Every time I hear this passage from John’s Gospel, it takes me back to my first semester in seminary and my New Testament class with Professor Paul Holloway. In my mind’s eye, I can see the whiteboard, crammed with timelines and bullet points and then, all by itself on one side of the board, a picture of a big, round sheep pen… a stick-figure sheep with a square head standing inside… and a stick-figure Jesus guarding the gate. Professor Holloway was (and is) a brilliant New Testament scholar, one of the foremost authorities on the Apostle Paul in the world. But he’ll tell you, himself, that he and many other New Testament scholars aren’t always quite sure about what to do with the Gospel of John. It’s very different from the Synoptic Gospels: Mathew, Mark and Luke. Methodist pastor and author Adam Hamilton summarizes the differences nicely, I think, when he observes that while the Synoptics tend to tell the story of the “what, when and where” of Jesus’ ministry, John’s account focuses on who Jesus was, and why he became Immanuel… God with us. And like many academics, Professor Holloway sometimes seemed to be more comfortable with the what, when and where.
In fact, there’s a lot of esoteric stuff in John’s Gospel… a lot of metaphors and “figures of speech” used by Jesus that sometimes leave us standing, scratching our heads… wondering what it’s all about. The language is beautiful and evocative to be sure: from, “In the beginning was the Word” to the “I am” sayings: I am the bread of life… the light of the world… the gate… the good shepherd… I am the resurrection and the life… the way the truth and the life… the vine, all the way through Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples, which takes up a full four chapters of John’s Gospel. It’s easy for readers to get caught up in the majesty and mystery of the text, only to find themselves wondering, in retrospect, “What does it all mean?” And Paul Holloway is as smart as they come… so if he’s a little mystified, then I guess it’s OK if we are too. Who knows… maybe Jesus wanted us to wrestle with his words a bit so that we could truly own them.
“I am the gate.” What mental picture does that bring to mind? When I get past the image of the “blockhead sheep,” I think first about the purpose of a gate… it’s designed to allow entrance to… and exit from… a space. A space necessarily delineated by some sort of barrier… some sort of perimeter. Sometimes the space is man-made, and sometimes the space simply “is.” Uh oh, there we go getting esoteric again. But following that logic, could we not say that gates, themselves, sometimes are manmade… and sometimes, they simply “are?” We don’t like it when things seem so random… so arbitrary. We want to know not only the what, when and where, but also the why. But the why can be complicated, can’t it? How many of you parents out there would be rich if you had a nickel for every time your children asked, often plaintively, “Why?” And how many of you occasionally were reduced to the response, “Because that’s just the way it is…” or, “Because I said so.” There was a perfectly good answer out there… but it was over your child’s head… or, perhaps, it just wouldn’t have been what s/he wanted to hear.
“I am the gate.” Only four words… and yet, that simple statement gives us so much food for thought. **“I AM.”** In the Hebrew Bible, the meaning of God’s name (YHWH) is closely related to “I AM” (see Exo 3:14; 6:2; Deut 32:39; Isa 43:25; 48:12; 51:12; etc.). In the original Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX, or the Septuagint), most of these passages are translated with the expression ego eimi… I AM. In Exodus, Chapter 3, God said to Moses, “I AM… WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, I AM… has sent me to you” (v. 14). Later, in Chapter 6, God said to Moses, “I AM… the LORD” (v. 2). In Deuteronomy, God says, “See now that I, even I… AM… he, and there is no god beside me” (32:39a) and he tells the prophet Isaiah, “Hearken to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I… AM… he, I AM… the first, and I AM… the last” (48:12). So, many scholars and interpreters believe that the Johannine Jesus is making claims of divinity with many, if not all, of his “I AM…” statements.
“I AM… the gate.” We’ve talked a little about spaces, and gates to spaces, and we’ll come back to that in a minute. But first, I want to think for a minute about the word “T͟Hə,” as in “I am ‘T͟Hə’ gate.” Isn’t it funny how, despite the linguistic majesty of “I am,” and the possibilities that present themselves when we reflect upon gates and spaces, we sometimes tend to focus on “T͟Hə.” And, you know, the way we say the word informs our understanding of what it might mean. If we say “T͟Hē,” it connotes something singular… a one and only. “T͟Hə,” however, kind of means… it… that thing. I expect I’m not alone in struggling with the notion of good people… from other times and cultures… and from different faith traditions… somehow being excluded from God’s plan for the salvation of the world? It doesn’t seem fair, does it? That someone can be a creation of God, and beloved by God… a good citizen who lives righteously, loving neighbor as self, working to make the world a better place, and yet… who is somehow outside of Jesus’ sheepfold, and thus condemned for all eternity. Again, you parents out there… ask yourselves: “Is there anything that my child could do that would cause me to stop loving them… to cut them off forever?” I hope your answer to that question is “no.” The love between a parent and child runs deep… and Jesus spends a lot of time talking about the paramount importance of love in our interactions, not only with our friends and families, but even with our enemies! You’ll remember that some of Jesus’ final words from the cross, were, “Father forgive….” So, I hope that your love for your children is unconditional, and that you would never cast them aside… no matter what they did, or how badly they hurt you… or betrayed your trust. And if that is the way you feel about your children, then how much more so does our Father in Heaven feel about his?
“I AM… the gate.” Without putting words in Jesus’ mouth, what if we were to expand that statement just a little bit, based on some of the other things we’ve heard Jesus say in John’s Gospel? What if we were to say, “There is a safe space… which is God’s presence and God’s salvation… and Jesus is standing at the entrance to show people the way in. He is calling you… hear his voice. He is lighting the way… open your eyes. He will give you everything you need, if you’ll only believe.
Are there other ways in which people can find the path to God’s salvation? I don’t know. That’s kind of a mystery, isn’t it? Some of you may thinking ahead to next week’s Gospel passage from John in which Jesus tells his disciples: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (v. 14:6). That seems like a pretty definitive statement, doesn’t it? But remember this: Jesus’ statement was not made in the context of “Here’s what I want you to go out and preach to all the world.” No. Jesus was foreshadowing his own death on the cross and telling his disciples that everything was going to be OK in the end… that he was going to prepare a place for them with the Father… and that the Father was in him… and that he was in the Father. In short, Jesus’ words on that occasion were meant to provide comfort and reassurance for beloved friends who were about to go through something really hard. Or maybe I’m grasping at straws… I don’t know. But here’s one thing I do know: and that is that the overall trajectory of the Gospel is one of unconditional love and forgiveness and that, in the words of the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans, “…neither death, nor life… nor angels, nor rulers… nor things present, nor things to come… nor powers, nor height… nor depth, nor anything else in all creation… will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39). And that, my friends, is the message I’ll preach until my dying breath.