john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    John 10 - At the Sheep Gate - Saved from Sacrifice

    Bratton Clovelly and Sourton Communion Services, Bridestowe Evening Prayer

    Acts 2.42-47, John 10.1-10

    You will know the story, and probably have seen the sheep, of John Heard of Hughslade Farm, by Betty Cottles, who died bright orange 250 of his blackface ewes, to ward off thieves. The newspapers reported that 'the harmless dip of orange dye has made the animals so highly visible that rustlers have kept away'. Mr Heard had about 200 sheep stolen before he started colouring them orange but since then he hasn't lost one. [1]

    Sheep have always been vulnerable to thieves, rustlers, bandits. Farmers sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to prevent losing them.
    And Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep." [John 10.1-2]
    And you might have heard the story of the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem, which was built by Eliashib the high priest and his brothers during the reconstruction of Jerusalem described in the book of Nehemiah. It was the first gate that they built, and it was designed for animals to be brought through it from the countryside for sacrifice. 'Once inside the city and within the temple courts, there was only one door where the sheep went in, and no lamb ever came back out after entering the temple. They traveled in only one direction, and there they were sacrificed for the sin of men and women'. [2]

    Sheep have always been used as sacrificial victims - the scriptures are full of the blood of those creatures, led through the one-way gate to their death.
    But Jesus said, "The gatekeeper opens the gate for the shepherd, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out." [John 10.3]
    And perhaps you've come across the story of what Jesus did one day at the Pool by the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. He healed a paralytic man who had been been ill for thirty-eight years, who was lying there among the other invalids - the blind, lame, and paralysed. Jesus said to him, 'Stand up, take your mat and walk.' And he did. That day was a sabbath. The man who Jesus cured got into trouble with the authorities because the law said that he shouldn't have been carrying his mat on a sabbath day. And Jesus got into trouble with the authorities because the law said that he shouldn't have been healing on a sabbath day. 'My Father is still working, and I also am working,' was his reply. And this made them want to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, making himself equal to God. [John 5.1-18]

    There were always tensions at the Sheep Gate when Jesus was around - he couldn't help challenging the people who controlled the way things worked.
    And Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." [John 10.7-10]
    To those who lived by the rules of that society The Sheep Gate was the place where the creatures to be sacrificed were herded in. The place of no return for the sacrificial lambs and sheep. The Sheep Gate was also the place where those people who society didn't want, were abandoned to. They put the incurable, the paralysed and the lame at the pool near the Sheep Gate - right on the edge of the city, where only the country folk herding livestock passed by, out of sight of the respectable citizens at the heart of the city going about their daily business unhindered. The Sheep Gate was the place of no return for the abandoned people of Jerusalem.

    And here comes Jesus, turning things over for close inspection, turning things round in his revolution of boundless love, telling the people of Jerusalem: 'I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. [...] I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.'

    The sheep being taken to the temple altar and the paralysed people at the pool had this fundamental thing in common: they were victims of a sacrificial regime. For the respectable people of that society to stay respectable they had to find a way to deal with their transgressions, atone for their sins. The way they found was to make sacrifices of animals on the altar to a God who would accept their payment and forgive them.

    For the respectable people of that society to keep their society respectable they had to purge it of all that made it impure in their eyes, to send to the edge all that upset their equilibrium. The way they found was to relocate the sick, the lost and the lame to the pool by the Sheep Gate, those shameful people removed well away from the heart of things. They had to be sacrificed for the well-being of all.

    So the Sheep Gate of Jerusalem came to represent the victimisation of people and animals in a society which functioned with sacrifice at its centre. And so, modelling himself as the gate for the sheep, Jesus came to challenge and overturn the need for sacrifice - and in its place to offer salvation, and the freedom for victims to come and go 'and find pasture', and live abundant lives.

    It wasn't just the society of Jesus' time and place which had sacrifice at its centre, which relied on making victims of others to keep itself on track. It had ever been so beforehand - and it continues to be so today.

