Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

The Gate and the Keeper

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  John 10:1-10


This is the final sermon in a short series on some of the I Am sayings in John’s gospel.  Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus say, “I AM the Bread of life.”  We remembered that he fed a crowd of hungry people, but when they came back looking to be fed again, he said they needed more than physical food.  Jesus is the Bread of Life – there is something about him which is as essential as daily bread but also something which meets a need that is deeper than the physical. 


Last week, we heard “I AM the Light of the World”.  We recognized that light helps us to see clearly.  When the way is dark, in addition to showing the path, it may provide hope and comfort.  But sometimes the light shows us things we would rather not see and so we retreat into the shadows.  Following the Light of the World means being led by Jesus’ illumination and committing ourselves to keep on seeing what he would have us see.


And then today, we heard “I AM the gate.” 

“I AM the Gate.”  (?)   Maybe you have very fond memories of a particular gate, the gate at Grandma’s house, or some other special place.  If so, then “I AM the gate” might resonate with you in good ways.  Otherwise, “I AM the gate” just doesn’t seem as warm and fuzzy as “I AM the Bread of Life” or “I AM the Light of the World.”  Not that they were particularly warm and fuzzy to start with. 


So this one takes a bit more unpacking.  Especially for us, who are mostly urban people and separated from ancient Middle Eastern shepherding life by a few thousand years. 


Kenneth Bailey spent forty years living and teaching New Testament in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus.  He provides some very helpful background to this passage.  Bailey says that there are two different scenes here.  The first scene is on a narrow street in a village.  Every family here has a few sheep.  The houses are built with a lower area in the main family living space.  Every night, the family cow and donkey and few sheep are brought inside.  In the morning the animals are taken outside into the courtyard to wait for the shepherd.  Most families don’t have enough sheep to dedicate a family member’s time to herding them, so the families go together to hire one young man or two young women from the neighborhood to shepherd all the sheep.  If a family has 10 or more sheep, they would have an outdoor sheepfold attached to the back of the house.  Its walls would be five or six feet high with large jagged thorns or pieces of broken glass worked into the plaster along the top edge to discourage thieves.  Thieves come over the top of the wall.  The shepherd comes in by the gate.[1] 


In this first scene, the neighborhood shepherd arrives and calls a greeting and the gatekeeper, someone from within the family, opens the gate of the sheepfold or the gate of the courtyard and the sheep go out to him.  So in the first scene, Jesus is the shepherd who comes in through the gate and leads the sheep out to pasture.


The second scene happens out in the wilderness.  “The sheep have spent the day grazing, drinking, and resting.  In the later months of each year . . . the shepherd must lead the flock further and further from the home village to find the uneaten grass.  Each day more and more time and energy is lost in the endless task of finding pasture.  In late summer and early fall, it is still hot.  For centuries, shepherds have constructed round, roughly built enclosures using uncut field stones.  Once again thorns are worked into the top of the wall . . . These freestanding structures have no roofs or doors.  The only vulnerable spot, once the sheep are inside the sheepfold, is across the entrance.  If there is some dried brush in the area, the shepherd can build a small fire just outside the entrance to help protect the sheep.  If he has a dog, he will place is just beside the entrance across which he will then sleep.  In this scene, the shepherd literally becomes the door.”.[2]  “I AM the Gate for the sheep” describes a shepherd’s job overnight in the open country. 


In the first scene, Jesus is the shepherd.  In the second, he is the gate and now we understand why he can be both.  In the village, the gate is opened to or by the shepherd, but out in the open country, the shepherd lays down his own body to form the gate. 


Right.  So that helps us understand the logistics of gates and sheep, but what was Jesus really talking about?   This is part of an ongoing conversation Jesus is having with and against the opposition.  His opposition is the religious establishment, the clergy of his day who have aligned themselves with the political and military power of Rome.   He mentions thieves and robbers.  Thieves, are those who steal of course.  The word that gets translated robbers means “revolutionary guerrillas” or “guerrilla warriors” or what today we would call “terrorists.”  The combination of “thieves and robbers” suggests economic exploitation and violence.


Jesus is describing Israel’s current leaders as thieves and robbers who have gotten into the sheepfold to steal and destroy.  Their primary concern is not the well-being of the sheep, but protecting their own self-interests.  They are not good shepherds.  Jesus is the good shepherd.


Jesus is drawing on Israel’s long history with shepherds.  The beloved Psalm 23 says “The Lord is my Shepherd” which means, among other things, “I have no police protection.”  In the open spaces, travelers are alone.  “Thieves, wild animals, snakes, sudden blinding dust storms, water shortages, loose rocks and furnace-like heat are all potential threats.”[3]  There was no such thing as 911.  To claim “The Lord is my shepherd” was a profound statement of trust in God for all kinds of protection.


