Great leaders are those who lead and transform lives. Many people aspire to be leaders. But instead of leading their people to a higher level of life and in turn making them leaders rather than followers, they lead people to death. This is what the Lord warns us, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” How do we distinguish between authentic leaders who serve the people and those who serve themselves? How do we discern whether the leaders are leading us in the right direction and not to perdition?
Jesus in the gospel makes it clear that He is the Gate to the sheepfold. “I tell you most solemnly, I am the gate of the sheepfold. All others who have come are thieves and brigands; but the sheep took no notice of them. I am the gate. Anyone who enters through me will be safe: he will go freely in and out and be sure of finding.” In calling Himself as the Gate, Jesus is claiming that He is the only way to the Father. Only He can lead us to the fullness of life. Indeed, He declared, “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.”
Does this claim of Jesus sound rather triumphalist? He seems to belittle all other leaders. Firstly, to call Himself the gate is inevitable because of His identity. None of us would be able to make this declaration as Jesus did. This is because we all know that we are not the Ultimate Gate to life. Christ is the Gate because He is the “I am”, the personal presence of God in our midst. He is the Gate because He is the One that gives us access to the Father. Hence, He told Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him.’ (Jn 14:6f) This truth for us Christians is made clear only from hindsight of His resurrection. That Jesus who was crucified as a criminal and raised to life shows that He is Lord and God. St Peter concluded, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Secondly, we must see this imagery in terms of how we act as leaders on behalf of God. Jesus was drawing from their daily life example of how shepherds would go through the gate and lead the sheep in and out. Of course, if one were not the shepherd, they would not be able to enter the gate as the gatekeeper would not let him in. “The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the flock; the gatekeeper lets him in, the sheep hear his voice, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out.”
So those who are shepherds of their sheep must enter through the gate. This means that if we are to be authentic leaders for God’s sheep, we must go through the gate ourselves. The psalmist says, “Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.” (Ps 100:3) Unless, we enter the gate, which is Christ Himself, we cannot encounter the fullness of the Father’s love and mercy. Truly, we cannot be true leaders and shepherds of the flock of Christ unless we recognize Jesus as our shepherd. Jesus in the gospel makes it clear, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (Jn 10:11) Christian leaders must stay close to Christ the Good Shepherd if they want to lead His sheep to greener pasture.
Indeed, without communion and intimacy with Christ the Good Shepherd and the Gate, we will not be able share the vision of Jesus with the People of God and the rest of humanity. As shepherds after the heart of Christ, we must first listen to Him and be identified with Him in His love and passion for humanity. This is what the Lord told His disciples. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” (Jn 15:4-6)
This is where the mistake of our Christian leaders lies. Many of our leaders are not in close communion with God. They hardly spend time reading and listening to the Word of God. They tend to hear their own voice and the voices of the world. This explains why so-called Christian leaders are expounding truths that are alien to the gospel. They twist and turn the gospel to suit their own agenda. This is what St Paul warns us about. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel – not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” (Gal 1:6f) By so doing, they confuse the faithful by their ideological slant, leading the People of God to perdition and eternal death.
We have the shining example of St Peter. He was a man of deep prayer and communion with God. He too sought to make the gospel more acceptable to those outside the Jewish traditions. However, he did not take things into his own hands. He was in prayer and the Lord spoke to him as he recounted. “One day, when I was in the town of Jaffa, I fell into a trance as I was praying and had a vision of something like a big sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners.” And the vision was to prepare him to accept the hospitality of the Gentiles in the person of Cornelius and his household. He was told three times that “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane.” And so when the three men came from Caesarea to fetch him, the Holy Spirit told him “to have no hesitation about going back with them.”
He entered their house and whilst speaking, the Holy Spirit descended on them in the same way He did with the apostles. Hence, St Peter’s conclusion was that “I realised then that God was giving them the identical thing he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ; and who was I to stand in God’s way?” In turn, his accusers and critics “gave glory to God, ‘God’ they said, ‘can evidently grant even the pagans the repentance that leads to life.’” It was St Peter’s receptivity to the Holy Spirit and hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd that gave him the courage to open the Church to the Gentiles, preventing the primitive Church from being reduced to another sect within Judaism.
Indeed, his attentiveness to the prompting of the Holy Spirit opened the Church to many who are longing to find the truth and life. As the psalmist prayed, “Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearning for you, my God. My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God? O send forth your light and your truth; let these be my guide. Let them bring me to your holy mountain, to the place where you dwell.” Many are seeking the light of God. They yearn to see the face of God and they are waiting for God to quench their thirst in life. Indeed, the Lord said, “I am the gate. Anyone who enters through me will be safe: he will go freely in and out and be sure of finding pasture.” Jesus will give us the security and the peace that we are seeking in life. With Jesus, we need not fear the future and with Him, we walk in freedom and in love.
The sheep too possess the sensus fidei, the sense of faith to distinguish the true voice of the shepherd and one that is not. Jesus said “the sheep hear his voice, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. When he has brought out his flock, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice. They never follow a stranger but run away from him: they do not recognise the voice of strangers.’” Indeed, sheep must always be vigilant and not follow shepherds blindly unless they are followers of Christ. We should take “no notice of them” if they are not one with the Shepherd. All other shepherds must act in union with Christ the Good Shepherd. Those who are called to be shepherds after the heart of Christ but must first enter the Gate of the sheepfold themselves, otherwise the sheep would either be misled by our ignorance or they simply would not follow us. They will be deceived by us or would not recognize us. We are called to bring them to Christ who gives us life abundantly.