Jesus said: “I am the gate.” Jesus said: “I am the gate?” seriously? I remember him saying: “I am the light” and “I am the Way” and “I am the Good Shepherd.” But I am the gate: that one never really stuck with me.
I don’t have a lot of gate stories but we all know that gates generally serve the purpose of keeping that which needs protection in and everything else out. The gate is the place where it is decided who and what may enter and leave.
There is the gate in my backyard, much appreciated as I live next door to a church and it allows some semblance of privacy amidst the relentless comings and goings.
There is the gate at my favourite gardens in my home town of Halifax. The 16 foot ornate wrought iron gate of the public gardens swings both ways and makes your entry into the Victorian style gardens unmistakable. When you go through that gate it is as if you are stepping back into a time and you instinctively walk a little slower and breathe a litter deeper.
I am the gate: as it turns out the shepherd is the gate. The sheepfolds in Biblical times would have been hollowed out along a hill with stone walls as the enclosure. The gate was indeed the shepherd who would lay down in the opening between the stone walls and sleep for the night.
And so if Jesus is the gate I suppose the next question becomes: between what and what? What’s in that sheepfold and what’s on the outside? Inside that gate the sheep are the safest they will ever be. If the shepherd on duty that night is worth his salt those little creatures should be able to rest well. Outside the gate is the potential for any number of dangers, not least of which are predators. BUT… you can’t live in the sheepfold. There’s no food in there: their very lives depend of venturing out into the places of potential danger so that they cannot just survive but live. When we hear Jesus say: “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly” he is likely referring at least in part to the vast space outside the safety of the sheepfold.
Some have suggested that if Jesus is your shepherd you will not have a worry in the world; if you hold Jesus as your personal lord and savior you will have life. These less imaginative interpretations of the story, which pose as orthodoxy, insist that the only path to abundant life is through Jesus. Through this lens, if you want abundant life: you better be sure to follow the right saviour. But there is nothing in here about sin and redemption, nothing in here about following the socially constructed dogma of the Christian right: this is all about abundant life.
In our pluralistic world this exclusive interpretation is not only unhelpful it is detrimental to the gospel. We’ve seen where the worst of that theological bent can lead: the Holocaust being a prime example. Besides, it doesn’t make any sense when you hold up the more holistic message of the gospel: which was by no means about offering God’s love to a select few.
This is where the literalists take us off track insisting that abundant life is belief in Christ, or following some set of church imposed dogma. We don’t actually need to make up the definition of abundant life because it is right there for us in this scripture. Just prior to this “Jesus as gate” passage is the story of Jesus healing a man blind since birth. Can you imagine what that meant for him in that time? It would have been assumed that he was blind because of someone’s sin. He had spent his entire life on the margins, begging, shunned and shamed. Can you imagine what his sight gave him? Abundant life indeed: sight, and most importantly, being included in community, the possibility to contribute and to be valued.
Abundant life and we might even argue salvation itself: is always contextual. The definition has to vary depending on the truths of your life. What do we think of when we imagine abundant life?
Sometimes we behave as though abundant life is about comfort and good things: whatever makes you happy: nice cars, vacations south in the winter, or even nice meals with good wine? And some of those things may well be abundant life but those are the thing of the sheepfold. Those are the things within the walls on the safe side of the gate. Abundant life is so much greater than that. Abundant life includes the places out on the open fields: the places rife with danger and filled with the very stuff we need to live.
We can tell ourselves that it’s a big bad world out there, or that there are more dangers or injustices than we can handle but really all the good wine in the world can’t protect you from the big bad world. Jesus insistence to his listeners and his insistence to us is to remember that out in the big bad world there is also abundant life, and the type of food that will sustain us for the long haul.
Our brains have evolved in such a way that we learn much more quickly from danger, we have evolved to avoid harm. But Jesus is pointing here to a truth that is more ancient than even our monkey brains. He points to the truth of a love that birthed a cosmos, the truth of an underlying fullness that God desires for each and every one of us and for all of creation.
What is abundant life? The answer to that will depend on your context.
Some of you attended an anti-pipeline rally yesterday: suggesting perhaps that abundant life for our land means lowering the risk we put it at. Others will have attended the Bring back our Girls rally on Friday. Abundant life for girls in northern Nigeria might look like knowing that they can go to school free from fear. Some of you served food at First United this past Friday: abundant life in the Downtown eastside: perhaps a living wage and perhaps people along the way who look you in the eye with an open heart and genuine, deep curiosity.
I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly. Abundant life is always contextual. It will be different for you and for me and for our neighbor, it will be different depending on where you find yourself.
I could end right there: get out of the fold a bit more and follow in the way of Jesus but there is still more. We like it inside that gate: it’s nice in there, safe, warm. Inside the gate we are surrounded by friends and our nice things: all the comforts of home. And so to that tendency the scripture speaks just a bit more encouragement.
We read in the scripture that “When the good shepherd has brought out all of his own, he goes ahead of them.” That word translated “brought out” is the same Greek word that appears several other places in John’s gospel. It is the same word used every time Jesus casts out a demon. The same word used when Jesus throws the moneychangers out of the temple. In every instance of this word in the Gospel, Jesus is pushing, pulling, throwing, yanking, casting out.
This is the promise of the gate: if you choose to follow in the way of Christ, to commit your life to this radical gospel, to jump in both feet to the pool of Christ’s calling you will be pulled, pushed, tugged and dragged out into the world so that you might be fully fed with the promise of life abundant. And the promise we will find out there is that all of the scary things do not have a hold on us, the scary things never win, love is stronger, life is stronger and life abundant is God’s desire for every living thing.