“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.”
Shepherds, sheep, gatekeepers, thieves – John has trained us to anticipate an “I am” statement to follow shortly after any such extended metaphor.
And sure enough, a couple of sentences later, “I am the gate”, says Jesus.
Not the obvious first choice, perhaps, but an intriguing one – which is often Jesus’ first choice. Out of all the available images, the one Jesus claims for himself in this particular discourse is not one of a leader or a protector or a provider – not a person at all, with agency and power, but an object: I am the gate, says Jesus.
So what is the gate?
Given all the talk of thieves and bandits in the passage, it makes sense that the gate feels primarily to be about boundaries and security. Indeed, these ideas are what we generally associate with gates – whether the gates of a gated community or the admission gates at a stadium or the bars of a jail cell. Gates separate those who belong on the inside from those who belong on the outside and help police that boundary.
So is Jesus such a boundary, marking off who belongs and who doesn’t and keeping the two groups apart?
Somehow, that doesn’t fit with who we know Jesus to be – the one who ate with tax collectors and sinners and also with apparently respectable folks like Mary and Martha and Lazarus and even with Pharisees on occasion – the one who crosses even the boundaries of life and death, heaven and earth, human and divine. Jesus risks the crossing rather than polices the borders.
Because, of course, gates aren’t walls – they’re openings in walls. Gates swing – open as well as closed – they are the means by which you get from one side to the other. And gates aren’t the destination, the end in themselves – they are the space in between, the space to be crossed. Without a gate, you are either trapped inside or locked outside but, with one, you can traverse the border. Jesus makes this crossing possible for Jesus is the gate.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week – as I’m sure many of you have been doing as well – about the Nigerian girls abducted from their schools and their homes. And I’ve been thinking about the Aboriginal women here in Canada who have been murdered or are missing. In some senses, these women and girls were in desperate need of a wall – a wall to keep them safe from the predators and terrorists that wish them harm. But in another sense, these women and girls were put in danger – are still in danger – because they are behind a wall, set apart and made invisible to the people who could help them and protect them.
Thieves and bandits will climb over walls while the so-called good guys – government, police, concerned citizens, the media, you and I – busy ourselves with things that matter more than the lives of a bunch of women and girls marked off as “not us”, keeping to our side of the wall instead of crossing the boundary; instead of going through the gate.
And now we’ve been forced to notice and no one can quite figure out how to find the gate, never mind get through it. It’s complicated; it’s embarrassing; it’s painful. But I do believe – or at least fervently hope – that most people do want through. I think that desire is at the root of the success of the Bring Back Our Girls, social media campaign – giving people a way to express their desire to connect with the communities and parents of the Nigerian girls. Those girls are not ours, of course – and the whole campaign raises some difficult issues about appropriation and colonialism and power – but even so, it is also right. Those girls are ours – or at least, we want them to be. Hashtag Bring Back Our Girls is a gate.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada’s campaign, Sisters in Spirit, working to document the stories of the missing and murdered women and to lobby for a national inquiry, is a gate.
Noticing –engaging – the Aboriginal women panhandling on the streets around Place des Arts metro is a gate.
Advocating for the rights of girls and women around the world to education and to economic independence is a gate.
All of this work is complicated. All of this work may turn out to be embarrassing and painful, requiring us to acknowledge our failings and take risks in changing how our own lives are ordered and how our society, our world is ordered.
But it’s what Jesus does. In fact, it’s so thoroughly what Jesus does that it is what Jesus is.
“I am the gate”, says Jesus.
“Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
Going through the gate, moving between here and there; us and them; the comfort of the sheepfold and the risk and reward of the pasture – this is our salvation. This is what makes us whole, what brings us into abundant life and the full knowledge of the love and grace of God. But not only us – the whole world finds its salvation in this movement through the gate.
Hashtags and petitions only ask so much of us – and will only accomplish so much – but they are gateways towards this salvation, first steps out of the sheepfold.
And we will not take them alone. If we keep reading just a few verses beyond today’s lectionary passage, we find Jesus claiming another image for himself as well: “I am the Good Shepherd” says Jesus.
Jesus is the gate and the shepherd – the opening in the wall and the guide to help us negotiate what we find beyond it.
It is his voice that is calling us out through the gate and into the pasture; his voice we recognize in our desire to cross boundaries and make connections. But we need to pay attention so that we can hear his voice and find our way to the gate – so that we can hear the voices of women and girls whose lives are valued far too little by far too many people and the voices of those calling us to account and to action.
And then, when we have heard and responded, when we step out of the sheepfold and across the boundaries, we can trust that the Good Shepherd will be with us – whether we find ourselves in green pastures or in the valley of the shadow of death. There is, after all, no promise that what lies through the gate will be safe or easy – just that it is necessary for our salvation.