They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
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. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, 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. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Growing up in small town New Brunswick, very few properties had fences. Properties were bigger I think than the average size lot in Edmonton. The house in which we lived in Hampton would have been double the size of many lots in Edmonton, maybe even three times the size of some lots.
Later on when I was married and had young children and a dog we put up a fence in Arthur, Ontario at the back of the manse, to keep the dog and the children in, to help keep them safe and from wandering on to the road.
And an interesting story form our days in Arthur a town of 1800 people. One time when we were on holidays the neighbours a couple of doors down looked after our dog Duffy.
One day Duffy went missing. They found him in our fenced backyard. Someone had walked by and saw recognized that Duffy wasn’t home, so they grabbed him and took him back to the house and put him in the back yard.
So the primary purpose of the fence was to keep the ones I loved safe. It wasn’t to keep others out.
But fences and walls throughout history have often had that purpose. To keep out the undesirables.
Someone a little over 150 years ago released 24 wild rabbits in Australia that they might breed and develop a hunting population. In about 50 to 60 years there were literally billions of rabbits in Australia, doing so much damage to vegetation, crops etc. that at one time a fence was built across Australia over 1800 kilometres long, to try and keep the rabbits from going into Western Australia, the longest unbroken fence in the world.
Another wall to keep out the undesirables is the Great Wall of China, although that is a bit of a misnomer. There were many different walls built over a couple of thousand years. What we see today is mostly the wall built during the Ming dynasty which is over 6,000 miles long.
These walls in China were built mostly to keep out foreign invaders, but also were used for immigration, purposes and trade and tariff purposes.
There was also of course Hadrian’s wall built in Britain in the second century, maybe to keep the northern barbarians at bay, those who lived in what we would now call Scotland.
I don’t think it worked. Those pesky Scots went all over the world. There are approximately 5 million people in Canada of Scottish descent, not far behind the present population of Scotland.
So another major reason for fences and walls is to keep the undesirables out.
So when Jesus give us the metaphor of the sheepfold with the gate it would seem at least a first glance that this is a metaphor about who Jesus is trying to keep safe…
And who Jesus is trying to keep out….
I think that is true, but what it is not about is the question of who are the sheep.
That has been a question, Christians and other theologian have argued for centuries. Who exactly is a Christian and who is not?
And it seems depending on your faith, your Christian background, your denomination etc.. the answer differs.
There are those who have a few narrow understanding of who is a Christian.
Many years ago when I was in a more fundamentalist denomination, it was understood by that denomination, and therefore by me, that basically most Presbyterians, Uniteds, Roman Catholics, Anglicans and people who belonged to the more mainline denominations were not really Christians and were going to hell, because they hadn’t personally accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts and been born again. Of course everybody who wasn’t a Christian was going to hell, that went without
Karl Rahner the late Jesuit theologian came up with a term called anonymous Christians, which referred to those who did not know Christianity but lived good and graceful lives. He said that Christ still saved them even if they were not in the Church because their hearts were committed to the values for which Christ lived and died.
That may be a more middle way, and yet on the other end of the scale, the belief that was most common in the first few centuries, and I think it more common now, is that everyone was a child of God and when dead, their spirits would go to God. That is called universalism.
And I am mixing things up a bit. Who is a Christian and who goes to heaven is actually two different questions, although for some they are one and the same question.
But this image of the sheepfold is not really about who is a sheep. The question is not about who is in the fold and who is not in the fold. In some ways we may assume the sheep are all humans, and the Jesus came for these sheep, all people…
The issue is not really about who is sheep, but about abundant life and how to get it.
There are those who are thieves and robbers and do not want the sheep to have abundant life, as opposed to Christ who came that we might have abundant life…
Whatever that is….
Abundant life. What might that mean to you and me. God wants us to have abundant life.
Not just life. Not just existence…but abundant life.
Later on Jesus will say: I have told you these things so that you my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.
So it is possible that abundant life may be a joyful life.
It is interesting that if you ask why Jesus came to people and the whole point of Jesus, many people would say that the point of Jesus is to save us from our sins.
And while I think forgiveness of sin is very, very important and that all of us sin, all of us need forgiveness, and that all of us nee to forgive…
And that it is an important message of Jesus, here Jesus makes it a point to say that what he is giving is abundant life.
The point is that while we are saved from sin, its power and its consequences and there are different understandings of that…
This statement is a more positive statement not about what we might be saved from, but what we might be saved to…
Jesus is not rescuing us from something bad and harmful, he is offering something good and wonderful.
And if you are not exactly sure what it is…well maybe that is understandable because the text says that they didn’t understand what Jesus meant when he talked about the sheep and the thieves and robbers who do not enter by the gate.
Well let’s take a story. Let us back up in the bible to see that story that comes before it.
A very interesting story and one of the longest stories in the New Testament…a whole chapter devoted to the man born blind.
Jesus heals the blind man, a man about whom jesus says, sin is not the issue.
He is healed as a sign that Jesus is light for the world.
It’s a metaphor..
Of course the man gets in trouble because he has been healed on the Sabbath and the Pharisees launch a big court case and call in witnesses and his parents.
