The Divine Point of Access

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
Easter 4A ● Holy Eucharist Rite II
April 30, 2023
Gospel: John 10:1-10

Many of you know that I was the resident chaplain at St. Anselm’s Episcopal Chapel Center at the University of South Florida. During my second year living in, and managing the property, the university installed beautiful wrought iron fences, featuring the bull mascot. Such elaborate branding clearly distinguished the university’s property from non-university property. Aside from the aesthetics of the installation of the tall fences, one of the goals for the branded fence visually represented heightened safety for the community on campus.

The construction was pretty fascinating. For several months I referred to the fence as a gate, until someone, who knew better, corrected my terminology, sharing with me the unique distinguishing characteristics between a fence and a gate. Fences, I learned, primarily function as boundary markers and barriers. Gates are more dynamic in structure. Like fences, gates mark boundaries and offer protection from potential harm. But, gates, unlike fences, are structurally designed to be points of access—through which coming in and going out are made possible by a designated location within the structure.

Our gospel passage at the top of the tenth chapter of John today, comes after Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the Jews, about spiritual blindness. Recall that Jesus gave sight to the man who had been born blind, but the Pharisees would not believe the man’s testimony about the prophet, Jesus, who gave him sight, and they drove the man out of the temple (9:34-41).  

In this continuation of Jesus’ engagement with the Pharisees, he used several images—the sheepfold; the thieves and bandits who enter the fold by means other than the authorized gate; the gatekeeper who opens the gate for the shepherd; and of course, the shepherd for whom the safety and care of the sheep is paramount.

The imagery of the good shepherd used here emphasizes the identity and purpose of the shepherd—the one authorized to enter by the gate. The shepherd’s particular relationship with the sheep is one that enables them to recognize his voice when he calls them by name, and follow him. Not so with the stranger—not only will the sheep not recognize the voice, but they will run away from him.

Just as the Pharisees could not imagine that they, of all people, could not be spiritually blind, Jesus detected that they could not grasp that they might be the thieves and bandits, and that he was the good shepherd figure in the story. Detecting that the Pharisees did not understand him, Jesus spoke plainly, “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” (vv.7-9). Jesus’s very identity, the word of God which became flesh, is the exclusive point of access to God. And, all who believe in him will be saved and have life abundant in him. 

Like many churches, the church of my youth, the Church of the Good Shepherd in Richmond, VA, has the stained-glass window of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, overlooking the altar. The image depicts Jesus, with his shepherd’s crook in hand, gazing upon the sheep on either side of him, while lovingly holding one. Given the emphasis Jesus placed on the “gate,” in this passage, it may surprise you that one would be hard pressed to find a gate included in the artistic interpretations of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

If we focus only on the first part of the passage, which figuratively describes Jesus as the good shepherd, we do a disservice to our call as disciples to make Christ known to those who do not yet know him. Jesus is at once the good shepherd who protects and cares for his sheep, and he is the living gate—the exclusive point of access to God. Hearing Jesus’ statement, “Whoever enters by me will be saved,” (v.9) implies to the hearer that there will be those who will not be saved. 

The inclusive reality for all of humankind is that Jesus died once for all people. Jesus has already given the gift of eternal salvation to all people. It is one’s belief, in Him, that includes them in the fullness of abundant life in God’s love, or one’s unbelief that excludes them from it. 

When the good shepherd personally invites God’s people by name, into a new life of abundance, liberation and healing, those who do not know him will not recognize his voice, and they will not follow him. Recognizing Jesus’ voice, as one of his faithful in his larger fold of believers, demands participation in Jesus’ self-giving love by calling on the name that God established as the name above all names—Jesus Christ.[1]

In this dark period in the life of humanity, it can be challenging to see God actively moving in our lives and in the world. Thankfully, our ability to hear does not depend on whether or not we can see.  Our ability to hear our Savior’s familiar voice when he calls us by name, amidst the cacophony of unknown strange voices, is heightened in darkness. In pitch blackness, those with ears to hear, will always recognize him and will faithfully follow him. 

As 21st century disciples, we must take seriously our responsibility to imitate the love of Christ, our only good shepherd, in order to lead the suffering from the spiritually-terminal condition of faithlessness to the spiritually-enlivened condition of faithfulness.

One good shepherd. One loving voice. One faithful response—follow. May the Lord so incline our ears to instinctively recognize His loving voice, and seek His abiding presence, as we journey through life with Him and with each other. 

May it be so.   Amen.

[1]Philippians 2:9