Jesus is claiming to be that shepherd, a source of deep security in a dangerous world.   The dangers include thieves and bandits, but also in verse 5, the stranger.  Kenneth Bailey suggests that the stranger represents voices that call out every morning, offering other options to the sheep.  In Jesus’ day, those voices included the people who had formed a kind of commune and lived in Qumran (John the Baptist might have been among them) and the Sadducees who clung to the tradition and power of the past and the Pharisees who wanted more and more precise applications of the law and the Hellenists who were trying to modernize the faith while the Herodians allied themselves with the military power of Rome and the Zealots prepared for a revolution which they could not accomplish.[4]   There were religious and political and economic voices.   We call those groups by different names  -- Republicans, Democrats, Socialists, capitalists, free marketers, New Agers, family values champions, New monastics, traditionalists, the Gun Lobby or 2nd Amendment Defenders – but we have a similar array of voices competing for our attention.  Jesus says that the sheep do not listen to those voices, because they know the voice of their shepherd.   


Most of us are probably comfortable with that image, the good shepherd who protects us from danger, who helps us sort through all the competing calls for our time and energy and follow the shepherd to pasture.  That’s a good image.


But again, what Jesus says in this text is “I AM the Gate.” 

In places with livestock, there are strict rules about gates.  If you open a gate, you had darn well better shut and latch it once you go through.  If a gate is fixed open, you must not shut it because it might represent the herd’s only access to water and shutting it would be disastrous.  Climbing over a gate might break it.  Crawling under it might wear away the ground and encourage animals to imitate you.  As long as we’re talking about sheep, there are rules about gates.  So when Jesus says that he is the gate, we want to know about the rules and I have found that at Emmanuel, we tend to be suspicious of rules. 


There are implications about gates that many of us just don’t like.  Gates are used to keep certain things in and other things out.  Some of us have been identified as the ones who are best kept outside the gate when we wanted in.  We don’t want a gated community, thank you very much.


But Jesus said “I AM the gate.” Regardless of our preferences, there it is.  So is there anything about Jesus as the Gate that we can affirm?


Well, to start with, there are the thieves and bandits.  There are behaviors and motivations and destructive understandings of God that we actually don’t want in a faith community, even if we do value being open and inclusive. 


One scholar says that the gate in this case is Jesus’ death and resurrection.  The sheep are led out of death into abundant life, only because Jesus defeats death through the cross and resurrection.  The voices of all those strangers try to offer salvation, but only this gate works.  He says, “God . . .  is the gate-keeper, the one who makes the decision about the method by which God will save his people.  God chooses death and resurrection.  Any other way--any Temple-based sacrificial system, any morality-based self-improvement system, any power-based oppressive system--has been rejected.”[5]


So one of the things about gates, when we’re talking about Jesus and not literal sheep, is that I AM gate is not enforced with legalism or with traditional understandings of power.  This gate functions in a realm where ordinary human rules don’t apply, but instead where we remember Jesus’ unusual teachings about the last being first and the power of laying down one’s life.  So the rules of this gate are based on mercy and compassion and grace.


The Rev. Anna Carter Florence is Professor of Preaching and Worship at Columbia Seminary.  She has a delightful way of understanding the gate.  She points out that sheep don’t go through the gate just once.  It is not like we use the gate of Jesus’ death and resurrection and that’s the end of the story.  In this metaphor, it is the sheep’s job to go in and out repeatedly. 


She says, “We go out and we come in even when we are saved. The gate marks a place to rest and a place to graze. The rhythm of in and out is necessary to life because the green pastures are outside the gate; a sheep that flat out refuses to go out will die. Likewise, a sheep that flat-out refuses to go in, when the call comes, may soon be lost in the night. So the gate is part of life and key to life, but not because it keeps us out or in. It simply marks the boundary between what we are to do in each space. The secret of saving the life of a sheep is to know when it is time to go out and when it is time to come back in. The point is to listen to the voice of the shepherd—the voice you recognize above all others—and follow that call.[6]


We cannot live our lives in the sheepfold.  It may be safe there, but we need the pasture, the still waters, the green grass that lies beyond.  To move in and out through the I AM gate means to live a life that is abundant in freedom and sustenance. 


Jesus says, “I AM the Bread of Life.  I AM the Light of the World.  I AM the gate for the sheep. I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.”  Today, may we hear the voice of the good shepherd and follow.  Amen.



[1] Kenneth E. Baily, The Good Shepherd:  A Thousand-Year Journey from Psalm 23 to the New Testament, (Downers Grove, IL:  Intervarsity Press, 2014), p. 213

[2] Bailey, pp. 221-222

[3] Bailey, pp. 37

[4] Bailey, pp. 219-220.

[5] John Petty at http://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2014/05/lectionary-blogging-easter-4-john-10-1-10.html 

[6] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching the Lesson, in Lectionary Homiletics, April 13, 2008