In today’s gospel reading Jesus calls himself a ‘gate for the sheep’ (J 10.11). This word, ‘gate’, has a very strong resonance in these strange times of pandemic.
To a certain extent, we are all living in “gated” communities. So many people in the world have been experiencing this way of life in one way or another. For security reasons, to prevent more people from catching and spreading the Covid-19 virus, many borders have been reintroduced and sealed, strict social distancing measures have been put in place, the economy has almost entirely been shut down, and we have been asked to stay at home unless activities we engage in are deemed absolutely necessary and essential.
The gate to our “normal” way of life has been temporarily closed. Here in the UK, we’ve lived under a lockdown since the 23rd of March, and unless something changes for the better quite significantly, we can expect it to remain our new “normal” for the foreseeable future.
So, when we hear Jesus say, ‘I am the gate’ (J 10.9), it may even make us feel uncomfortable. I for one do not want any more gates to be introduced into my daily routine of life. What I am longing for is a return to a physical community in which we can once again enjoy each other’s company, go out for a meal or a drink in a pub and have a laugh, visit each other, or travel to places we’ve always wanted to go to.
But when we take time to reflect on what Jesus means by calling himself a gate (or a door - as it can also be translated), we soon realise that what he offers has nothing to do with constraining our lives even further but leads to a life of fulfilment, one of freedom and hope.
Jesus says’ ‘I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture’ (v.9).
Jesus talks about the new life we can all find in him. He invites us to see him as a gate, a door through which we can enter his fold. But he doesn’t want to trap us inside a barbed wire fence and keep us to himself squashed together with other sheep. He doesn’t use force or coercion to keep hold of us. Instead he gives us all an invitation to join the community he has formed when he stretched out his arms for us on the cross in a gesture of total solidarity with the whole of suffering creation. Everyone can approach the foot of his cross and receive the water and blood flowing from his side (J 19.34). But no one will be forced to do so.
What I find fascinating about the faith is that even when we do come into the fold, we retain our freedom to come in and out, and to keep searching for a pasture. For is not a life that Jesus offers us one in which more and more doors open up around us and within us as we continue to listen to his voice and follow wherever he takes us? Isn’t life with God one of endless possibilities?
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, also known as Vocation Sunday. So, it is entirely appropriate to ask ourselves about how we have been responding to God’s call in our lives. St Peter reminds us in his letter that all of us have been called to follow in the steps of Christ (1 Pet 2.21). While some men and women have been chosen out of the Christian community to serve as bishops, priests and deacons, they are only a small part of the people of God.
All of us, whatever our life experience, profession, background, role we play in a church community, have been called to walk on the pilgrimage of faith. As we journey on, sometimes we lose our way, we make mistakes, hurt ourselves and the people we love, but we also know that we can always return ‘to the shepherd and guardian of our souls’ (1 Pet 2.25).
Christ never closes the door to anyone, and even when you find yourself walking ‘through the valley of the shadow of death’ (Ps 23.4), the Lord will be there walking alongside you. He is not afraid of our darkness and confusion. His goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of your life (Ps 23.6).
As you have been following Jesus, the Good Shepherd, where have you been taken by him on your journey of faith thus far? Since your baptism, what new pastures have you grazed on, by what have you been fed and sustained? What sustains you now, in these difficult circumstances, while we live under a dark cloud of the pandemic? I’d like to encourage us to reflect on these questions during the week.
Even when we are deprived of praying inside our churches, and of the sacraments, especially of receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, Jesus remains with us and continues to invite us into the life of communion with him. Even when we feel lonely and isolated, we are never alone.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, but he is also a lamb – ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and grants us peace’, as we sing during the Mass. There is no other shepherd like him. God loves us so much that his Son, the Good Shepherd, has become for a sacrificial lamb. On the icon of the Good Shepherd we see Christ with the cross in the background and the sheep resting on his arms. This is a stark reminder that our Shepherd gave his own life for us, his sheep and the blood he shed for us all continues to sustain us as it mingles with ours.
Jesus is our Saviour, our Brother and our Friend. Each time we approach the foot of his cross, even when plunged into the darkness of grief and pain, we find ourselves in an amazing company of our fellow believers, together with Our Blessed Lady Mary, the Mother of Jesus and ours, St John, his beloved disciple, and the unnumbered multitude of people who responded to his call, followed him and discovered new horizons of hope.
We don’t need to worry that if we decide to follow Christ then our lives will somehow become poorer, less exiting, deprived of enjoyment and laughter. As Jesus himself says: ‘The thief comes only to steal and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (v.10).
Jesus does not steal anything away from us, because we cannot give him he hasn’t already got. His love for us is unconditional and steadfast.
He is the gate to the fulness of life and he is the Good Shepherd whom we can follow without hesitation. But even if we do hesitate, because such is our human nature, he will continue to invite us to enter through the door and to live in freedom and hope.