Now I’m no great fan of David Cameron but I’ve been feeling a bit sorry for him since his comments at Easter and the backlash that has resulted from them. He told his children that Easter was more than just “chocolate eggs”. He also said “Easter is a time for our whole country to reflect on what Christianity brings to Britain”. This prompted a group of 50 public figures to write a letter to the Daily Telegraph insisting that the UK was “a non-religious” and “plural” society and saying that to claim otherwise “fosters alienation and division”. The outcry from a vocal minority and more than that the attention given to that minority by the press make it clear that it is not easy being a Christian in today’s increasingly secular society. And it was with this in my mind that I approached today’s reading from John’s gospel.
In this story Jesus begins by making the obvious point that those with a legitimate reason for going into the sheep fold go in by the gate but those who want to steal the sheep or kill them and steal the wool climb in over the wall. He then points out, again what was well known, that the sheep know their own shepherds voice and follow him. If they hear an unfamiliar voice they panic, as sheep are good at doing. In the first century if two shepherds met each with their twenty five sheep there was no problem identifying which sheep belonged to which shepherd because the sheep recognised their shepherd’s voice and the shepherds knew their own sheep by sight.
So the Bible tells us that Jesus told this story and his listeners did not understand him, and we cannot blame them, for them Jesus was merely pointing out the blatantly obvious we might imagine their response would be ‘We know all that what’s your point?’
So Jesus changes the story, this time he makes it more personal. He says that he is the gate. What does that mean? Well to understand where Jesus was coming from when he told this story we need to be aware of the location of the story in the Bible.
In Chapter 9 immediately before today’s reading the question is, is Jesus the messiah, the king and Jesus seeks to answer the question by contrasting himself with thieves and robbers, the Pharisees and teachers of the law, who were insisting for their own agenda that Jesus was not from God. Jesus now repeats that he is the gate, the gate that leads to safety, the gate that leads to life, the gate that leads to eternal life.
Reading through the passage there are three important statements that Jesus makes. Firstly, ‘I tell you the truth, I am the gate.’ Then, ‘they will come in and go out.’ And finally, ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’. ‘I am the gate.’ ‘They will come in and go out.’ ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’.
Jesus is the gate, this says two things about Jesus first of all that he is the true shepherd, he isn’t a thief or a robber and it is through him that we reach salvation, it is through him that we have life not death. Then Jesus says they will come in and go out. Doors and gates are like that, we can use gates to come in and we can also use them to go out again. So to reach salvation we have to through Jesus, he is the way into salvation but we are not only going in through Jesus we are also going back out again through him.
Jesus does not want or expect us just to come into him, to live with him and other Christians in a holy huddle. Jesus expects that in this life we come into him in order that we may go out again into the world through him.
Living only in the world and not going through the gate to find Jesus leads to death not life. But not going back out into the world leads to a stunted life not the full life that Jesus promises us. Jesus said that the sheep would …go out and find pasture.’ Pasture was what the first century shepherd was constantly seeking for the sheep, it is the best of everything, plentiful grass to eat, still water to drink and comfortable rest, true and abundant life, and it could only be found outside the pen. If we as Christians are frightened to go out then we are settling for a parody of Christian life, we may feel nice and safe and comfy but we are denying ourselves the best life, all the best things that Jesus, our good shepherd, wants us to have.
But Thieves and robbers didn’t just exist in the first century, they are still here in the twenty first century, those who say that Jesus is NOT the king, that salvation is a myth and that the disadvantages of religion far outweigh the advantages. These people, as we read in the papers, use words like alienation and division to make speaking out about one’s faith seem like a bad thing. As Christians we can be unsure how to react in this kind of climate? How do we live in a country that is becoming more secular all the time in a country where people are not just indifferent but openly hostile to religions? There can be a temptation to huddle together in the safety of the sheep fold protected from the world?
But I don’t think that’s living the full and abundant life that God intends for us. I think the answer is we must go in and come out through Christ. Of course it is important to come to Church, to spend time in prayer and meditation, to study our Bibles to discuss our faith with other Christians but it is also important to go out into the world through Christ, changed and empowered by the spirit, and live fully there.
THIS is what Jesus did, he prayed, he studied, he went to the temple but he also lived life amongst the crowds, amongst the tax gatherers and sinners, the Pharisees and teachers of the law. He went to weddings and parties; he lived life to the full in the world. And wherever he was he interacted with people, he taught, he healed, he had an impact on people just by being there.
Many years ago I went to an Open University Summer School in London in connection with a course I was studying called ‘Life and Death.’ Pretty heavy stuff at times and quite an interesting and eye opening experience for me as many of these middle aged people spent the week working hard but also trying to relive their teenage years! Many of us headed for the college bar after the tutorials in the evening and the conversations were wide ranging and often quite challenging. I felt that I got as much out of meeting and talking to the other students as I did from the tutorials. However, I heard that there was a Church of England minister there and he found it all too free, too challenging too scary for him and he spent his time in his room.
Thinking about that I wondered what Jesus would have done and I think he would have been in the midst of it, talking, arguing, and responding to the challenges from people with a different viewpoint. Not hiding from the world but being part of life.
And that I think is what we as Christians should be doing, going out into the world through Christ living life in all its abundance as witnesses to Jesus the true king, as ‘a people belonging to God, declaring the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light.’ So the question and the challenge for us all this morning is this, We have come to church today, we have come in through Jesus, but are we prepared to go back out again?