As so often in St. John’s Holy Gospel, this Word of our Lord is at once so simple and obvious, and yet, so profound and mysterious that you can hardly understand it. In fact, you cannot understand the things of Christ apart from the grace of His Word and Holy Spirit. The disciples likewise did not understand the “figure of speech” that Jesus was using in this case. It is only in the light of the Cross and Resurrection that anyone is able to understand the Lord Jesus Christ and His Gospel; but of course, the Cross and Resurrection must also be explained by His Word and Holy Spirit.
There are a number of key point in this Holy Gospel, which speak to the heart of your salvation: There is the Door to the sheepfold. There are the true shepherds who enter through that Door, in contrast to thieves and robbers who enter by some other way or means. There is the Doorkeeper, who admits the shepherds to the fold. There are the sheep, who recognize their Shepherd by the sound of His Voice, but they neither hear nor heed the voice of thieves and robbers. And, finally, there is the abundant Life which the Good Shepherd gives to His own dear sheep.
You know and confess that Jesus is your Good Shepherd. But where and how does He “shepherd” you as a sheep of His fold? That is, by and large, the main point to our Gospel this morning. The great Good Shepherd of the sheep comes to you, He deals with you and cares for you, by those shepherds whom He calls and sends to speak and act in His Name and stead, with His authority.
As Jesus says, He is the Door through which the shepherds of His sheep must enter. But since He also is the Shepherd of the sheep, He enters through the Door, as well. He enters through the door of Mary’s womb, to begin with, in order to become true Man, flesh of our flesh and blood of our blood. And then He enters through the door of His Cross and Resurrection — through death and the grave — into everlasting life. The Lord-Who-is-our-Shepherd thus becomes the sacrificial Lamb of God, a Sheep led to the slaughter, to lay down His Body and Life for the entire flock.
Accordingly, those who are called to shepherd the flock under Him must also enter through this “Door,” which is Christ Himself, the incarnate Son of God, crucified and risen from the dead. It is the Lord Christ Himself, the Good Shepherd, who makes any man a pastor, that is, a shepherd of His sheep. This work He does by His Word, by the means of His Divine Call and Ordination.
It is Christ who calls and ordains a man to the Office of the Holy Ministry, though He does so through the agency of His Church on earth: The seminaries teach and train, the Church at large affirms and certifies, a congregation extends a Call, and those who already serve within the office confirm the Call with the laying on of hands, with the Word of God and prayer. But it is the Lord who thereby provides shepherds for His sheep. Apart from His Word and His work, there are no shepherds but only thieves and robbers. Only those who enter through the Door of the Body of Christ, by His Word and Holy Spirit in His Church, are actually the true shepherds of His sheep.
But that is the beginning, not the end. A man who has been called and ordained as a shepherd of the sheep — especially because he is sent in the Name and stead of the Good Shepherd — must always speak and act in accordance with the Word of Christ. In everything a pastor says and does, he continues to enter into the sheepfold through the Door, that is, through Christ, by way of His Word. Thus do the sheep hear and know their Shepherd’s Voice in the preaching of their pastor: because it is indeed the Voice of Christ, their Savior, with which their pastor speaks to them.
What is it, then, that all of us — pastors and people, shepherds and sheep — are called to do? It is to hear the Voice of the Good Shepherd, and to follow Him by faith in His Word. You know where to hear His Voice, that is, from those whom He has called and sent to be your pastors in His Name and stead. And you follow Him by heeding His Voice and living by the Word that He speaks to you. Thus do you receive the abundant Life that Christ has obtained and gives to you.
This abundant Life for which you were created, which is to say, your Life with God the Creator, is not only from Christ but in Christ. It has been accomplished for you and for all by His death upon the Cross, and it is given to you in His Resurrection from the dead — as it is preached and administered in all the world — through the Ministry of His Gospel, His forgiveness of sins.
This Gospel is the distinctive Voice of the Good Shepherd, which is spoken into your ears and given into your body by His Word and Sacraments. This Voice of the Shepherd does not simply tell you about the forgiveness of sins. It is the actual forgiveness of all your sins. And it is by this Voice of forgiveness that Christ Jesus gives you His own abundant Life. It is not some endeavor that you must do or accomplish for yourself by following a set of rules or regulations. It is Life itself, the gracious gift of God in Christ. In hearing His Voice, you already begin to live in Him.
Everything depends on His Voice. His sheep know His Voice and follow Him by faith; but those who do not recognize or listen to His Voice are not His sheep and have no part in His sheepfold.
That is a sobering assertion, which calls you to repentance. For St. John has indicated that even those chosen disciples had no idea what Jesus was talking about. And do not suppose that you are smarter or superior to those men who were called by Christ Himself and followed Him to death. No. By virtue of your fallen flesh, you are not even able to know the Voice of Christ, because you were conceived and born in sin. So you are not His sheep by any merit or ability of yours.
