Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
Sometimes there are subtle statements and references in the Scriptures that have special meaning or significance, but they slip past our attention because we do not know about them or don’t think about them. One of these is so common in our own speaking that we are likely to overlook it in the words of Jesus. Because it was also common in Jesus’ own language, we cannot be sure of any special meaning every time this phrase is used, but sometimes it seems certain. Sometimes, when Jesus uses the very common phrase, “I am,” He is identifying Himself with His Father — the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — the Great I AM who had a fiery conversation with Moses from a fascinating bush.
In my opinion, when Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” He was making this identification. He was identifying Himself with the Good Shepherd of the Twenty-third Psalm. These words are in the verse that follows Sunday’s Gospel Lesson. In the Lesson itself, another “I am” passage occurs. Without the second one following so quickly, or if we were to read only Sunday’s lesson and not see the next passage, we might not recognize the significance of the first one.
In the Gospel, Jesus uses a figure of speech which seems, at first, to confuse His disciples. He says that those who enter a sheepfold by some other means than the gate are thieves and robbers. That seems obvious enough — a shepherd would go right through the front door. A thief hops the fence. Jesus also said that the sheep would hear the shepherd’s voice, recognize it and follow him. The opposite thing could be said for a stranger. Sheep would run away from a stranger because they would not recognize his voice. That also makes sense.
I don’t know much about sheep, but I know that when our dog is inside and hears someone from our family talking, he remains quiet. If a stranger is talking, somewhere near enough to the house for him to hear (and it’s surprising how far away that can be), he starts barking and raising a ruckus. The Gospel-writer John adds: “The disciples did not realize what He was trying to tell them.”
As with the little phrase, “I am,” Jesus’ words about thieves, shepherd and sheep were very common and ordinary observances — no big deal — so the disciples were unmoved. Apparently, no one even asked, “So, what?” Jesus answered without being asked. He said, “I am the gate for the sheep . . . Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy. I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
In a sermon based on this text (his text read “door” instead of “gate”), one preacher said, “In our church building alone there are at least 65 different doors.” When I read that, my first impression was that it must be one gigantic church! Then I realized he was including all the different kinds of doors — not only front, side, rear, etc., but also classroom, cabinet, closet, refrigerator, on and on. I thought about how many we have at our church and suddenly the number 65 didn’t seem so big at all.
I also got to thinking about the function of gates and doors. They can keep sheep, people and things in, or they can keep things out! They can also, as Jesus suggests, let some things in and out. They can even perform both functions at the same time, like the gates that are used to let certain animals and people in or out, but keep the dangerous types away. For example, zoo-keepers and visitors have different concepts about the fences at the zoo. Visitors think the fences protect them from the animals!
There are several kinds of sheepfolds. As a matter of fact, occasionally when sheep are huddled together out in the open, the “huddle” can be called a fold. Other folds include large enclosures where several shepherds might keep their flocks at the same time, These were usually rented and a gatekeeper was posted. The value of each shepherd being able to call his own sheep becomes obvious in this instance. Another kind of enclosure had no close-able gate or door at all, just an opening. In this case, the shepherd would make his bed across the opening — a human burglar alarm, if you will. His body would become the door that let the sheep in and kept the predators out.
Did you notice the ellipsis, the three little dots, that I put in the middle of Jesus’ quote above? The intervening words of Jesus, represented by those dots, have to do with the fact that “thieves and robbers” sometimes try to enter by a different means and mislead others to do the same. There is little doubt that self-righteousness, like that of the Pharisees, has often been seen as an entryway into the kingdom of God. It is not! It is a kind of trap through which people enter and then find no escape. As a matter of fact, people have always tried to find a way around God. Even after Jesus came, people still try to find a way around Him. If you picture Him as the Shepherd who has made Himself the gate, as He says, then you can also imagine people trying to wiggle in around Him, or climb over some other way. Jesus says there is no other way.
That image of Jesus also demonstrates something else. The Shepherd who made Himself the protecting barrier across the entrance was the Victim of the evil and death from which He was protecting us. What is even worse, He was the Victim of people trying to force their own way in — some of the very people He came to let in! The way that Jesus provides is the way of forgiveness. He provides it free of any charge to us, but at the cost of everything to Himself. He is not only our gate of entry, He is also the gate which closes on our past. When we enter through Him, the past is behind us — forgiven, forgotten, forever!
After the Civil War, General John B. Gordon was a candidate for the U.S. Senate from the State of Georgia. In those days, senators were elected by State Legislatures. An old soldier who had been a friend and comrade of the General, but who for some reason now disliked him, was serving as a Georgia legislator. When he rose to cast his vote against the man by whose side he had once fought, his eye caught a ragged scar on the General’s cheek. He recognized it immediately as a testimony to Gordon’s valor and integrity, even at the price of suffering. He said to himself, “I cannot vote against him; I had forgotten the scar.”
In Sunday’s Second Lesson from First Peter, we are reminded of another scar: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds, you have been healed.” The lesson also reminds us of something in Jesus’ illustration. Through our Shepherd-Gate, we come in and also go out. The Door of our security is also our Door of opportunity — the chance to live as the missionaries of our loving and almighty God of grace. A sign should be posted on the front and back of every church door: “Enter to worship. Depart to serve.”
Jesus came to set us free from the limited life of sin to the abundant life of the children of God. It is not the entrapping life of self-righteousness, but the adventurous life of those who live trusting God. He is a door through which we enter and depart again and again. In one of the old Superman shows on television, Clark Kent went into a revolving door disguised as an old drunk. He immediately came out the other side as the Man of Steel. When we enter through Christ, whether in life or at death, that same kind of thing happens for us. We enter in need, dead or just dead in trespasses and sin, but we come out again renewed for adventurous and abundant life! When we enter the valley of the shadow of death or life, we go in unafraid, for our Shepherd is with us — He is both our Way in and our Way out!