This gospel reminds of a time when two missionaries came to my door one afternoon, and after a few warm up questions, got to their real question: ‘Had I been saved?’ I had just gone to work for the church, so I replied somewhat smugly, ‘thanks but I’m the Canon for Congregational Development at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral’ – take that! Well, needless to say they were thoroughly unimpressed and probably had no idea what I was talking about! So, I had to resort to plan B - pass them onto the neighbor!
But what do you think when you hear that question - have you ‘being saved?’ Is that shorthand for being saved from Hell? That’s pretty much what I assumed my missionary friends were asking me…but as Episcopalians, we don’t really use that kind of terminology, do we? It feels a bit forward and off-putting, doesn’t it? Maybe a bit presumptuous?
Yet, here is Jesus saying exactly that: ‘whoever enters by me will be saved.’ So while most of us aren’t about to go door-to-door with that question, what do you understand those words to mean? Is salvation essentially about who’s in and who’s out?
And this isn’t a theoretical question for seminary students with too much time on their hands - I think it’s really important because in the 21st Century/Post-Christian world, how we answer that question can be one of the biggest barriers to evangelism. As a seeker, I can’t tell you how often I was turned off to Christianity, because of those kinds of simplistic, self-assured, black and white, who’s in and who’s out kinds of answers - “What about the Eskimos?’ I would think. Or native Americans who never heard of Jesus? What about those who were raised in the cultural context of Hinduism or Islam, or our grandkids whose parents never got them baptized, what about my brother who was born with a heart condition, has a heart of gold, even though he was never taken to church as a kid…
As inclusive, ‘middle way’ Christians - if we are serious about evangelism, I think we need to find a way to talk about salvation that’s something more than threatening people with hell.
It’s also an important question because how we answer it says a lot about how we understand Jesus, and more importantly, what it means to be his follower - all of which is at the heart of today’s Gospel lesson.
So, let’s turn to that because with that kind of default understanding of salvation in the recesses of our mind, there may be a tendency to hear this Gospel as a kind of affirming statement about who’s in, and who’ out: The sheep who enter into the sheepfold by the gate - Jesus - are saved, the rest are not. There are undoubtedly many Christians who read this passage and those like it - such as John 3:16 or John 14:6 - in just such a manner.
And when we read it this way, the sheepfold becomes the goal - it’s the destination! As Christians interested in salvation, our goal is to get in and once we are, we can breathe a sigh of relief-- and then if we’re really motivated, go about the work of persuading people to join us.
But I don’t believe it’s as simple as that. Even Jesus has to repeat himself in today’s lesson, because he seems to notice that they are not getting his point. We are accustomed to Jesus as the shepherd, but in this discourse, he is the gate as well - and I think that’s the key.
Let’s start with the sheepfold. In case you’re not up on farming practices of the ancient world, the sheepfold is the pen, the sheep enter it through the gate and kept safe from predators or bandits, but the sheep can't spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe and comfortable it is. There's no food in the fold, they must follow the shepherd out into the pastures if they are to live. Seen in that light, the gate becomes less about separating the good from the bad, the saved from the unsaved, and it becomes more of a doorway, the pathway you must take if you are to follow the shepherd. Suddenly, the sheepfold is no longer the destination, but the place from which you are sent – and the gate is the way – which by the way, was the early name of the first Christians: Followers of the way.
Ok, so what’s the challenge you ask?
Well, apparently, Jesus is noticing that these sheep, i.e. us, don’t always want to leave!
The sheepfold after all, is about safety, security. It’s a comfort zone. In the sheepfold, we are gathered with those who are like us, where we say familiar prayers and sing familiar hymns - it’s a bit like that bar, Cheers, where everyone knows her name and there always glad you came.
Sheepfolds can be very alluring - and they are everywhere.
Our homes can become a Sheepfold as well can’t they? – our safe, controlled universe in which we are the ultimate authority, everything is under control, just the way we want it…or at least until you have twin girls!