You are a sheep of the Good Shepherd, like those first disciples, only because He has called you to Himself, and by His Word and Holy Spirit He has caused you to hear and believe His Voice of the Gospel. Otherwise, it would make no sense to you at all. Indeed, it would be quite offensive.
You don’t like to hear that your sins are forgiven, because you cling to a denial of your sins. You seek not forgiveness but explanations and excuses. You don’t like to hear that you are given life in the Cross of Christ, because you don’t want a life that is shaped and defined by the Cross. You don’t want the preaching of the Gospel, because you don’t like to rely upon the preacher whom Christ has sent. You much prefer the self-righteousness of a prideful do-it-yourself spirituality.
The Voice of your Good Shepherd is surely the sweetest and most comforting sound that you will ever hear. It forgives your sins and gives you Life. But to those who are not yet sheep, even the sweetness of this Voice is bitter; and it remains bitter to the ears of your old Adam, because the forgiveness of your sin means the renunciation and repudiation of your sin, which has otherwise defined your so-called “life.” And to live the new Life that you have in Christ Jesus involves the daily death and destruction of your old Adam — who is no one else than your own sinful self.
So it is that you will too often prefer to listen to the voices of thieves and robbers and to follow them instead of your Shepherd. You don’t perceive them to be thieves and robbers, of course, because they say what your itching ears desire to hear. Besides, they’re not stealing from you so much as they are stealing you from your Good Shepherd! Yet, by doing so, they rob you of your life and health and everything else, because they lead you astray from your Savior, Christ Jesus.
Such are the grim realities that your Shepherd faces. By all rights, He might well throw up His hands in disgust and just give up on you and your stubborn, wayward ways. Sheep are often not the smartest of animals, as I recall from when I was a young boy living in Australia, where many of my friends and their families raised sheep. By your native sinfulness, however, you are even more foolish and stubborn than sheep. You are sinful and unclean, and it is surely true that you deserve nothing else but punishment for your sins, both here in time and hereafter in eternity.
But what does your Good Shepherd do? He comes through the door of St. Mary’s womb into flesh and blood like yours, in order to share your mortal life, and to bear, both with you and for you, all the deadly consequences of your sin. He passes through the narrow door of death and the grave, in order to blaze the trail and open the way for you, into His Resurrection and His Life; that you should be forgiven all your sins by His grace; that you should not perish but live with God forever.
His own Cross and Resurrection have thus become the Door whereby you enter His sheepfold — His Church on earth and the Paradise of God — in which you are His own dear sheep, and you are kept safe from the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh, and you are cared for by Christ Himself.
So do the Cross of Christ and His forgiveness of your sins also shape the Life that you live in Him. Which is to say that, as a sheep of the Good Shepherd, your life is characterized by self-sacrificing love and service for others, and especially by your forgiveness of those who sin against you.
So it is that, even though most of you will never become pastors of the Church, there are many ways in which the Good Shepherd does call you to serve and care for His sheep, that is, within your own particular stations in life. That is probably most obvious in the callings of fathers and mothers for their children, and for teachers, public servants, doctors and nurses. But whatever your particular place and calling may be, you are given to love and care for your neighbor for the sake of Jesus Christ. Thus are you an agent of the Shepherd’s care for others. Indeed, that is the main point and purpose of your position in life; not making money or a name for yourself, but loving and serving those entrusted to your care, and forgiving your neighbor as Christ forgives you.
As you consider how often you fall short of these good and gracious things in the way that you actually do think, speak, and act in relation to your neighbor, so do you realize that, not only are you a sheep of the Good Shepherd by His grace, but you are still a sinner, a child of Adam in this body and life on earth. And if you conclude that it is all too much for you, and that you are simply not up to it, well then, you are quite right! For as long as you live in this fallen world, you are going to fall short, to stray from the Shepherd and His flock, and to sin. Of yourself, you are lost, helpless and hopeless. But, thankfully, none of this depends on you. None of it. Not in the least.
It is the Good Shepherd Himself, your dear Lord Jesus Christ, who has gotten Life for you, and who now bestows that abundant Life upon you by His grace alone. By His Incarnation, life, death, and Resurrection, He has become your Shepherd. And by His Ministry of the Gospel, He not only calls you to be His sheep, but He shepherds you and cares for you in peace. It is His Voice that daily and richly forgives you all your sins, and calls you back to the fold as often as you stray. And it is by His Voice of the Gospel that His Spirit strengthens and sustains your faith and life in Him.
For your part, then, hear your Shepherd’s Voice as He speaks to you, and receive His forgiveness of your sins, His life and salvation, which He freely delivers to you here and now in His Church.
You are shaped for Life with God by the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, into which you have been baptized. You are given a forgiving heart, and you learn how to forgive those who sin against you, by confessing your sins and receiving Absolution from your pastor as from your Good Shepherd Himself. And you are nurtured in the green pastures of that same Good Shepherd, to grow up unto everlasting life in His image, as often as you are fed with His own Body at His Table and given to drink of His holy and precious Blood from His overflowing Chalice of Salvation. So shall you live and abide in the House of the Lord forever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.