As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
— (Rev) Andrew Jensen
The Good Shepherd, the Gate, the “I Am” (εγϖ ειμι)
Readings: Exodus 3:1-17
When I talked last week about one of the titles we give Jesus, I had not intended to be discussing another so soon. But the lectionary had other ideas!
The recommended reading from John’s gospel gives us not one, but two images of Jesus to consider.
Before we can look at them, we have to understand John’s perspective. Each gospel writer brings a particular point of view, and has an audience in mind.
John’s audience is clearly mostly gentiles – converts from paganism or other religions. Otherwise John would not use the phrase “the Jews” so often and so painstakingly provide translations for words like “rabbi”. He does have knowledge of Jewish history but clearly a lot of his audience isn’t Jewish.
John’s perspective has what we would call the highest Christology of all the contributors to the New Testament. In other words, John makes the most clearly stated case for Jesus being divine.
All the gospel writers see Jesus as the Son of God to some degree, at least from the perspective of Jesus’ baptism. In Mark’s gospel where God says: “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”, only Jesus hears these words. In Matthew and Luke, others hear at least something. All that leaves a certain amount of room for interpretation about what it means for Jesus and his nature.
But John’s gospel starts with the words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Clearly, John portrays Jesus as existing before creation and being an intimate part of God’s nature and work. Everything in John’s gospel reflects this understanding.
An important aspect of this is the way Jesus says “I am” in John’s gospel. This wording is John’s choice. Jesus spoke in Aramaic; John wrote in Greek.
In the title of my sermon above, the last two words you see there are Koine Greek: εγϖ ειμι. The first word is where we get the word ego: it simply means “I”. But the second word, ειμι, means “I am” without needing the word ego at all. To use both words is to add emphasis.
More than that, it evokes the scene from our first lesson: Moses meeting God at the burning bush; where we learn that God’s name is “I am”; where we find the same two words in the Greek translation of Exodus. (Strictly speaking, the ancient Greek translation of Exodus has the “I AM” part of this passage translated as “the Being”, but the full phrase is translated as “I AM the Being”, with εγϖ ειμι used again).
This was an early lesson we learned in first year Greek at McGill, as we translated John’s gospel. Jesus says “I Am” a lot in that book and he always says it that emphatic way: each time John has him declaring that he is God in the flesh.
Today’s lesson from John is one of those sayings and it’s a bit of a strange and complicated one: we are presented with a mixed metaphor.
In the first half we get the clear picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd, the one the sheep can trust: they know him & recognize his voice. This is a very reassuring passage, a reminder that Jesus, who is intimately connected to God, is there to care for us, protect us, guard us and lead us to green pastures and provide for our needs.
But suddenly, in the second half the metaphor shifts, and Jesus suddenly becomes the gate. Of course we can imagine someone with multiple roles. Gates are there to protect, just like shepherds.
But here there is an added claim of exclusivity: don’t trust anyone who doesn’t enter by the gate. Only through Jesus will we be safe. Those who jump the walls or climb in don’t have our best interests at heart, which explicitly includes those who came before.
If we remember that John’s audience is a group of people who converted from other religions, then it is clear that he is referring to those other gods that people used to worship.
And in some ways, the contrast is an easy one to make. If you’ve ever read the stories of the old Greek and Roman gods, very few of them had our best interests in mind. They tended to be self-absorbed; humans were as likely to get caught in the cross-fire as have anything good happen.
Contrast that with the image of the Good Shepherd, the idea of God reaching out to us through Jesus to protect us, to help us, to provide for us, and you can see the difference clearly.
No doubt there was always a concern in the early church about backsliding. Giving up your family’s religion would be awkward and you’d get a lot of pressure from your parents to come home for traditional pagan feast days. Besides, refusing to worship the emperor was considered treason and became the basis for deadly persecution of both Christians and Jews.
John is calling for exclusivity here just like where he quotes Jesus as saying:
“I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life,
no one comes to the Father except by me.”
There’s nothing new about an exclusive claim; in the Hebrew scriptures God is constantly reminding the people, sometimes quite harshly, not to go chasing after other gods.
Unfortunately, many people have interpreted this new dimension of having to come to God through Jesus the Gate, Jesus the Way as excluding the Jewish people themselves. And some of these passages of John’s gospel have been used to justify antisemitism over the centuries.
I don’t believe that the historical Jesus ever intended anything like that. Yes, he challenged his own people to come to a new understanding of God and of God’s ways, but he clearly believed that there was an existing relationship that needed restoring and repairing. It was not that God rejected everyone who didn’t do things Jesus’ way.
By the time this last gospel was written, there was an intense rivalry between Christianity & traditional Judaism. Both groups were separating from each other and each was trying to distinguish itself and claimed to know God better, to stake a higher claim to the truth.
I believe that in John’s gospel we hear echoes of this rivalry, and we should keep it in mind as we read these passages.
Look at the shift in our lesson: the image of the Good Shepherd shows us a loving and personal God who knows us, and whom we come to know and trust. The image of the Gate is presented as an interpretation of the first image for confused disciples. But it really is a new message: warning us not to mess around; not to trust anyone else.
In these 21st century days of religious tolerance, messages of exclusivity have to be considered carefully. I could devote an entire sermon to that topic and I will, before too long.
For today: let’s consider what John’s community was going through with its rivalry with Judaism and the pressure on converts, including official death threats, to switch back to Paganism. Those calls to exclusivity make a great deal of sense, as the church was entering a time of severe persecution.
I would also consider John’s audience, Gentile Christians, for whom the idea of Jesus as God in human flesh would make a great deal of sense, unlike Matthew’s audience, Jewish Christians, who would consider it blasphemy. We haven’t resolved that Christological issue in 2000 years and I don’t propose to settle it now.
But for today, I would suggest that the lesson we can draw from this is that reassuring first image: the Good Shepherd, the God who knows us, loves us, leads us, protects us and provides for us; presented to us so clearly by Jesus in his life and in his teachings.
That image of God is trustworthy; it goes at least as far back as King David and the 23rd Psalm and has withstood the test of time over thousands of years.
God is our good shepherd and we can rely on God,
even in these very difficult times.