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Sunday Worship 30 April | Life in Abundance

Updated: Jan 18

John 10:1-10 | NIV
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Jesus does not say the words “I am the good shepherd” until the verse after our reading ends, but the passage we have heard this morning is so clearly leading up to that declaration that I’m sure many of us already had that image in our minds as we were listening. We have already picked up on it in our last hymn, and we will return to it before the end of this morning, but first we will spend some time reflecting on two things Jesus did say in this morning’s reading. “I am the gate” and “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full”.


Before we get there however, I think it would help to look at what has prompted Jesus to speak in this way, because “very truly I tell you...” doesn’t sound like the beginning of a conversation. We might assume that a new chapter means a new scene, but in fact this passage follows directly on from the end of chapter nine, where Jesus heals a man born blind. The disciples ask if his blindness was because of his sin or the sin of his parents, and Jesus declares that his blindness had nothing to do with sin at all. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but it demolishes any theology which blames sickness or disability on sin, so it is important that we hear it. The healing causes something of a stir within the community, as neighbours argue over whether or not this really is the same man, and it similarly divides the religious authorities, with some declaring that Jesus is a sinner then interrogating the man and throwing him out when he declares Jesus to be a prophet.


Jesus tells this group of Pharisees, who we must remember do not represent all of the religious authorities or the entire Jewish tradition, that they are guilty because they claim to understand but do not, and then begins this set of metaphors around gates and shepherds. It may seem like a bit of a thematic leap, but I think Jesus is challenging their version of gatekeeping. We are told that they had decided that they would expel from the synagogue anyone who declared Jesus as Messiah, and scholars believe that this had been the experience of the community in which the gospel was written. For them, gatekeeping meant closing off a clearly bounded community of those who believed the right things, but for Jesus, gatekeeping meant opening the way for the shepherd to lead the sheep.


He reimagines gatekeeping not as exclusion or division but as invitation and connection. There is still a sense of protection, but it is the sheep who are being kept safe, not any sense of orthodoxy. This is further developed later on in the chapter, when Jesus says “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd”. It sounds like there is room for all the sheep in this pen. So why is there a need for a pen or a gate at all? Jesus says “they will come in and go out”, and so perhaps we are back to the idea of gathering and scattering from last week. Sometimes we are brought together with those sheep who have already heard Jesus’ voice, and sometimes we are drawn out among those sheep that have not yet come to the pen. Sometimes we need to draw close to the shepherd to be cared for, and sometimes we need to go out to explore and find fresh pasture. Either way, we follow the shepherd as we listen to his voice, and the focus is on the shepherd providing for the sheep, not on which sheep are in or outside of the sheepfold.


So what does it mean for Jesus to say “I am the gate”? And how does that square with Jesus also being the shepherd? The second question is perhaps quite easily answered, as there is an idea that the sort of sheep pen that would have been familiar to Jesus did not have a fixed gate, but a simple gap which the shepherd would lie across once the sheep were in. The shepherd was the gate, and so Jesus is not mixing metaphors, but developing one image in different ways. In order to answer the first question, we might look back again to the previous chapter. Theologian Karoline Lewis says: “Jesus is the door for the blind man. Jesus is his entrance to a new fold, an abundant pasture, and eternal life, which he has never, ever, known. That these promises are addressed to a man blind from birth, who, for his entire life, has experienced the exact opposite of that which Jesus describes suggests that this is a moment of rebirth, of new creation. The blind man is born again, to experience a life that could not be more contrary to the one he has already lived.” Jesus as the gate offers the same experience to the sheep who pass through, as what he reveals of God and of ourselves opens up new perspectives and possibilities.


And what of that other phrase we noted to begin with? The NIV has “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”, the NRSV has “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”, and the NLT has “my purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life”. My own attempt at translating this verse landed nearer the NRSV, as I think there is a sense of abundance rather than simply fullness, but there is little elaboration as to what that looks like in practice. It also brings out the connection with Psalm 23, in which the psalmist declares that their cup runs over, and echoes the promise of Luke 6, in which Jesus says “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap”. I used to think this promise of abundance was entirely about generosity, but I am understanding more and more that abundance can also feel overwhelming.


I know I’ve joked that all ministers have one or two sermons that they repeat in different variations, but I may be pushing that theory to its limits, having referred to this verse twice already in recent months. And not just to this verse, but to a reflection from Rev Richard Coles that "we get life in its fullness, not serenity or fulfilment or happiness, but life in its fullness, which is what Jesus actually promised." I won’t apologise for repeating myself, because I suspect there’s a reason we keep being led back to this, first from Colossians and then from the beatitudes and now from the lectionary. Sometimes life feels like too much, and I think a number of us are in that season now. There is too much sorrow, too much worry, too much pain. I do not believe this is the abundance God prepares for us, but I do believe it is the abundance God prepares us for.


Jesus came that we might have life in all its fullness, and that means he came that we might have a full measure of joy and peace and hope, so that those things might sustain us when we find ourselves with a full measure of sadness and heartache and despair. He is the gate through which we find the fold we might call home, and he is the shepherd who will guide us to places of rest and nourishment, and anoint us with oil for healing and protection, and lead us at last to a place where we may dwell with goodness and mercy. May we pass through that gate and follow that shepherd, that we might know how to have life in all its fullness.

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