    Historically animals were originally kept for sacrifice. Animal husbandry, in the first place, was a function of the sacrificial system. The economics of livestock was based on the need to rear them to be sacrificed. [3] And when it has come to the treatment of human beings, historically, our economic system has built in the need for the unproductive members of society to be abandoned - sacrificed for the greater good of all. We see this in economic theory - it is argued that unemployment is 'beneficial' to those who are not unemployed because it deters inflation, and because people in fear of losing their jobs are more likely to defer to the demands of their employers, helping promote productivity and profitability [4]. And we see this in the treatment of welfare and civic society: when a government slashes its budgets the ones which go first are those designed to care for society's neediest people. The current protests at plans to remodel the NHS along North American insurance-payment lines, highlight this reality. When times are tough, people have to make sacrifices. And invariably the first to be sacrificed for the good of all are society's most vulnerable people, abandoned to their fate just like those Jesus met at the pool by the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem.

    'There is no alternative,' the victims are told [5]. There is only one way. There is only one gate.

    So here comes Jesus, saying 'I am the gate for the sheep. ... Whoever enters by me will be saved'. And the paralysed man who he healed that day did not only have his body's muscular functions restored; Jesus' healing also freed that man from the power of the sacrificial system which had bound him to stay by the pool by the Sheep Gate, in pain, for thirty-eight years. The first thing that happened to the newly-cured man on his re-entry to the city was that he came up against the authorities with their rules designed not for his well-being but to corral and control. Jesus had freed him from all of this - now he could walk freely, unbound by their rules. Though the stewards of the system of sacrifice didn't like it they didn't have the power over him any more - the cured man carried his mat with joy.

    Yes, here comes Jesus, saying 'I am the gate for the sheep. ... Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture'. And so for the sheep of Jesus' parable the Sheep Gate was no longer a one-way passage to slaughter, a place of no return. Jesus the open gate, the generous gate, the loving gate, permitted them freedom to roam, to come and go at will, to find the pasture which pleased them.

    No longer confined by a system which abandoned them to death and destruction, which corralled them into a dangerous place at the mercy of thieves, rustlers, all those who would harm them, Jesus opens the gate to the vulnerable, releases them from the bondage of a system of sacrifice, and makes that same abundance of life available to all.

    How did Jesus do this? He said, 'The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice' [John 10.2-3]. He's changed his metaphor here, to show us something even deeper. Jesus is the good shepherd - and as the sheep go through the gate, the one-way gate to sacrifice, he goes through with them. They know he is there with them, they hear his voice. On the one-way journey to the temple for slaughter, Jesus made that very same journey too. Jesus went to the altar of the cross to be sacrificed for the sin of men and women.

    Illuminating this sign more clearly, scripture tells us that Jesus actually became a sacrificial lamb - not just on among the lambs to be slaughtered, but actually becoming one of them: 'Behold, the Lamb of God...' [John 1.29]

    But Jesus was resurrected. Death couldn't hold him. Sacrifice couldn't stop him. And because Jesus defeated death he also overcame the system of sacrifice which makes victims of the most vulnerable. 'Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.' - the sin, notice. The one sin. The sin of sustaining our society by sacrificing innocent victims.

    That is why ever since Jesus came back from the dead, the system of sacrifice has been in crisis. The death of Jesus the innocent victim, opened our eyes to the way that system works, and its injustice. The resurrection of Jesus, the victim raised, opened our hearts to the possibility of living free from the constraints of sacrifice, living more generously, living forgiven, living abundantly. Living with Jesus the shepherd beside us and within us.

    To the extent that we have been affected by the resurrection of the Lamb, our view of the world has changed. Now, we protest sometimes when we see the system of sacrifice at work. As we may protest, for instance, over welfare reforms which we know will make victims of the most vulnerable. And our protests are a sign that the risen Jesus has opened the gate of our hearts and that we have begun to grasp the wonderful reality that we can now be free from a way of life that steals and kills and destroys. This is an offer open to victims and victimisers alike, shepherds and sheep, rustlers and thieves.

    Grasping the fulness of Jesus' offer of life to them transformed the lives of the followers of The Way, after his resurrection. We hear their story in the Acts of the Apostles: how,
    All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. [Acts 2.44-47]
    What a wonderful transformation in these people's lives, in the life of the world. Effected by the power of the risen Christ, the gate through whom they had walked. Since the resurrection the wonderful reality bursting into our world's consciousness is the reality of discovering the fulness of Jesus' offer of life to us, life in all its abundance.

    [1] Farmer dyes ewes orange to deter rustlers after he loses 200 sheep, This is Devon, Wednesday, April 13, 2011
    [2] Jill Carattini, The Sheep Gate
    [3] Gil Bailie, quoted in Girardian Lectionary, Easter 4a.
    [4] Unemployment Effects: Wikipedia
    [5] There is no alternative: Wikipedia