Too often much of Christianity is about gatekeeping. Do you think the right things, believe the right things, confess the right things and maybe hate the right things? If so, welcome to the club—if not, get out of here. If we’re honest, Lutheran Christians do this as much as anyone. After all, the first step is to admit that there’s a problem and correctly identify it. In this week’s lectionary texts, we have an example of good gatekeeping by Jesus and then some descriptions of what is behind that gate.
John 10 begins with an extended metaphor in which Jesus compares himself to two things. We all know about Jesus as the good shepherd from verses 11-18. But we spend less time on his introductory metaphor of Jesus as the gate of the sheep pen. For all the non-shepherds out there: in places of danger, whether from wild animals or from brigands, shepherds work together to make sheep pens. Several flocks may be kept together (penned in, so to speak) so the shepherds can take some time off from their vigilance. A professional guard may be employed to keep the sheep safe. Or one of the shepherds may lay in front of the door to the pen, making sure that no sheep escape and no wild animals or thieves break in. You can be sure that anyone who tries to avoid the door and the gatekeeper doesn’t have good intentions for the sheep.
In this metaphor, Jesus is speaking to shepherds, that is, other leaders of God’s people. Later he will call himself the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, but here he is the door, the access point to the sheep. If a shepherd doesn’t go through Jesus to collect the sheep, he isn’t trustworthy and doesn’t have the sheep’s protection, safety and care in mind. Sheep will follow all sorts of shepherds if they know their voices—frequently to our own detriment. Again, not all leaders put their highest priority on the good of the flock that has been entrusted to their care. Jesus insists to his disciples, and to us, that a trustworthy shepherd will have to pass through him to gain access to the people he keeps safe and guards.
You can be sure that anyone who tries to avoid the door and the gatekeeper doesn’t have good intentions for the sheep.
So then, what does a trustworthy shepherd do? What are the hallmarks of someone who would be trusted by Jesus to lead the sheep for whom Christ has laid down his life? One of my most favorite sections of Scripture in Acts 2 gives us a good picture of excellent Christian leadership. For lack of a better term, the disciples, and those who followed Jesus because of them, “did life together.” The four verbs of real church—study, hang out, pray and eat (Acts 2:42)—were necessities. The disciples held everything in common, meeting together in both the holy places and in the normal, everyday places to eat and simply be together.
A trustworthy shepherd acts as Jesus did by hanging out with people, eating, walking, asking and answering (and not answering) questions. Jesus absolutely took plenty of alone time, and I think any healthy shepherd, introverted or not, should be alone frequently. But Jesus also says the sheep will know the shepherd because she walks with the sheep, leading them with her presence and voice. If the sheep encounter the leader for only a couple hours once a week, that sort of intimacy isn’t possible.
Now, a pastoral question arises: how does one create a healthy intimacy between sheep and shepherds? Again, remember that in this metaphor Jesus is the doorkeeper who releases the sheep to the shepherd. I, for one, love Lenten Wednesday suppers and Friday prayers. I used to think that I wouldn’t have time for those things when we had kids. But now, as parents, it’s more important than ever that we eat together with other members of the body of Christ. I simply can’t allow for church to be only a Sunday morning thing for my kids. I think Jesus calls us to more and better. As an example, Amy Beitelschees-Albers, an ELCA pastor, leads So Much More Ministries, which weekly provides free meals to unify communities across Fort Wayne, Ind. They eat together and hang out to practice exactly the type of ministry that Jesus and the early church did.
The early church ate together, studied, prayed and hung out, and God added daily to their numbers. Jesus, as the door to the sheepfold, grants shepherds time off, but then releases the sheep to the shepherds for daily care and feeding. May we learn from their ministries.