May 11, 2014

Easter 4A

Today’s Gospel gives us the first of several images from the realm of shepherding, a gate for the sheep. If Jesus is the gate and we are the sheep, what sort of gate is he and how does he open us to this abundant life? 
The first clue in today’s Gospel is that Jesus distinguishes himself from the world of thieves and bandits. They are in the business of taking and of hurting. Jesus ministry is about giving and healing. In fact that is the root meaning of salvation, to heal or to bring wholeness to a person. 
In response to thieves and bandits, our world comes to be dominated by fear, the fear that life, and the good things of life, might be stolen from us. This is not the world into which Jesus introduces us; this is not abundant life. This is the opposite of the abundant life that is Jesus’ desire for us.
The second clue appears if we look beyond today’s reading, to the better-known claim that Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. This image strengthens the message that Jesus takes us beyond our anxiety, fearfulness, and violence. 
In Jesus’ day, sheep were about more than lamb chops and knitwear and ugh-boots. They were the sacrificial animals par excellence in a culture that kept peace at the expense of sacrificial victims. But Jesus is the good shepherd, who gives his life for the sheep—that is, who goes the way of sacrifice on their behalf, bringing to an end the need for sacrifice. Jesus the good shepherd breaks its hold on us—he bears it for us and, in his resurrection as the forgiving victim, we see the whole world of sacrifice and scapegoating undermined. Here again is the abundant life that Jesus opens for us.
The third clue is also in the passage following on from today’s Gospel. Jesus is the one who brings together his sheep from different sheepfolds, so there is one flock, one shepherd. This is an invitation to see the Church in terms of solidarity and mutual identification, gathered in unity around Jesus rather than defined by mutual enmity, suspicion and exclusion. If Jesus the Good Shepherd is also the gate, he is the gate of a diverse yet united Church—a Church able to model a way forward for a humanity at odds with itself.
In this Gospel image of one flock, one shepherd, however, we see once again the abundant life which Jesus brings, but spelled out in terms of genuine community—where no one is forced to be someone they’re not in order to fit in; in which each sheep is loved and and feels safe, and discovers a world suddenly not full of enemies but of friends, not of competitors but of collaborators. This is a community anticipating the whole of humanity at peace in the midst of creation, which is God’s great dream for the world God loves.
The last and biggest clue to what sort of gate Jesus is comes from the text of today’s Gospel itself. Jesus tells the sheep that with him as the gate, they "will come in and go out and find pasture." This is a lovely image. Jesus does not insist on secure isolation; Jesus does not give identity to his sheep at the price of their narrow confinement. Rather, Jesus is the sort of gate that opens to a place of safety and welcome, to a place of belonging, to a place of good pasture, but not to a place of isolation, or exclusion, or imprisonment. Here, there is identity and definition but freedom, also. Jesus’ Church is a community both of confident identity and genuine, non-anxious openness. Jesus as the gate is an open invitation for everyone to become one of his sheep.
As for the abundant life that Jesus brings, it’s all around us this morning in word and sacrament. We see it in the poised, assured self-confidence of the psalmist, in today’s well-loved twenty-third psalm: anointed on the head with the oil of welcome, handed an overflowing drink by God, and invited to the table of life. 
Ultimately, it is the Eucharistic table that God spreads for us in the face of our enemies, as a sign to the whole world that all the good things of life are God’s gift, eagerly given—the good things of life aren’t to be despaired over in an existence blighted by a mood of bitter victimhood, nor are they to be hoarded jealously at the cost of making victims.
The Church is the community called to know this joy, infectiously. We see such joy in the pastoral ideal of our Acts reading today, as an unselfish, open-hearted, joyful sense of God’s presence with solidarity, fellowship, and ample resources for the Church—Christians at peace with each other and at enmity with no one.
But this Church which has learned to live beyond anxiety and a scarcity mentality, this Church that knows the joy of abundant, Eucharistic life, this Church which has left behind the world of thieves and bandits, of locked gates, in favor of a life beyond fear and death with the risen Christ—this community is one that we have to pursue. 
Hence the sensible advice of 1st Peter today, that Christians have to let go of guile, insincerity, envy and slander. We have been freed of any need to justify ourselves, to demonstrate our worth, to win the love and affection of God, and have been given all this as a free gift in our baptism, to celebrate for a lifetime together our abundant life in Jesus. To keep acting as if life is all threat, isolation, fear, and suspicion, however isn’t just wrong, rather, it’s simply unnecessary in the abundant life God has provided in Christ.
Jesus the gate defines us as his people, but today we’re reminded what sort of people he’s made us—confident in his love, we joyfully engage the world with a peace that passes understanding.

Jesus is the gate who gives those who pass in and out through him the identity to feel secure and yet enough freedom to remain open to others, as God is. This clarity of purpose is the abundant life—the Eucharistic life—which Jesus opens for us. The Church is meant to foster this abundant life forming us as people able to experience it and to witness to it for others. But it’s a gift we have to consciously lay hold of—demonstrating that we’ve been set free from "all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander." Jesus opens the gate of this abundant life to us. All we have to do is follow his voice.