is always open to anyone who seeks him? Well yes, but sadly there were people in the time of Jesus, as throughout history, and today, who will use religion as a way of excluding anyone they do not like or do not approve of. They may say they believe in a God of love, but often that love is for them limited only to their kind of people. I heard a man say the other day, “I am not religious, but I am spiritual.” and I wanted to cry out to some religious people, “Look what you have done to Jesus. You have surrounded him with a wall and forgotten that he is the gateway to heaven.”
Jesus was constantly in conflict with so-called religious people in his time who behaved like that. He denounces them like this. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop the. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matt 23:13-15) From this we can see why Jesus was so insistent on being the Gateway to God. He saw how so many people thought of themselves as locked out of heaven. You even hear it today when people say “Oh I’m not good enough to go to Church.”. They are a bit startled when I say that the Christian Church is not a place for good people, but for imperfect people, people like you and me, who know we need the love and mercy of God precisely because we are imperfect.
We can even build walls ourselves. If we think for example that the way to please God is simply to be good, we have missed the point. We have created a wall to keep ourselves and others from God. Of course God wants us to be good, but more than this he wants our love; he wants us to realise our need of him, and to open our hearts to him. That is why when a good man calls Jesus good (Mark 10:17-18) he replies “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”
The risen Jesus remember walks through locked doors. The disciples have locked themselves in because they are sad and frightened and feel that God has deserted them. They have created around themselves a wall of fear. Notice however that Jesus does not destroy the wall, because fear is not wrong. The Shepherd does not pretend he has no fear of the wild animals threatening the sheep. It is because he has fear that he prepares himself to fight them. Jesus does not destroy fear, but instead is a gateway through fear, a gateway through any kind of wall that stops us from knowing God’s love, now and for ever.