And there’s nothing particularly wrong with them per se – we need a respite, we need a safe zone to be recharged, but the allure to remain is powerful, particularly when we are going through a rough patch, when we are in a rut in life, when we are feeling depressed, our comfort zone can evolve into a prison, walling us off from the flow of life right outside our doors...
Our consumer culture invites us to endlessly luxuriate in our sheepfolds – pursuing the abundant life through the abundance of things, our consumer culture IS the thief and bandit of today – and it can leave us blind to the world’s suffering and even too broke to do much about it.
We can build our sheepfold up so grandly, that they must protected behind security gates and private driveways—preventing us from meeting those with little safety in their lives.
We can argue about the right mix of air conditioning in the sheepfold, while each year homeless seniors are discovered under a bridge or behind a dumpster…where they faced he end of life with neither heat or even the warmth of human touch.
In the sheepfold if we’re sick, we call a doctor, and have the luxury of debating whether the lives of those with pre-existing conditions, are worth the higher premiums we’d have to pay to cover them;
Our sheepfolds can become so majestic, that we hire others to do the cleaning we’d rather not, never noticing the fear or the anxiety they carry with them every day due to their uncertain immigration status…
Even the church itself can become a kind of Sheepfold a kind of safe, parallel universe where we do OUR movie nights, OUR music concerts, OUR bingo games, OUR book clubs, OUR guest speakers? With little impact or no impact on our neighbors outside the fold …
If any of this sounds uncomfortable, if we’re squirming in our chairs at all, then amen! As Deacon Bill’s sign on his door says, the pastor’s job is not just to comfort the afflicted, but it is to afflict the comfortable.
And I think it’s what’s Jesus is doing here - though you wouldn’t know if from our translation. The Greek word, ekballo, is translated here as “brought out”- as in ‘when he has brought out the sheep, the shepherd goes on ahead of them…” However, the word is more accurately translated as “drive out” or “cast out” or even, ‘ejected’– a force contrary to the will of the object. It’s the same word used to describe Jesus when he “casts out” demons or when he “throws” the money changes out of the temple.
In short, Jesus knows his sheep have a tendency to get too comfortable and will need shove out the gate from time to time!
But it’s not just the job of the pastor - as I’m talking about myself here in most of these examples - I think it’s the job of all of us. It’s part of the purpose of Christian community, to encourage, nudge maybe even an occasional shove out the gate into God’s mission. And you can find several such opportunities right outside out door today in the courtyard! So consider yourself nudged!
So, let me end by answering the question I posed at the beginning - what does it mean to be saved?
I like Jesus’ answer, and notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say that I have come to save them from their sins, nor does he say, I have come so that certain believers might go to heaven – no, he says he has come “so they would have life, and have it abundantly.”
Salvation in the Gospel of John isn’t about the afterlife, it’s about the present life. Like the healing of the man born blind in the preceding chapter, his healing - his salvation - was not about his physical sight being restored, it was about having his eyes opened to a new possibility of what it means to be fully alive.
Being saved is the moment we die to our old life - and all the things that hold us back, our distractions, our fears, the allure of comfort and luxuriating - and rise to new life. It’s the moment we stop existing for ourselves, and start living for others.
So, where does that leave my brother and those like him who may never become church-goers? I take comfort in the Book of Common Prayer that calls us to pray for those whose faith is known to you alone. For my part, I am increasingly seeing the Way of Jesus – the way -- is a universal path, one not limited to those who go to a particular Christian church, but a path that can be found in any religion, any philosophy of life or any person, that aspires to a life of self-emptying love. Perhaps this is what Jesus refers to in verse 16 when he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Let us recommit ourselves to leaving the security and comfort of our sheepfolds, to giving one another a gentle shove out the gate as we go, following our Shepherds voice, so that there the world might one day be one flock, following in the way of it’s great Shepherd.
~The Rev. Chris Harris
Before entering the ordination process, Chris served as Canon for Congregational Development at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, where his responsibilities included evangelism, newcomer welcome, small group organization, ministry development, communications and stewardship. Chris continues that ministry at St. Bartholomew’s.