And he ends up being expelled from the synagogue.
And while Jesus is light for the world, and while fullness of light for the blind man is about seeing….
There is bigger issue.
What does it mean to really see? The Pharisees who can actually physically see cannot really see. They are spiritually blind.
What they see is their own self interest. What they see is how to rule and control and make definitions about who is in and who is out.
What they see is people not good enough, people to look down on. what they see is categories of people, hierarchies, where some are better than others, and the good ones are the only ones deserving of God.
What they don’t see is that everyone is a child of God. What they don’t see is other people’s needs. What they don’t see is compassionate love and mercy. What they don’t see is that Jesus way of love is the way to be…
So it is possible that if we are not blind that we will see with the eyes of Jesus.
And recognize that abundant life may in part be meeting the needs of those who are in need and that is contextual.
If you are blind maybe seeing is abundant life. It you are lonely then maybe companionship is abundant life. If you are been betrayed, then maybe emotional healing is abundant life.
If you are a bullied teen then maybe, truth and a champion and society that doesn’t accept bullies.
If you are retired maybe it is fulfillment and purpose in volunteering or in family life.
Having needs met may be part of what it means to have abundant life….
…but maybe it is even deeper than that…
For we know that in every life there are times when certain needs are not met, that there are losses and setbacks, and sickness and things that cannot be fixed.
And I think the key is the phrase “thieves and bandits.”
There are those who are not our for your abundant life, or my abundant life or for anyone’s abundant life, they are out for themselves and they want to take from people.
And Jesus is not talking about the sheep, but in a sense the shepherds, or the leaders, or the people in power or those who exercise leadership.
And the simple and bold truth is that there are many leaders and many in power who are simply out for themselves and they use people.
There are leaders who rob us of our dignity, our self-worth, our equality, our compassion, our sense of inclusion, our peace-making, our money, our labour….
Because they are about their own-self-interest, or the interest of their power group…
Or they about control and power and putting people in their place…
Or they think they are God and know better than everybody else in the world.
You know when you watch television you watch commercials. If you watch a lot of television you watch a lot of commercials.
What advertisers are trying to do is sell you something.
The bottom line is sales…
…and not your best interest.
They can lie blatantly or subtly, they can misdirect, they can entice, they can make you feel bad, they entertain, or titillate…
They can prey on feelings of loneliness or lack of self-worth. They can appeal to your ego, to your patriotism, to your needs or to your wishes…
But the bottom line for them is sales, not your best interest.
We get used to them. It is a part of life. We get sucked in by them sometimes. It is a part of life…
But what would it be like to have someone who totally understood you, who was totally out for your best interest.
…Someone who didn’t manipulate you, coerce you, frighten you, threaten you, intimidate you, entice you, tease you, beg you, put a guilt trip on you, give you the silent treatment, look down upon you, flatter you… categorize you….
or treat you in any other way than with love, care, respect and freedom.
Someone who treasured you, found joy in you, thinks you are amazing…
That my friends is Jesus. Not out for himself, not on a power trip, not out to get you, punish you, force you…
But to simply love you, care for you and respect you.
And that is why I think Jesus calls himself the gate. The gate to abundant life is for people to treat each other the way Jesus treats us.
Real abundant life, beyond having basic needs met is about relationships.
Relationships of love, freedom, care, respect…. Relationships where we are not manipulated or used, but treasured and enjoyed, respected and loved.
Anyone who does not treat you with respect, with care, with compassion, with love is a thief and a bandit, because they rob you of dignity for their own ends.
And anyone who treats you with respect, with care, with compassion and love is entering the gate we call Christ…
I believe that if we all entered that gate called Christ and respected everyone, and cared for everyone and loved everyone and just didn’t look our for our own interests, but for the interests of others…
this world would look a different place and the basic needs of the world’s population would be met….
And the kingdom would come…
And the hungry would be filled, and those blinded by self-interest would see…
And those countries crippled by debt and exploitation would start to walk again…
And those imprisoned with guilt, fear, addiction might find release.
And those imprisoned by injustice and inequity will set free.
But the truth is that we do not all enter the gate called Christ, that gate of love, compassion, inclusion, respect and love….
What what you and I can do is enter it and find abundant life and joy…
Not because we have eliminated all the thieves and robbers, but because we have found a way, a truth a life that is all about loving respectful relationships.
First of all with Jesus, and then with loving our neighbour,
Some years ago talking with someone, who was in his fourties, who felt he hadn’t made it yet.
Was still looking forward to the big score, and living on easy street.
I told him he had a beautiful wife and two beautiful children. He owned two cars a nice house, a boat, a computer. He had a good and stable job as did his wife.
I told him that he had already won the lottery and if he couldn’t see that he was stupid.
Because he had everything he needed for abundant life and that is to love his family, his friends, his neighbours and treat people with love and respect and simply choose to enjoy life in all its fullness.
Abundant life is not about winning the lottery or having lots of money…
It is about letting your life be full of love…
It is about loving everyone and treating them with respect…
It is about knowing the one who is love and only love…
And if that is what you concentrate on…
You will find that there is joy and abundant life. Amen.