1 [Jesus said:] “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (ESV)
Most Canadians have never interacted with or even seen a real shepherd. In these modern times, the ways of a shepherd are not easily perceived, which means we do not easily perceive our need for a shepherd. What use is a shepherd for paying our bills or planning our future? The image of a shepherd is a distant figure to us. His ways are virtually unknown.
And that is the beauty of the Gospel for this third Sunday of Easter. With the world trying to navigate the uncharted territory of a new pandemic and war, St. John is calling us to meditate on something even more mysterious to us. On Jesus… as our shepherd.
Jesus reveals himself as a shepherd in a dangerous world. Jesus opens the eyes of his disciples to how dangerous their world truly is. He calls attention to the false shepherds and the hired hands, to the thieves and the robbers, not to mention the wolves which surround them. It is during danger that Jesus chooses to reveal Himself as a shepherd—our shepherd. The One who came that we may have life and have it abundantly.
Into a dangerous world, where strangers climb into sheepfolds and hired hands run away, the true Shepherd comes. And the beauty of his coming is that the Shepherd calls to his sheep and he knows them by name. Even when we do not know a thing about shepherds, Jesus still calls to us in a voice we recognize. He gathers us together and leads us in his way. The one thing that saves us is not what we know about shepherds but that our Shepherd knows us. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
For Jesus, this world of thieves and false shepherds was not imaginary. It was real. He was betrayed by a thief, crucified under the rule of false shepherds, and buried in a tomb. But he rose from the dead to assure us that he is the true Shepherd who leads us to everlasting life.
Right now, we are more aware than ever that we do not know what lies in store for us. Back in 2019, no one would have imagined how our lives would be drastically changed by a pandemic. And this past New Year’s, who would have thought that Russia would attack Ukraine? And who among us can accurately predict what the future holds? The only thing we can safely predict is that the world will continue to change, and not always for the better! But we have one thing which will never change. We have a Shepherd who knows us by name and who promises to speak to us in all of life’s situations.
Jesus is ever calling us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. And to the sheep who follow him, Good Shepherd Jesus speaks to us a word of forgiveness that crushes our sin, guilt, and shame; a word of hope that sets us free from our fears; a word of life that defeats death; a word of joy that overcomes our despair; a word of peace that is greater than our sorrows. In all of life’s situations, Jesus speaks to us as the Good Shepherd who knows us by name.
Jesus is not only the shepherd of the sheep. He is also the gate of the sheep pen, the door of the sheep. There is no other way to the lush, green pasture of eternal life than through the crucified and risen flesh of Jesus. Remember how Jesus said, No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). There is no other name than the name of Jesus by which we are saved. There is no other death than the death of Jesus that leads to eternal life. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the only true way to eternal life. All other ways, no matter how attractive, how religious, how righteous they may appear, lead to death and destruction.
There is also no other way into the sheep pen than through the crucified and risen Jesus. He is the gate for the sheep. He zealously guards His sheep against predators, intruders, and false teachers. Jesus has in view the Palestinian way of raising sheep. Sheep were kept in walled pens during the night for protection. The sheep pen had only one gate. Every morning the shepherd would stand at the gate and call out to his sheep by the names he had given them. They would perk up at the sound of his voice and follow him through the gate into the pasture. A devoted shepherd would even sleep on the ground across the opening of the sheep pen during the night to protect his flock. The shepherd literally became the gate for the sheep, by laying down his life for the sheep.
The opening to the sheep pen distinguished true and good shepherds from thieves and robbers. You can always tell a shepherd by the way he gets into the sheep pen. True shepherds enter through the gate in broad daylight in full view of the gatekeeper. False shepherds and thieves try to slip over the fence at night. Jesus distinguishes true pastors from false ones. Those who preach Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins and who guide people to the still water of Baptism and to the rich pasture land of the Word and Sacrament are true shepherds. Those who preach themselves and guide people to their own methods and means of salvation are false shepherds.
Jesus is the Door. Through the door of his holy life and bloody sacrifice, we have eternal life. Through him and him alone, we have heaven. Jesus is the door dripping with water and blood through whom we find good pasture.
