This was The Rev. Dave Johnson’s last sermon at Christ Episcopal Church before moving to Georgia to serve as Rector at Christ Church Valdosta. To order Dave Johnson’s book of sermons, click here.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday.
In the Old Testament God is often referred to as our shepherd—“The Lord is my shepherd” we read in the famous twenty-third Psalm (23:1)—and seven centuries before Christ the Old Testament prophet Isaiah prophesied that the coming Messiah would be a shepherd—“He will feed his flock like a shepherd,” Isaiah writes, “he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom” (40:11).
In the New Testament Jesus is not only identified as the Son of God, but also as “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Hebrews 13:20), “the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (I Peter 2:25), and “the chief shepherd” (I Peter 5:3).
In fact, Jesus identifies himself as “the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11 and 14) who leaves the ninety-nine sheep who are safe to find the one sheep who is lost (Luke 15:2-7).
And Jesus sees you and me as sheep: “When (Jesus) saw the crowds,” Matthew writes, “he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
But on this Good Shepherd Sunday I’m also going to preach about an often overlooked statement Jesus makes in this passage. Yes, he identifies himself as the Good Shepherd, but he also identifies himself as “the gate”—twice, in fact:
“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (10:7-9).
A couple weeks ago I hung out one evening with a couple close friends and we watched one of my all time favorite comedies, the classic 1984 film This is Spinal Tap, a documentary (or “rockumentary”) about the life of the fictitious British rock band, Spinal Tap.
About halfway through the film the band is preparing to go onstage at an arena in Cleveland. They can hear the crowd cheering and chanting their name. They’re totally psyched up for the show. They’ve got their crazy spandex clothes on and their crazy hair, they’re pumping their fists in the air and rehearsing what they’ll yell to the crowd when they get on stage—“Rock ‘n roll!” “Hello Cleveland!”
They try to make their way to the stage…but they get lost backstage—and they keep turning a corner, thinking they’ve found the door to the stage, only to find themselves at a dead end or even more lost. This goes on and on and it gets funnier and funnier.
At one point they ask directions to the stage from a maintenance worker at the arena, who gives them the following convoluted directions:
“You go right straight through this door here, down the hall, turn right, and then there’s a little jog there—about thirty feet—jog to the left, go straight ahead, turn right at the next two corners and you’ll see a sign on a door, ‘Authorized People Only’—open that door, that’s the stage.”
The band nods its collective head—“Thank you very much! Rock ‘n roll! Here we go! Hello Cleveland!”—and they proceed to get lost again, and after taking various twists and turn backstage, find themselves right back at the same maintenance worker, who just looks at them like they are complete idiots, which of course wasn’t far from the truth.
Sometimes in our lives we find ourselves lost backstage, trying in vain to find the right door, following whatever convoluted directions we stumble upon, only to find ourselves running in circles, unable to find the right door.
But when it comes to a relationship with God, Jesus is the door. “I am the gate,” Jesus says, “Whoever enters by me will be saved.”
And like each of the “I am” sayings of Jesus in John’s account of the gospel, John uses a Greek phrase—ego eimi—which is literally translated “I, I am.” And when John uses this phrase, he is not being redundant, but rather hearkening back to Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. When Moses asked who it was with whom he was speaking, God said, “I Am that I Am.”
In other words, when Jesus says, “I am the gate,” which he does in today’s passage twice, he is revealing that he is God—that the door to a relationship with God is none other than God himself.
And the One who says, “I am the gate” is the same One who is the Good Shepherd, who sees you and all the ways you are “helpless and harassed” in your life, and is moved with…compassion.
Your Good Shepherd is the Friend of Sinners, who knows you as you really are, accepts you as you really are, and loves you as you really are—as the late Brennan Manning wrote in his final book, All is Grace: “My message, unchanged for more than fifty years, is this: God loves you unconditionally, as you are and not as you should be, because nobody is as they should be” (p. 192).
In the gritty 2013 film American Hustle Irv Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con artist who falls in love with Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). Early in the film Irv reveals in a voice over what it was like to feel truly loved by Sydney:
“I felt like we had a secret—just the two of us. You know like that thing where you want to just be with the one person the whole time. You feel like the two of you understand something that nobody else gets. I could just tell her everything about myself. And I never had anybody like that in my life before. I felt like finally, I can truly be myself without being ashamed, without being embarrassed.”
Sydney did not love Irv as he should have been but as he actually was—and the compassionate Good Shepherd loves you like that.
