Most of what I know about sheep, which is very little, comes from the Bible. I know that many people to whom Jesus spoke were shepherds. Talk of sheep was a vital and timely metaphor for them; for us, not so much. Jesus didn’t use dog metaphors or car metaphors or computer metaphors, which means that we have to do some translating when we read the Bible, not just of language, but of whole ways of thinking and imaging our world. More importantly, we have to be aware of the ways in which our history of interpretation impacts the way that we read. That is, when we read in John 10.1-10, that Jesus is the sheepgate, there are 2000 years of tradition and cultural developments that inform what we think that means.
Unfortunately, the history of Christianity is a long series of gatekeeping operations. The Apostolic Church fought over whether to let in Gentiles and whether to let women participate. The Eastern Church and the Western Church fought over whether to include one another. The Catholic Church excludes Protestants from the communion table. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was born when Richard Allen grew weary of being kept out of full participation. Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week in America. And we still debate whether we should let women participate and whether queer people should be allowed, not to mention the many subtle ways we exclude the disabled, divorced, dis-eased, and disadvantaged. Over time, we have moved the boundary line out a little farther, let in these, but not those. I suppose, given an infinite time horizon, we’ll finally let everyone in.
All this wrangling over who is in and who is out has taken its toll on the poor sheepgate. As I heard it growing up, the meaning of this story is that Jesus is the only way to heaven. We have to get in through Jesus. A quick scan of the interwebz tells me that view is still well represented. However, I think that misses some of the story. First, the sheep go in and go out (v.9); it’s not just letting in. In fact, the bulk of the narrative is about going out (vv. 3-5). More importantly, the purpose of going out is to find pasture (v. 9), i.e., food, nourishment. It’s not about separating the good from the bad, but about paying attention to the one who cares for you. Further, if we are to be like Jesus, it seems our task is to nourish people and provide safe rest, to be the voice that leads people to their salvation. When we reduce the sheepgate to boundary maintenance, we impoverish the text, the church, and ourselves. We diminish the power of God to deliver us from the evils of this world.
This Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, we will continue a discussion of boundaries and inclusion, but also discuss what it means to be saved. What are saved from? What are we saved for? We hope you’ll join us.
Grace & Peace,