Revd Jane Webb, October 27th
Reading John 10, 6-10 and 27-30
How strong is your front door? Is it made of flimsy plywood? Or is it strong and robust with a special key, and a chain and a spyhole so that you can at least look to see who is there before you open it? Many of you have grown up in areas where the back door was left open and the neighbours would call out and come in. Many of our older friends now have a keysafe – because although they need carers and neighbours to call in to help, that door cannot be left open. How many areas of our inner cities have people living in a fortress, in an attempt to keep safe!
When Jesus healed the man born blind (in chapter 9) people were arguing as they tried to work out – Is he the one? Does he come from God or is he a wicked man, tricking us and threatening all that we believe and do? Ezekiel had given the Jews a picture of their leaders as bad shepherds who cared only for themselves (chapter 34) and God as the Good Shepherd who would truly look after the sheep, his people Israel. Jesus picks up that image with a contrast between the robber and the good shepherd, but people did not understand! So he changed the image slightly – I am the gate for the sheep.
Sheep lived with their shepherd up on the Judean hills, walking behind him as he led them to find pasture and water. At night there were circular stone enclosures, and the shepherd would bring them in for safety from the wild animals – wolves and mountain lions that preyed on them. But there was no gate on the sheepfold, just a gap in the wall, and the shepherd himself would watch them to make sure that they all came in safely, and then he would lie across the gap, with his rod and his staff to protect them and make sure that no one came in that could endanger the flock. It was a dangerous position; any predators would have to attack the shepherd before they could reach their prey. Literally, he was the gate.
If we want to be part of God’s flock, if we want the protection of the Good Shepherd, then Jesus is the only way in. The Bible talks of our lives as a series of going out and coming in – and Psalm 121 is a wonderful picture of God as our shepherd who never slumbers nor sleeps, (so often I use that verse when I pray with people in hospital – the night can be long and the night staff busy somewhere else – but God never slumbers or sleeps but watches over us, to keep us from all harm.) He watches over our going out and our coming in, now and for evermore.
Jesus tells us he is the only way to become part of the Good Shepherd’s flock. None of us can do anything to earn our place in Heaven. Romans 3 makes it very clear, though the language isn’t easy. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.”
In this story, the ‘ticket’ required by the gatekeeper–the only requirement–is the death and resurrection of Jesus.”
None of us is fit to be with God, but because of His amazing grace, he sent Jesus to pay the penalty, to die in our place, in my place and your place, and if we have faith in Jesus, then and only then he declares us saved, set free from the power of sin, welcomed through the gate and into his flock, under the care of the Good Shepherd.
If anyone wants to become a church member here, part of the Church meeting which decides what God wants us to do (not what we want to do!), then we ask visitors to go and visit them and report to the church meeting as to whether we believe they are Christians. That began historically at a time when being anything other than a member of the Church of England could send you to gaol. Informers would be paid in the latter years of the 17th century to attend unauthorised meetings of Christian men and women and pass their names to the authorities, so you needed to know who truly believed, who you could trust to tell where the meeting would be.
Today those fears are long past in Britain, but we still want to be the Body of Christ, gathering in our church meeting with others who are also listening to God’s leading. So we send visitors, just to get to know people and understand that they truly love Jesus. But do you know – however many visitors we send, ultimately we can’t be certain! Only God knows who truly loves Him. In our scene with Jesus and Peter at the gates of heaven – Jesus remembers how Chris was surprised – at finding the people who are there, finding the people who aren’t and finally finding that she was there. Jesus told us very plainly, “Do not judge or you too will be judged” Matt 7 v1 and Paul wrote to the church in Rome “at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself” God alone knows our hearts.
#4There always have been other people setting themselves up as shepherds, and today is no exception. Do you remember Kaa in Jungle Book singing to Mowgli “Trust in me..” I think of Mary Mitchell who came to church for some years and was trapped by the advertising which told her “You have won a prize” She was a sad and lonely lady who wanted to be special, so she spent all her money on fake lotteries and phony spiritualists who took all her money and predicted that one day she would be a great winner. Jesus alone knew her heart. I think of grown men who groom young teenage girls with promises of love and gifts and turn them into sex slaves.
The thief comes only to steal , Jesus came that we may have life – and have it to the full!
Imagine some doors, some gates, some ways in. I was once taken to Dartmoor prison as part of my training as a social worker, but I couldn’t go further than the gate – my name wasn’t on the pass with that of my trainer. No entry! I’ve visited other prisons since (they have all let me out again) and various hospital wards where the doors have basically said “No entry – Go away” locked securely until I can prove that I am safe, that they actually want me to come in. Jesus wasn’t and isn’t that kind of gate. Jesus was not like any of those gates. Jesus was just the opposite. Rather than a barrier and a persistent “no admittance,” Jesus was and is a living gate, a speaking gate who invites us in: “Won’t you come in? Won’t you come in to my Father’s house? Won’t you come into my Father’s love? Won’t you come into my Father’s family? I’ve paid for the ticket, you are welcome just as you are. Won’t you come in to the banquet, the feast, the biggest party you have ever seen?” When we accept that invitation we can discover life to the full – rich, demanding, stretching abundant life.
Sometimes people say to me, “How can I be sure I am a Christian?” Part of the answer is here. If we invite Jesus into our lives, then no one can snatch us out of God’s hand. Jesus talks about the sower, and maybe there are some where the word never makes deep roots and people fall away – but Jesus has promised that he will protect his flock and no –one else can snatch us out of his hand.
The Good Shepherd is the Gate – the only way in. If we respond to His love, if we accept His invitation, then we can know that he loves us and the gate is open wide. The sheepfold will protect and He will watch over our going out and our coming in, both now and for evermore.