Outside of Jesus is the way of the thieves and robbers—the way of the devil and this world’s false teachers, who tempt us to believe that our salvation is based on us picking ourselves up and improving our lives on our own. These liars say: “well, Jesus has done his part, now it’s up to you to do your part.”
So do you love Jesus enough? Have you made him the Lord of your life? Really? Have you fully committed to him? Is your life better than it was before? Have you stopped sinning? Do this, do that, change this, change that, pray, work, and maybe God will count you worthy to be saved. But do you see? In all this “you doing” stuff, you make yourself the door. You make yourself the one who, by what you do and don’t do, determines if you are in the sheep pen or not. You become the door through which you get to heaven.
The truth is that your salvation is based 100 percent on the Good Shepherd laying down his life for you; your good works add nothing to your salvation, but rather are God’s gifts to you. By God’s grace, then, you do not believe the false teaching of salvation by works and you do not listen to the hireling. You do not follow any voice other than that of your Good Shepherd Jesus. For you are his sheep and you have heard his voice and you follow him.
How deep and mysterious is Jesus. He is both the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God, who lay[s] down [his] life for the sheep. Jesus is also the Door for the sheep. He is the way into the sheep pen. He is the way out to green pasture. And he is not just anyone’s door. He is your Door. He is your way into not just life, but life eternal.
The gate to Jesus’ sheep pen is narrow. It is as narrow as the cross on which Jesus hung on that dark Friday we call “good.” The wood of the gate is blood stained, reddened by the blood of Jesus Christ that cleanses us from all sin. To be brought through that gate of Jesus’ death and resurrection is to be cleansed by His blood. In the Book of Revelation, St. John describes the saints in heaven as a white-robed congregation who had washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. That is a perfect description of you and me and all who have been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb of God.
The image of the sheep pen is a beautiful picture of the church as it is in the world. The believers in Christ are brought in out of the world, rescued from certain death and damnation, through the gate of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They are in the world but no longer of the world. In the sheep pen they are cared for and fed by their shepherd. Their wounds are anointed with the healing balm of forgiveness. They are guarded against false shepherds and wolves. The Good Shepherd feeds them. He anoints them and calls out to them. They hear His voice.
Sheep who hear their Shepherd’s voice—that is what the church is. Believers who hear the Gospel. Then they go out in Jesus’ name, through him into the world to live out their lives in the work God has called them to do in the world. The sheep are never apart from their Shepherd and he is never apart from them. So we, like sheep, are gathered together in the sheep pen of the church and we are led out into everyday lives by Jesus the Good Shepherd through the gate of His death and resurrection.
Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Life is what Good Friday and Easter were about. Life is what every Sunday is about. Receiving Christ’s life as our own, the life he laid down for us. That doesn’t guarantee that we will live long lives. Nor does it say that we will be necessarily wealthy or healthy. Abundant life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. St. Peter reminds us that the call to live in Christ is a call to share in His sufferings (see 1 Peter 2:21). Abundant life means eternal life. Life overflowing with life. So much life it can never be expended or exhausted, no matter what happens to us in this world. Jesus came to give us eternal life, his life, a life that conquered death and the grave.
Jesus died to destroy the death that threatens our lives. He bore our sins in his own body on the tree. He died our death and rose from the dead, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness as the sheep of his pasture. Jesus is our healing Shepherd. By his wounds [we] have been healed (1 Peter 2:24). His blood is a healing ointment by which we are healed from sin, death, and the power of the devil; healed from a guilty conscience and slavery to our selves. The greatest freedom we can have in this life is to be pushed through the narrow gate of Jesus’ death and resurrection, penned up in Jesus’ sheep pen, to live under him in his kingdom, to be under the watchful gaze of the crucified and risen Shepherd and Overseer of our souls.
Jesus is the door to eternal life, the only door. His death and resurrection is the only path that leads to eternal life. One day he will stand at the gate and call each of us again by name, as he has already called us in Baptism, as he continues to call us daily through his Word. We will hear his voice and follow him through his death and resurrection, and he will raise us clothed with his immortality, never to suffer, never to die again. What an abundant life we have in Christ! Amen.