The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Text: John 10:1-10
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
April 30, 2023
Today, we observe what is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. In our readings, we have the famous Twenty-third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and we have the story of Jesus, the good shepherd, in our Gospel from John. Jesus, the good shepherd, is one of the most popular icons in Christianity. Here at St. Mary’s, we have a beautiful stained-glass window in the St. George Chapel that depicts Jesus carrying a lamb on his shoulders. And in our parish office, we have a large, black-and-white picture of Jesus, standing in the middle of a flock of sheep and holding a tiny lamb in his arm. The painting used to belong to one of our parishioners, the late Ms. Faye Hopkins.
We are all familiar with Jesus, the good shepherd. But, in today’s Gospel, we find another, less well-known metaphor for Jesus, the gate, more specifically, the gate to the sheepfold. So, on the surface, we seem to have a case of mixed metaphors, two incompatible, confusing metaphors. How can Jesus be both the shepherd and the gate in the same story? Well, setting our literary conventions aside, the two metaphors work together to convey the main point of the story: Jesus, the good shepherd and the gate to the sheepfold, is the source of care, protection, and guidance for his followers.
In seeing Jesus as the good shepherd, we have the promise and assurance of his constant presence in our lives. The good shepherd never leaves his flock as he cares and provides for them. And I can think of no words more eloquent than the Twenty-third Psalm in expressing this fundamental conviction of our Christian faith:
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
As followers of Jesus, we are never alone. We are his flock, in the company of other sheep and guided and protected, cared and provided for by the good shepherd. Whatever the circumstances of our life may be, whether we find ourselves in green pastures - when everything in life seems to be going smoothly, enjoying health and success - or the valley of the shadow of death - when we confront a serious illness or death – Jesus promises to be with us. The image of Jesus, the good shepherd, has provided comfort and strength for the faithful in countless situations.
In seeing Jesus as the gate, we have a less familiar image than the good shepherd but no less important. I have to confess that when I was preparing the sermon, I had to do some research about sheep. Having always lived in the city, I’m ignorant of farm life and animals. I remember when I first started working at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg and began the long drives through rural Missouri, one day I sighted sheep grazing in the fields. I think it was the first time in my life that I had seen sheep in person. And I had thought that sheep were found only in places like England and the Middle East, not in the U.S. and certainly not in Missouri. So, I excitedly called my mother and exclaimed: “They have sheep in America!”
In our Gospel text, we read: “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9). So, based on what I’ve learned – and please correct me if I’m wrong – the sheepfold is the enclosure where the sheep come in during the night to rest and find protection from thieves and predators. So, it is through Jesus, the gate, that we enter the sheepfold to find rest and protection. Then, during the day, the gate is opened so the sheep can go out, led by the shepherd, to find pasture. According to these images, Jesus, the shepherd, walks with us and leads us in our daily lives, but, as the gate, he invites us to retreat from the world into the sheepfold, where we find rest and protection.
Four years ago, April of 2019, about a month before I was about to begin my service at St. Mary’s, I had a conversation with one of our parishioners, Spencer Jasper, as we were concluding our vigil on Maundy Thursday. Spencer, a long-time parishioner, shared with me his love for the church, and he made a comment that will always stay with me. Pointing to our beautiful altar, he said, “This is the gate of heaven.”
Yes, this altar, on which Our Lord Jesus Christ offers himself to us, is indeed the gate of heaven. He invites us to enter this sacred space, away from the cares and distractions, perils and dangers, of this world, and to find rest and refreshment. And as we gather at the altar to celebrate the Holy Mysteries, heaven and earth meet. We are joined by the citizens of heaven. Angels and archangels, patriarchs and prophets, saints and martyrs, and our beloved ones who have gone before us – all descend around the altar to join us in praise and adoration of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Eucharist, we are given a foretaste of heaven.
So, dear friends, we gather at the gate of heaven this morning. In the words of our Prayer Book, we come to receive “the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him” (The Book of Common Prayer, p.363). We come not for solace only, but for strength; not for pardon only, but for renewal (The Book of Common Prayer, p.372). And, when the service is ended and we leave the sheepfold to go back into the world of green pastures and shadows of the valley of death, we will be carried in the arms of our good shepherd.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!