Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church Budapest, Hungary Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10 I am the gate... Today I am going to speak to you about something I know virtually nothing about. Namely, sheep and shepherds. For, this Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, or the Third Sunday after Easter as it used to be called, has traditionally been named Good Shepherd Sunday after the theme of today’s assigned passage from the Gospel of John. The Good Shepherd remains of course one of the most beloved images for Christ in all of Christianity. And it is also one of the oldest. Indeed, images of Jesus as Good Shepherd can be traced back in statuary and frescoes to as early as the third century of the Christian Era. Many such images of Christ by the way are based upon pagan models, perhaps not surprisingly since ancient rulers in the Middle East, as adept at public relations as any contemporary politician, ancient rulers had been portraying themselves as shepherds of their people as far back as 3000 BC. And since the image was so pervasive in that long- ago world, scholars speculate that many early Christians were likewise fond of the portrayal of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. After all, its display in homes and gathering places was convenient; it would not arouse pagan suspicions and thus possible persecution. Just tell the heresy police it was Hermes, the god of shepherds; or the Emperor. Oddly, representations of Christ as Good Shepherd virtually disappeared from art by the late fifth century as the Christian faith itself came to predominate over paganism in the waning years of the Roman Empire. The image was gradually replaced in art by frescoes and mosaics of our Lord as ruler, or Pantocrator in the Greek, sovereign of the entire universe; about as far from sheep and lowly shepherds as you can get. Almost needless to say, the Shepherd was also an important image for the ancient Hebrew or Jewish people. Isaiah famously describes the people of Israel as sheep gone astray. And even the great King David was said to have grown up as a lowly shepherd boy before being improbably chosen as King. Psalm Twenty-Three, which we just sang, and according to tradition perhaps penned by David himself, also attests to the importance of this image of God among the ancient Israelites. The Lord is thus portrayed as a loving and kindly shepherd, watching out for his people, the sheep of his flock. Intentionally or not, our Gospel account this morning breaks off just as our Lord is about to declare himself the Good Shepherd; and so we are left today with the perplexing or perhaps even somewhat infelicitous metaphor of Christ as Gate or Door. “I am the gate for the sheep,” says Jesus. What on earth does that mean, we may be tempted to ask.
The image remained something of a mystery even for the experts by the way until a report from the Middle East of an early twentieth-century archaeologist was published at mid- century in a somewhat obscure archaeological journal. His report, charming in its way, is worth quoting, I think. “One day towards sunset,” he writes, “I rode up to a large enclosure made of mud walls perhaps six-feet high. In front was a doorway but no door, and inside were scores of sheep. So, I asked the shepherd standing there, what was the use of all the precautions and high walls, since there was no door or gate. O, said the shepherd. Quite simple. The gate is where I stand, and where I sleep. You see, in our culture the Shepherd himself is the Gate.” The Professor continued his report, “I then understood something that had puzzled me: Why Jesus had called himself first the Door and then immediately afterwards the Shepherd. Since he is the Shepherd; he is also the Door.” Apocryphal or not, this anecdote does provide us a new perspective on the image of Christ as the Gate in our Gospel account, of Christ as Good Shepherd. For, the Gate is by this archaeologist’s testimony also the Shepherd, standing watch by day and laying himself down at nightfall at the threshold of the sheep enclosure; laying down his life in other words for the sheep. True or not, and who can say for sure, I for one like the image. This expression, by the way, “I am the gate,” is one of several so-called I Am statements of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of John and arguably nowhere else; among other such statements as, I am the Bread of Life, I am the Resurrection and the Life, I am the Light of the World, and so on. And while scholars ponder the precise meaning of each such saying of our Lord, the obvious reference to God’s scriptural self-definition, I am who I am, cannot easily be missed. And when you stop to think about it, “I am the Gate,” is probably as good a way of looking at God as there is. The Good Shepherd, the Good Gate, after all protects us from ourselves and our spiritual instinct to simply wander off. The Good Shepherd also defends us from the “thieves and bandits” all around us, all too keen to bring us harm. Yet the Gate is also that which makes all community, and humanity itself, possible. A Gate or Door after all is meant to be both opened and closed. The Gate protects our homes and valuables, to be sure; yet it is also that which allows us to venture forth into the world around us, knowing always that we have someplace to return to; someplace to call home. And my fellow sheep: who knows...? This Gate may well be the famous kiskapu, the little gate, of Hungarian lore and legend; our spiritual kiskapu. The little back-garden gate which every Hungarian in the depths of his or her soul ardently believes in. The little back-garden gate that makes the difficult easy; and the impossible, inevitable. “I am that Gate,” says our Lord. Amen. The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs