In the tenth chapter of John, there are three sheep-farming images in a row. In verses one through six, the shepherd is known to the gatekeeper and to the sheep. They follow his voice, and he leads them OUT of the sheepfold. He is contrasted with thieves and bandits and strangers; they try to get INTO the sheepfold and steal. It's not easy for the bad guys because the sheep don't follow their voice. Does the orientation of the directional words surprise you? INside feel safer, doesn't it? Don't we want to be IN the protective walls of the sheepfold? But the shepherd leads them OUT. Sometimes organizations try hard to be careful about who they let IN to the point that they seem exclusive, keeping people OUT, but Jesus goes IN and leads the sheep OUT.
The second image, in verses seven through ten, is Jesus as the gate itself. "Whoever enters by me will be saved," is a very exclusive sounding phrase. This is John, and things in John are different than they are in Matthew and Luke. In those other gospels, the narrow gate also sounds exclusive, though I don't think the point is that Jesus is turning people away so much as that people are missing the mark. Here in John, though, it's not so much about getting past the bouncer at the Sheepfold Club. Jesus says, "Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in AND GO OUT AND FIND PASTURE." The good place is not IN the sheepfold, but OUT in the pasture where there is cool, yummy grass to frolic in.
In the third of these images, in verses eleven through eighteen, Jesus is again a shepherd, but this time, instead of being contrasted with thieves and bandits, he is contrasted with other shepherds. He is the GOOD shepherd. The others are not even given the honor of being called shepherds; they are "hired hands." There is no gate, no gatekeeper, no sheepfold at all in this section. The sheep are OUT in the pasture. That does not mean the dangers are all gone; where there were thieves and bandits before, there are now wolves. Their only protection is the one watching over them. The hirelings are poor protection--when faced with danger, they only care for themselves and run away. The Good Shepherd cares so much for the sheep that he will protect them even at risk of his own life. This, of course is hinting at Holy Week when Jesus will lay down his life for the sheep, er, people.
Of course, these are parables, with other meanings. What could these images mean? The sheepfold could be the institutional church, or at the time, the synagogue. Jesus comes into the synagogues to teach. The walls of the sheepfold are the boundaries and conditions for keeping your membership in good standing. The outward orientation of these parables could be saying that if you get kicked out of the synagogue, like the man born blind in the chapter just before, it will be ok. You'll be safe as long as you're following the Good Shepherd out of that sheepfold.
It could also be that the sheepfold is the world itself. Jesus is the one coming into the world. He leads us out of the world into green pastures, meaning something like the afterlife. There is that line about Jesus having "other sheep that do not belong to this fold." That could be gentiles as opposed to the Pharisees who kicked the man born blind out of the synagogue. It could also be the more general "other," and we should be careful about judging those who are not in our congregation, denomination, or even religion; it is God's prerogative to save whom God will. Regardless, the idea here is that we come into the sheepfold through Jesus, and Jesus leads us to eternal life.
I would propose one more important idea here. Life is life is life. There is no real distinction between "this life" and "the afterlife." The green pastures that Jesus leads us to are here and now as much as in the sky by and by. It is the kind of life that is free from the muck and mire of the sheepfold, free from habits of thought and behavior that make us die inside, or that make other people die inside. Think of things like desperation, fatalism, complaining, judging, separating, excluding, defensiveness--these things cause us to limit ourselves and others when it comes to living. Jesus said, "the thief comes to steal and kill and destroy." These behaviors are thieves stealing your life now.
In contrast, as Paul says in Galatians, "For freedom Christ set you free." We can live a life NOW that's free of the muck and mire of the sheepfold. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things." Jesus leads us out of the slavery of sin in our thoughts and emotions and behaviors and lives. Jesus leads us into the green pastures of freedom from sin in this life now, if we'll follow him. A life full of these fruits of the Spirit in ourselves and in our community. This is what he means when he says, in contrast to the thief that brings death and destruction, "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly."
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is not only protecting us from danger, he is leading us into abundant life. He is the one coming INTO the world, and he lays down his life for the sheep. Easter morning, he leads us OUT of the sheepfold into new life--abundant, resurrection life.