Jesus said, “I am the gate for the sheep…. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
In the first sermon in this series I let my imagination run just a little bit wild.[i] I talked about the Apostle John putting together a weekend conference in Ephesus called, “The Well-Remembered Word,” where he would invite people to gather for a memorial service for Jesus, the Word-made-flesh, decades after his ascension. He would charge a small registration fee so he could afford to print the brochures and fly the participants in from faraway places: Mary Magdalene from her home in Galilee, Thomas from the mission field in India, and those two disciples from Emmaus (who agreed to come but said they would rather walk). Since then I’ve been imagining what each of those speakers might have said at such a conference, and it’s been interesting, hasn’t it? To hear from these biblical characters “themselves” rather than hearing things about them? Today I want us to hear from the Apostle John, the Beloved Disciple, the author of the Fourth Gospel, the “convener” of this imaginary conference. I want to let him speak for himself and see what he might have to say. Let’s listen in.
Friends, first of all, let me say thank you for coming to this conference! It’s been an amazing weekend so far. I’ve been grateful to our speakers for sharing their memories of Jesus: to Mary Magdalene, who (you may recall) delivered the very first Easter sermon and has been called “the Apostle to the Apostles”; to Thomas, who some people still call “the Twin” not because he looks so much like Jesus, but simply because he is so much like Jesus; and finally to Mary and Cleopas, those disciples on the road to Emmaus, with apologies for any confusion about their identities.[ii] But now it’s my turn, and this morning I want to talk about one of the things I remember best about Jesus. I want to talk about him as “the Good Shepherd,” which could have been the title of one of the chapters in my Gospel.
Speaking of that: maybe it’s not fair to call it “my” Gospel at all. You pastors out there will agree that in every congregation ten percent of the people will love you no matter what, and ten percent will not love you, no matter what, and eighty percent will appreciate you if they think you are working hard and doing a good job. It’s called “the 80-10-10 rule.” Well, when I retired a few years ago some of that ten percent that loved me no matter what presented me with something they called “the Gospel According to John.” It turns out they had been taking notes on my sermons, writing down what I said almost word-for-word, so they could put it all together in a single book. They wrote up an introduction and a conclusion and then presented it to me at my retirement celebration. I was deeply moved, especially when I saw that everywhere I had referred to myself in my sermons they had substituted the phrase, “the disciple Jesus loved.” Isn’t that sweet? And it’s true! Jesus did love me. But I think he had that effect on everyone he knew. When you were talking to him he had the ability to make you feel as if you were the only person in the world, and that you were worth all the attention he was giving you. Yes, he loved me, but not only me. He loved all of us. I believe he loved Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him. That’s just the kind of savior he is.
But I didn’t come to talk about the Savior; I came to talk about the Shepherd. It’s how Jesus referred to himself once when he was in the middle of a heated argument with the Jews. Oh, I know. I know I’m not supposed to call them “the Jews.” It sounds anti-Semitic. But can I remind you that all of us were Jews: Jesus, and his disciples, and all of the people he preached to? It’s not like I have anything against Jews—I am one!—I just have something against this particular group of Jews. Maybe there are some people in your own religious group who have done you wrong, treated you badly, and maybe you talk about them in a way that is not entirely flattering. Fundamentalists. Liberals. Moderates. Conservatives. Need I say more? Well, these were people who were so proud of being Jewish I just started calling them “the Jews.” But I can call them something else if it will make you feel better. I can use the Greek word—Ioudaioi. Will that work? OK, then:
Ioudaioi it is.[iii]
These are the ones I was talking about in the previous chapter of my Gospel, when Jesus healed the man born blind. Do you remember him? The other disciples and I were right there with Jesus wondering who had sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind, but Jesus wouldn’t even entertain that question. He said, “It wasn’t this man or his parents. He was born blind so that the works of God might be seen in him.” And then he stooped down, spit on the ground, made some mud, smeared it on the man’s eyes, and told him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. After that we moved on. We didn’t stick around to see what happened. But what I heard later is that the man came back to his old neighborhood and everyone was amazed that he was able to see. Except for the Ioudaioi. They weren’t amazed; they were upset. Who did this? How did he do it? Why did he do it on the Sabbath day?
They asked the man born blind and he told them it was Jesus who had done it. They said, “Where is he?” and he said, “I don’t know.” So they brought his parents in for questioning, but they said, “He’s old enough to speak for himself. Ask him.” But according to my Gospel they said it partly because the Ioudaioi had already decided that anyone who confessed faith in Jesus would be put out of the synagogue.
Now, let me just say, that’s not entirely true. The good people who wrote up my Gospel got a little ahead of themselves. That wouldn’t happen until after the Fall of Jerusalem, in 70 AD, when we couldn’t worship in the Temple anymore and had to conduct services in the local synagogues. A group of priests got together and decided which scrolls could be read in worship and which ones could not (because there were a lot of scrolls out there in those days, and not all of them were divinely inspired). But they also wrote up something they called the Eighteen Benedictions: eighteen blessings they believed good and faithful Jews should recite every day.[iv] Well one of them, number 12, was “the blessing against heretics,” which was actually a curse. See if you can hear the phrase that might offend the followers of Jesus:
For the apostates, let there be no hope, and uproot the kingdom of arrogance speedily and in our days. May the Nazarenes and the heretics perish as in a moment. Let them be blotted out of the book of life,and not be written together with the righteous. You are praised, O Lord, who subdues the arrogant.
