I find preaching to a small congregation of people who have been committed Christians for decades one of the most difficult things to do. I want to give them something fresh, and something that might encourage them in what for some are their ‘fading’ years.
I tried to do that this week when I preached at our mid-week Morning Prayer. I took the image of Jesus saying “I am the gate” and rather than concentrating on the traditional context of shepherding in the Middle East (which is perhaps what I should have done) I focused more on a the image of a ‘British’ gates that many in our rural-suburbia will be familiar with.
The thing is, I don’t think it worked. Perhaps I tried to say too much in too short a space of time, or just got too tied up in the images I chose and made the Gospel fit them, rather than the images fitting the Gospel? I don’t know: see what you think? (Healthy criticism welcome!)
For those of us who have been Christians some considerable while, the “I am” sayings of Jesus are very familiar. We know that they can’t be taken in isolation from each other, just as this reading about Jesus being the gate to the sheepfold can’t be taken in isolation from what follows where he refers to himself as being the “good shepherd.”
We probably know that in the Middle East shepherds usually know each of their sheep by name and will lie down in the gateway of a sheepfold to stop predators getting in, or sheep getting out. Inside the fold the sheep are safest, but outside they have their needs met when the same shepherd leads them to the best pasture they can find. In this way the sheep gain the best of life as sheep.
I guess we recognise too, that there are sheep rustlers who want to make a quick buck by stealing what is rightfully someone else’s, either by leaping directly over the wall of the sheepfold and taking everyone by surprise, or by calling the names of the sheep in the hope that they’ll be confused into going the wrong way when hearing their names called.
But then, if we are the sheep, gathered this morning in the fold of the church, to listen to the voice of Jesus, our true shepherd, what are some of the distinctive things about his role as “a gate” that we could be hearing as fresh today?
The first thing that could strike us about gates in a much more general, purpose built, and dare I say ‘British’ sense, is that they are traditionally made of wood. I know we now live in a more metallic world, but our old lych gates were made of wood. Five bared gates, or garden gates are often still made of wood. To make a gate a tree had to grow, be felled and be sawn into specific shapes, then fitted carefully together to produce a strong shape that can’t be easily broken.
We could describe the process by which Jesus became the gateway to God’s presence, as being very similar. God’s own Son, his seed, was born and raised in such a way that he grew into a strong image of the one from whom he came, like an oak tree from an acorn. We recognise that on the cross Jesus was cut down, sacrificed so that something new could be built, God’s new kingdom. Through the Resurrection, and Pentecost, the ultimate shape and strength of the gate was revealed as not simply consisting of Jesus, as God made man and raised from the dead, but is being held in place as a presence in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The second thing about our more British image of a gate, is that very often you can either see through it or see over it, to something that lies beyond. We look and hopefully go, through a gate, drawn by what we know, or can see, of what is ahead of us.
We are told in Phil 2 that Jesus was “in very nature God”. We see God through the character of Jesus and we can only come closer to God through faith in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus also inaugurated God’s new kingdom to be visible in the world, presented as a vision of that final pinnacle of God’s creative powers that will be ultimately revealed, through the peace and love of Christ shown in those who believe. So, the gate that is Jesus has a very distinctive design. No-one before or since has been able to copy it as the way in which it reveals the kingdom of God.
And then of course, there’s a third thing about gates: they are designed for us to use to go in and out by. Very often these gates are made to only open one way because of the set of the hinges, but that doesn’t mean we can only move in one direction. In a few places, gates were made to open both ways, or alternatively to rotate like a revolving door to allow a continuous flow of people in both directions at the same time. Of course our very own lych gate here at St Peter’s was originally designed on exactly this principle, though it has long since been superceded by an open space under the roof.
God did not create us, his flock, to be static, stuck in one place nor permanently sheltered in some haven of bricks or friendship, that we call church. If we are to experience the fullness of life that God offers through faith in Jesus 2the gate”; if we are to find our needs met by tasting the rich pasture to which Jesus the shepherd wants to lead us; then we have to move in and out through the gate.
The pattern of our lives is that there are times of safety and security in which we can be still, feel the security of the sheepfold of his church, defended by the prayers of the faithful, and safe in the Christian activities in which we are involved.
But we are made by God for freedom through Christ. The rich pastures that enable us to be fed and to grow into maturity are often those places that are out in the world, the places where we might struggle to hear our shepherd. We cannot grow in experience and understanding of the skills God has given us, nor the roles for which he has called us to be active in the world, without being sent out through the gate and fed through an active and fulfilled life.
Jesus “the gate” is still the means by which we get there. His sacrifice is still the price that has been paid for that freedom. We should be sure enough of his presence through the power of the Holy Spirit that whatever we are doing we know we have that gateway into the secure presence of God always at hand.
The point of the image of the gate is that it needs to be used. It’s all very well understanding that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice to become “the gate”; it’s all very useful to be reminded that through Jesus “the gate” we can see the nature of god and perhaps a vision of his completed kingdom; but unless we move in and out, into both the security of God’s presence with the family of his church, and the security of being fed and nurtured as his ever-expanding flock, then we won’t be making best use of the gate; and both the vision and the sacrifice of Jesus will have been in vain.