At Your Service

SJF• Easter 4a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Jesus said to them, “I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate.”

It has long been a tradition to take up the account of the early church in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles during worship in Easter Season. As I noted last week, this can be a bit confusing as it gets events into a disordered sequence — we won’t celebrate Pentecost for a few weeks yet, and most of what we are hearing from Acts takes place after the original descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, seven weeks — a week of weeks — after the first Easter. I noted last week that during this time we are a bit like Doctor Who, bouncing back and forth in time, as the story is told out of order.

But that being said, isn’t it a wonderful story! In today’s short reading we hear of the short period of peace the early church enjoyed before persecution from without and dissension from within began to trouble it. The preaching of the gospel has been such a success, and the church has grown so much! People are in awe, and the members of the church devote themselves to prayer, fellowship and praising God. Is it any wonder that people are beginning to seek to be added to that number? It is almost as if the church is running on auto-pilot, without any need for earthly leadership — just one big happy and growing family! Of course, they are happy in this way because at that early point they have put their whole trust in the one whom they know to be their true leader, the one who suffered for them, bearing their sins upon the cross, and healing them by his wounds. They have put their whole trust in the one who, when they were going astray like sheep, gathered them together as the shepherd and guardian of their souls.

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This Sunday is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The theme is referred to in our opening Collect, and in the selection of the 23rd Psalm. And it is true that later in John’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But we miss Jesus’ teaching in today’s gospel if we anticipate those verses.

In today’s gospel Jesus does not call himself the shepherd, but — twice no less — the “gate for the sheep.” Perhaps we are inclined to let our minds slip over this image because it is less evocative than that of a young shepherd carrying a lost sheep home on his shoulder, as in the hymn based on David’s most famous Psalm, which we’ll be singing later: “and on his shoulder gently laid, and home rejoicing brought me.” But let us stick with Jesus’ image of the gate, looking at what the text actually says, and listening to Jesus as he teaches us — lest we too fall into the same trap of misunderstanding as his original hearers, who, as it says in today’s gospel, “did not understand what he was saying to them.”

Very well, then. Let’s try to do better. Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep”; and “I am the gate.” This means that he is the one through whom the sheep enter and leave, through whom they pass in to safety and out to pasture. As he also says (and we’ll hear this next week), I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life. We are saved through him. He is the way; he is the gate. So if Jesus is the gate, who then, in this imagery, is the shepherd?

Let us again “look at the text” as my New Testament professor always used to say. What is written there? The shepherd is the one for whom the gate is opened, for the shepherd passes in and out with the sheep. The shepherd is not like the thief or bandit who doesn’t go through the gate (that is, through Jesus) but climbs in by another way. And the shepherd leads the sheep and calls them by name, and the sheep hear the shepherd, and, knowing and recognizing that voice, they follow the shepherd in and out of the gate, that is Jesus.

What Jesus is doing in this passage is showing that he chooses to share the work of the church — which is salvation — with other workers: with these shepherds. Jesus delegates part of his work to the apostles and they to their successors, the bishops, who also pass along the work to the priests and deacons who serve in the parishes, and who — in case you haven’t noticed my doing this — also seek to engage all of the members of the church — that’s you! — in taking up their share of the work. These are the shepherds for whom Jesus the gate is opened, who call the sheep by name, and who lead the sheep alternately to safety and to pasture, in and out, through the gate, which is Christ himself, whose body is the church.

As to the thieves and bandits, well, next week we will see Stephen — among the first of the deacons — dealing with some of the leaders who instead of bringing their people to salvation are getting in the way of the message, impeding the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus too dealt with such leaders, to whom he said, Woe to you, who not entering yourselves have hindered others from entering!(Lk 11:52) And surely over the last two decades we’ve heard the sad and shocking tales of priestly misconduct, of those who abuse the little ones committed to their charge, and of bishops who as senior pastors fail to keep watch, and instead simply shuffle the crooked deck in a kind of ecclesiastical Three Card Monte. All I can say is, there will be a reckoning for those who take up the role of shepherd only to molest or harm the sheep.

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But let us, dear sisters and brothers, look on the bright side of Jesus’ challenge to us, the tremendous honor that our Lord does us by asking for our help, by opening himself up to us to pass in and out, by allowing us entry by the gate, to take up these tasks of ministry, to allow us to go out through the gate, out into the world to serve the needs of the world, and committing to us all of these tasks of leadership and care. It isn’t just the clergy, the bishops, priests and deacons. The church has its lay members too, working in so many ways, who take up each their own tasks of teaching the young, taking roles in worship, visiting the sick and feeding the hungry, those who maintain the physical facility of this building and other buildings, and those who undertake the work of hospitality in the heat of the kitchen — and that’s hard work, believe me. And also, and perhaps most importantly, all of you, as you go out into the world, a challenging world that is hungry not just for earthly bread, but for the word of God. All of these tasks are important, all of them require time and talent and treasure. And the church needs all of them, as they are delegated to each one by the power of the Holy Spirit working in each one to build up the church.

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There is an old story told of a steamboat helmsman and an engineer who got into an argument as to who was more important: the one who steered the boat or the one who kept the engine running so the boat could go. So they decided to trade places to see just how hard the other worked, and how important the other job was. After a couple of hours of running along fine, the ship came to stop, and the engineer, now up on the bridge, got on the horn to the helmsman, down in the boiler room. “The ship has stopped! Are you giving us full steam?” The helmsman responded from below, “The engines overheated and stopped running! I’m coming up.”

The engineer on the bridge smiled to himself, figuring he’d won the debate as to who was most important. But as the helmsman came to the bridge and looked out at the river, he smiled ruefully and said to the engineer, “Well, I guess I know now why the boat has stopped. You’ve run us aground on a sand-bar!”

The church is too important, my friends, to run aground over arguments about whose ministry is more important. The church is too important to allow a few bad priests to destroy people’s confidence in the rest who are good. The church is too important to be injured by bishops more interested in the church’s reputation than in the good of the flock. But the church itself — Christ’s body — is not too important for God in Christ to have committed its care into our less than perfect hands — all of us. He has chosen us to go in and out through him. Mark and Catherine our bishops, I as your priest, Tony and Eliza as our former deacons, and Mark Collins and Sahra Harding as seminarians here (and now priests themselves serving in other parishes) and each and all of you as readers and teachers and ushers and cooks and cleaners and welcomers and visitors and hosts and musicians and altar serves, and most importantly of all as members of this church going out into the world and spreading the news — each of us has been given a job and a ministry by God, by our Lord, the gate for the sheep, and all of us have been empowered to carry it out by the Holy Spirit. Maybe we can — through the power and grace of God, help move the church into something resembling those early days when they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Wouldn’t that be awesome! The church being the church — coming and going through the gate and all working ship-shape and in Bristol fashion.

So let us not lose heart, let us not lose faith. When the job seems daunting or beyond our capacity, let us always remember that the Lord who is Way, the Truth and Life will provide other servants through the gate, who will join in the work of building up God’s kingdom, day by day adding to the number being saved, being brought through the gate of salvation, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.+