Today is the fourth Sunday of the season of Easter. It is commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This arises from our collect of the day which begins with the words, “O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people...”
But in some years we actually hear the reading in which Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd which is an example of a peculiarity of the Gospel of John.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke make extensive use of parables. Jesus tells numerous stories that serve as ways to engage the listener in discovering truths about God. The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Separation of the Sheep and the Goats are all familiar stories that Jesus told in an effort to explore God’s love and grace.
But the Gospel of John does not use parables. Instead it employs metaphors. Jesus uses metaphors extensively throughout the Gospel of John as a way of explaining himself as the Messiah. Perhaps, the best known examples are the so-called the “I am” statements.
There are seven of these statements. They include:
I am the bread of life;
I am the Light of the world;
I am the good shepherd;
I am the resurrection and the life;
I am the way, and the truth, and the life; and
I am the true vine.
But the one that we hear today is the strangest. Jesus says, “I am the gate.” It is not the most poetic. It is not the one with the most profound symbolism but it remains a part of the seven I am statements of the Gospel of John.
These statements are powerful and unequivocal. Jesus uses them to make emphatic statements concerning his Messianic mission. And through the years these statements have often been used by fundamentalists as a way of marking the boundaries of who is Christian and who is not.
For instance, Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” is often used to say that Jesus is the only way that we can approach God. I do not want to suggest that this is not true but I will suggest that it is truer than our fundamentalist brothers and sisters may realize.
These I am statements are so emphatic and so true that I believe that Jesus is telling us how things already are and not the way they could be.
I believe Jesus is telling us that God’s grace is so revolutionary, so wild, so boundless that salvation is not our decision to follow Jesus and be saved but simply realizing that we are already saved and responding to that glorious and staggering realization.
Salvation is realizing that we are surrounded by God’s grace just as we are surrounded by the air about us. Grace is not something we must seek or attain. Grace is simply the realization that we are already saved and held firm in the tender heart of God.
We do not have to ask God to love us. We do not have to ask for God’s grace. We cannot earn God’s mercy we can only awake to find ourselves already immersed in it.
Jesus’ I am statements are not contingent on our beliefs. They are strident and positive.
“I AM,” Jesus says.
And he is.
To paraphrase the great lyricist Johnny Mercer, Jesus is so very very. This may make some of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters uneasy. There are those who may feel as if I am lowering the stakes of Jesus’ Messianic claims. Instead I am trying to underscore the abundance of life offered to us in Jesus.
I believe we should never limit the potential of God’s grace. Grace seeks to awaken us to God’s love not show us how far we are away from it. Grace seeks to draw us closer to God not to push us away.
Grace is an announcement not an indictment. Grace’s only challenge is the challenge to allow God to love us and others.
In Jesus’ I am statements we hear our Lord emphatically stating his Messianic mission. But we should also hear in them echoes of grace. Jesus has not told us what he could be for us. Jesus has not made us an offer; he has made us a promise, and a declaration.
“I am,” he says. “I am the gate, the bread of life, the Light of the world, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life, the way, and the truth, and the life, the true vine.”
In these statement Jesus tells us clearly that He is our Messiah, our life and our hope. We can only respond to such magnificent claims; respond and find ourselves in Him.
“I am,” he says. Not, “I could be.” He says clearly and powerfully, “I am,” and he is.
And so we are.
© 2020, Tom Thoeni