Did you catch that? The Nazarenes? The actual benediction wouldn’t be written until the Seventies, but the spirit of it was alive even during the earthly ministry of Jesus, when the Ioudaioi became jealous of his popularity and didn’t want anyone to follow him. So, that man born blind, when he asked them if they wanted to become Jesus’ disciples too, should have expected what they said to him. They said, “You are this man’s disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he has come from.” And that man born blind (bless his heart), he said, “Well, here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out—out of the synagogue, that is. They thought he was a heretic because he believed in Jesus.
In chapter 10 of my Gospel I wrote about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, but I still had this man in mind. They put him out of the synagogue, you see? Out of the sheepfold. He was out there wandering around on his own, lost and afraid. But then Jesus came to him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He said, “Who is he, sir, that I might believe in him?’ And Jesus said, “You have seen him.” Don’t you love that? The man who was born blind had seen him. With his own eyes. “You have seen him,” Jesus said, “and the one speaking with you is he.” And then he said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
I want you to put all this together in your mind if you can. In chapter 10 of my Gospel Jesus said that he was the gate for the sheep. You know the gate? The one that opens so the sheep can come into the sheepfold? The one that closes behind them to keep them safe? The one that opens again in the morning so they can go out and find pasture? Jesus says that he is that gate. And he says it after the Ioudaioi have kicked this man out of the synagogue. They were the gatekeepers (and every religion has some), but Jesus is the gate itself. So this man comes to Jesus. He professes his faith. And in that moment the gate swings open, and that little lost lamb is welcomed in.
I’m telling you, this is what Jesus does: he goes around looking for everyone who has been kicked out, put down, pushed around, everyone who has been denied a place in the existing religious establishment, and then he opens the gate for them, he lets them in, he makes room for them in his sheepfold. You know what I’m talking about! That’s how many of us were feeling after those Eighteen Benedictions were published, after the Ioudaioi started kicking us out of one synagogue after another because we could not stop professing our faith in Jesus, the Nazarene. We were out there on our own, wandering around lost and afraid, but Jesus—the gate—opened up and took us in. Now we have a place. We are no longer alone. We are at home with the Good Shepherd.
Jesus said some other things about people who cared more about themselves than they cared about the sheep. He said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” And that’s true. There are people who look at a sheep to see how much wool they can get off of it, how much it weighs, how tender its meat might be. And then there is Jesus, who looks at a sheep to see how he can care for it, and give it what it needs. “I came that they might have life,” he said, “and that they might have it more abundantly.” How does he do that? He brings us in from the pasture in the evening. He opens to us and brings us into the safety of the sheepfold. He beds us down for the night so we can sleep in peace. In the morning he leads us out again. He makes us lie down in green pastures. He leads us beside still waters. He restores our souls.
He is the Good Shepherd.
There’s one more thing I want to mention before I close. Jesus said that his sheep hear his voice and follow him. I was thinking about that man born blind again. When Jesus healed him he couldn’t see, remember? He could only hear. Jesus told him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam and he did, but when he came back Jesus was nowhere to be found. And then he went through all that questioning by the Ioudaioi, he kept singing the praises of the one who had healed him, and as a result he got himself kicked out of the synagogue. He was out there wandering around on his own when someone asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” And he recognized that voice. His ears perked up, his eyes lit up. He said, “Who is he, sir?” knowing the answer even before he asked. “You have seen him,” Jesus said, and the one speaking with you is he.” And that’s when the man said he believed. That’s when he fell down and worshiped. Because he trusted that voice, and he knew that if he could only follow that shepherd, he would have abundant life.
The same is true for us, friends. We’ve got to listen closely for the voice of the Good Shepherd. There are some people who simply want to take advantage of us, who want to use us for whatever they can get out of us. There are thieves and bandits out there who are sizing us up even now. But then there is Jesus, whose greatest joy in life is taking such good care of us that we have everything we need. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” he said. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” Is that true? Is there anyone here who has found abundant life in Jesus. You don’t have to say anything out loud, but maybe you could lift your hand. Anyone? Anyone? Well, I have. I wrote an entire Gospel about it. And if you’ve read to the end of it you know that I say, “Now Jesus did many more things that are not written in this book, but these things are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name.” Anyone want a life like that?
—Jim Somerville © 2023
[i] Jim Somerville, Sermon, “The Well-Remembered Word: Mary Remembers” (preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on April 9, 2023: Easter Sunday (https://fbcrichmond.org/video/the-well-remembered-word-mary-remembers/)
[ii] See my sermon from April 23, 2023: “The Disciples Remember.”
[iii] John makes a distinction between the Pharisees and the Ioudaioi in chapter 9. While the Pharisees were certainly of the same mindset, the Ioudaioi had some actual authority, and probably included the Sadducees and the members of the Sanhedrin.