“I am the gate,” Jesus says, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
One of the roles of shepherds in Jesus’ day was to guard the sheep pen. Biblical scholar Merrill Tenney describes what this looked like:
“When the sheep returned to the fold at night after a day of grazing, the shepherd stood in the doorway of the pen and inspected each one as it entered. If a sheep were scratched or wounded by thorns, the shepherd anointed it with oil to facilitate healing; if the sheep were thirsty, he gave them water.”
That’s what Jesus does with you. He doesn’t inspect you looking for all your flaws, all the ways you fall short—he’s already fully aware of those things—as are you. Instead, Jesus looks for the places where you have been “scratched or wounded by (the) thorns of life,” the places where you are thirsty on the inside—and in those place Jesus the Good Shepherd applies grace, mercy, forgiveness, and unconditional love.
When I was in high school I struggled with the lab projects in chemistry class. Chemistry lab projects were not in my “gift cluster.” One time the teacher asked me to stay after class to talk for a moment about a lab project I had turned in the day before. When the class was completely empty except for the two of us she said, “Dave, I looked at your lab results again and again, and for the life of me I cannot figure out how in the world you came up with the numbers you did. How did you come up with those numbers?” Of course, I had no idea.
But there was one lab project we did in chemistry that I sort of understood. It involved litmus tests, during which you poured various fluids onto litmus paper to measure their acidity. The paper would turn different colors depending on the acidity of the liquid—and at least I could tell what color the paper was.
And as you know a “litmus test” also refers to the idea of a test in which a single factor is decisive in forming an opinion or making a decision.
In today’s passage Jesus tells us what the litmus test is regarding the gospel—“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
The litmus test of the gospel is that it gives life, period.
If you hear messages filled with convoluted directions about how to find the door to a relationship with God, convoluted directions that leave you even more lost and anxious and frustrated…then chances are you are not hearing the gospel.
But if you hear a message about the Good Shepherd that gives you life, that encourages you, comforts you, that lifts up your head, that reassures you that God is in control and that everything eventually will be okay, that speaks to you in the deepest places in your heart, that ministers healing salve to the places where the thorns of life have scratched you, that gives water to the places where you thirst on the inside…then chances are you are hearing the gospel.
If you hear a message about the Good Shepherd that sounds too good to be true, but that in your heart of hearts, as crazy as it seems, you know that you know that you know is true…then chances are you are hearing the gospel.
If you sense the Holy Spirit calling you by name, speaking words of life to your heart about the reality of the unconditional love of the Good Shepherd not just for the world, but for you…then chances are you are hearing the gospel.
The gospel gives life—that is the litmus test.
And in John 10 Jesus not only identifies himself as the gate, but also as the Good Shepherd—and he talks about how he communicates with his sheep:
“He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
One of the high water marks of The Book of Common Prayer is the collection of opening anthems for the burial service. The second anthem is taken from Job and echoes Jesus’ teaching about sheep recognizing the voice of the Good Shepherd, even and especially at the hour of death:
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger” (491).
The Beatles had twenty number one songs in the United States. Their twentieth and last number one song was “The Long and Winding Road” written by Paul McCartney (from Let It Be, 1970). I’ve always loved this song. McCartney sings:
The long and winding road
That leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before
It always leads me here
Lead me to your door
The wild and windy night
That the rain washed away
Has left a pool of tears
Crying for the day
Why leave me standing here?
Let me know the way
Many times I’ve been alone
And many times I’ve cried
Anyway you’ll never know
The many ways I’ve tried
And still they lead me back
To the long winding road
You left me standing here
A long long time ago
Don’t leave me waiting here
Lead me to your door
“I am the gate,” Jesus said, “Whoever enters by me will be saved.”
In other words, Jesus is the door at the end of “the long and winding road.”
He has never left you standing there—even when that long and winding road is harder than you could have ever imagined, even when the thorns of life really scratch you up, even when you are more thirsty on the inside than you ever thought possible.
For the good news of the gospel is that Jesus the Good Shepherd was himself scratched with thorns and suffered unimaginable thirst, and gave his life on the cross for all his sheep, including you—“All we like sheep have gone astray,” Isaiah writes, “we have all turned to our own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6).
And because of Jesus’ death on the cross for you, when it comes to the litmus test of the acidity of the sin in your life—well, the paper is perfectly clear because of the blood Jesus shed for you. You are completely loved, completely forgiven.
And at the end of your “long and winding road” you will arrive at the Door, Jesus himself, the Gate, the Good Shepherd who loves you unconditionally.
And you will clearly hear the life-giving voice of Jesus, and you will realize that somehow it is a voice you recognize, the voice of the One who is your friend and not a stranger.