By Father Jonathan
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. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, “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 10:1-10)
I don't believe that the whole Bible is inerrant. I don't even believe that the whole Bible is the word of God. I believe the obvious that every single word in the Bible was written by human beings. Furthermore, I believe it to be a blasphemy of the highest order to claim divinity for something created by human beings. However, having said that, I do believe that some of the words in the Bible are from God and they are the words Jesus speaks that are recorded in the four gospels.
You may well accuse me of being selective and you would be correct in doing so, my decision to restrict what I believe to be words from God in the Bible to just those uttered by Jesus is an arbitrary one. But it differs from the arbitrary decision to believe that the whole Bible is the word of God because the word of Christ rarely contradicts itself, unlike the rest of the Bible which is full of contradictions and Christ does not behave in ungodly ways like many of the one true gods of the Old Testament do. Personally I would much rather accept that the Old Testament was written by men with no more of a direct line to God than I have than have to explain why God would call for the merciless and blood drenched genocide of the Canaanites.
Also there is logic to why I hold the words of Jesus Christ to be divine but not the words of Isaiah or Saint Paul, for example. I am a Christian and not something else because I believe that Jesus is God. I do not disrespect those believers in God who do not believe this to be the case. Far from it, there is much integrity in their position, but it is my line in the sand. Therefore accepting that Jesus is God must lead to the conclusion that the words Jesus spoke were the words of God, albeit the words of God when God was a human being.
There is a problem though. Just like all the other books in the Bible, the gospels were written by fallible human beings with their own personal agendas that may or may not have been inline with the true intentions of God. I am pretty much certain that not every word that is put into the mouth of Jesus by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the exact words of Christ. How could they be? They had been handed down by word of mouth for decades before they were written down. I also have more than a sneaking suspicion that some of the words purported to be those of Jesus Christ were never spoken by him at all. Either somebody was standing next to Jesus with a dictaphone or John definitely invented a whole lot of what he claims Jesus said. The oral tradition tends towards simplicity rather than long, complex, philosophical statements such as you find throughout the gospel of John. However, unlike the theologians of the Jesus Seminar and their fundamentalist opposite numbers, I am extremely reluctant to decide which words that are supposed to be those of Jesus Christ are his actual words and which are not. So, as far as the redaction of the text is concerned I hold to the legal position of innocent until proven guilty, that the words of Christ are the words of Christ unless they obviously are not.
So, what has all this got to do with sheep and sheepfolds and gates and thieves and bandits, the subjects of today’s appointed gospel reading? Well, I think that my refusal to believe that the words of human beings can be the words of God makes Christ’s statement that he is the only gateway to the sheepfold which is the kingdom of God perfectly reasonable. You see, so much of scripture written both before and after the time of Christ’s ministry on earth contradicts the teaching of Christ. For example, as I mentioned earlier, there is no way that the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ, who is the God of love, would tell anybody to wipe out an entire nation of people so that they could steal their land. Or, to bring it down to the more personal, God would not expect a doctor to refuse to heal a person just because it was a particular day of the week. Yet, according to the Old Testament God did order the genocide of the Canaanites and other tribes and God would let a curable invalid die rather than allow a doctor or messiah to work on the Sabbath.
If you do not believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God then you can say that stoning to death children who disobey their parents is utterly wrong because Jesus makes it clear that such behaviour is utterly wrong. You can be absolutely adamant that letting strangers rape your daughters is evil, that driving your mistress out into the desert when she is pregnant is not the action of a well behaved patriarch, and that executing men who fall in love with other men is most definitely not what is commanded by the God who created men who fall in love with other men in the first place.
Jesus said that everybody who came before him were thieves and robbers and he was right of course, and not only those who were alive before him but everyone who has lived ever since. We are all thieves and robbers, because we are human and it is impossible for us to be anything else no matter how hard we try. We are literally thieves. If we buy a jar of coffee we are buying in to a system that exploits others by giving them less than they deserve, and that is theft. The same goes for everything we buy and it will continue to do so until everybody in the world enjoys the same payment for the same effort put in. And we are also thieves and robbers in the way I think Jesus is referring to in today’s reading and this especially true of those of us who preach or teach or lead others. Everyone of us has our own agenda. When we offer the gospel, when we offer salvation and forgiveness we always steal something for ourselves. This sermon is full of my agenda. I want you to believe what I believe. I believe that if you do that will result in more happiness in the world than if you don’t but I would be lying if I was to deny that I wouldn’t get a kick out of it if you were to tell me I am right. I’m not going to refuse a donation if my words impress you so much that you decide to send me one. If a bishop listens to this podcast and comes to the conclusion that I am a priest who should be employed by his diocese that would be one of my dreams come true. I can’t help it. I do nothing out of pure altruism. Nobody does. Nobody that is except Jesus Christ. He is the only person ever who will give without taking. He is the only true shepherd. This is because he is God.
If you want to do as God commands then do as Jesus commands. That way you can be certain that you are pleasing God. If somebody tells you to do or think something that is contrary to the teaching and/or the example of Jesus Christ then they are false prophets, thieves and bandits who should be avoided at all costs for your own safety and for the safety of those you love and care for. Do not twist and alter the plain meaning of scripture to make it fit in with the words of Christ. Sometimes, in fact often, the plain meaning has nothing to do with the mind of God whatsoever. It’s just something somebody made up for reasons of his or her own.
You can’t, you mustn’t, fully trust anybody except the true shepherd who is Jesus Christ.
Listen to Jesus. Follow Jesus. Walk through the Gate which is Jesus and into new pastures where you may enjoy life in its full abundance.