The Gate of the Sheepfold

Fourth Sunday of Easter (A). Acts 2:14.36-41; Ps 22; 1 Pet 2:20-25; John 10:1-10

In today’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself as the ‘gate of the sheepfold’. No one image is adequate to capture everything that is true of Christ, and you will notice that the Gospel sometimes alters the metaphor to express a different facet of Christ. A little further on, for example, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd, which is why clergy are called ‘pastors’ and a bishop’s crosier looks like a shepherd’s crook. On another occasion, Jesus is referred to as the ‘Lamb of God’, emphasising his sacrifice, prefigured by the Passover Lamb, slain to free people from slavery to sin and death. When Jesus describes himself as the ‘gate of the sheepfold’, however, he is emphasising a different truth to that of the image of the shepherd or of the lamb. A sheepfold is a walled enclosure with only one entrance. So when Jesus describes himself as the ‘gate’, what he is stressing, in particular, is his uniqueness. He is the way by which the sheep find pasture and have life to the full, and he is the only way.

This particular facet of the Gospel is not popular today. People are generally comfortable to think of Jesus as a shepherd, perhaps as a moral guide to good living. People are also perfectly comfortable to think that Jesus loves them, even to the point of dying for them. Very few people, by contrast, are comfortable with the idea that Jesus is unique or would share the urgency with which Peter speaks to those who have heard the gospel in today’s First Reading, “You must repent … and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Furthermore, since this teaching can be misunderstood, the Church has surrounded it with all kinds of cautionary warnings. The revelation that Jesus Christ is the Way, Truth and the Life does not mean that everyone in this life who remains outside the visible sheepfold, a symbol of the Church, will be damned. Conversely, the uniqueness of Christ does not mean that everyone within the sheepfold will be saved, since it is possible to have ‘dead faith’. Nor does it mean that entering once through the gate of the sheepfold guarantees salvation, as some Protestants believe. Baptism is the beginning of the pilgrimage, not the end of the journey, and it is possible to lose the unearned gift of grace through evil actions. What it does mean, however, is that anyone who is saved will be saved through Christ alone.

But why is there this restriction? Surely, if there is a fire in a crowded theatre, we would want as many escape routes as possible? Why does God provide only one door? The answer, I think, can only be understood through understanding what is meant by ‘eternal life’. When Jesus says, in today’s Gospel, I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full, the word he uses is not ‘life’ in the usual sense. The word he uses is reserved in the Gospel for the life of grace, the life of the Holy Trinity and this life is why Jesus is unique. God in the pagan world and, indeed, in many religions today, was perceived as remote and inscrutable, at best a source of benefits but unknowable in himself. God, however, has bridged this unthinkable abyss by coming among us as a man. Through Jesus alone it has become possible to know God personally, to become children of God. To know and to love God in this way is eternal life, in a state of pilgrimage in this life, and in a state of glory in the next. Since the Incarnation is unique, there is only one gate to the sheepfold.

May God help us not to be satisfied merely a ‘good life’, but give us the desire to know and to love him above all things, sharing the Gospel with others and coming one day to heaven.

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