“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; but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
You’ve probably all heard the saying, “You’ll never get a second chance to make a first impression,” “Put your best foot forward,” or “First impressions are the most lasting.” We think of these phrases in terms of meeting people, job interviews, auditions. What about in terms of a church? A church architect once declared that the most important part of a church is the front door. Not the sanctuary, the pulpit, or even the fellowship hall, but the front door.
The front door is one of the first things that newcomers encounter about any building. The front door has been called “the mouth of a home.” I recently read that over the years, when banks changed their front doors, it was a signal of a fundamental shift in the business of banking. In the early days of the last century, banks were built to look like impregnable fortresses. Their front doors were often thick and impenetrable – people wanted to believe that if the door was solid and secure, so was their money.
Then, in the mid-20th century, banks became more “user friendly” by putting a warm and welcoming face on banking. The big, thick, impenetrable doors gave way to glass doors, so you could see the people and activity inside. People felt like their money was in good hands.
What do our church doors say about our church? Personally, I love our new front entrance downstairs – light, bright, warm, hospitable – and I hear similar comments from many. Even the front door of our sanctuary, made of glass, feels welcoming – inviting light into the church by day, and radiating light out by night. A door should reflect the life that goes on within the building. Remember the door to the emerald castle in “The Wizard of Oz”? A huge, intimidating entrance with a high round window that a defensive and somewhat confused gatekeeper stuck his head out of when Dorothy and her friends knocked in search of the enigmatic wizard. Or think of the old gangster movies that depicted the speakeasies of the roaring twenties. After someone gave a secret knock, a voice from the inside would say, “What’s the password?” If the right password were given (something like “Joe sent me”) then the door would open to all of the illicit excitement that was going on inside.
Think about other doors. How about the door to the principal’s office inspiring fear in generations of school children? Or the doors into museums, concert halls, and other public spaces that require screening by metal detectors and scanners? Years ago when I worked as a prison chaplain, I remember the series of doors as well as pat-downs that had to be passed through to gain entrance.
Doors stand as barriers. While they may serve as protection, they’re also obstacles which keep us apart from one another. Sometimes a door stands open to the world. Sometimes it’s latched shut out of fear, or used as a way to be apart from something or someone. Gates and doors stand as boundaries, and divide the insiders from the outsiders.
In the Gospel passage I just read, which was from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Jesus says that he is “the door.” It’s an interesting figure of speech. “I am the door.” In another translation, Jesus says that he’s “the gate.” But Jesus isn’t the kind of door or gate that’s a barrier and a persistent “no admittance.” Jesus is a living door, a talking door, a speaking door who invites us to enter: “Won’t you come in? Won’t you come into God’s house? Won’t you come into God’s love? Won’t you come into God’s family?”
Although one version says Jesus is “the door,” the metaphor of Jesus as “the gate” may be more appropriate when describing sheep and Jesus being a good shepherd. In ancient Israel, a pen for sheep was more likely secured by a gate than what we think of as a door. The point is that Jesus doesn’t describe himself as either a gatekeeper or a doorkeeper. He doesn’t depict himself as standing by and pointing to the way in or the way out. Jesus isn’t the gatekeeper – rather, Jesus is the gate itself. Jesus calls himself the gate because that was part of what a shepherd was. In the pen, the sheepfold, if there was no actual physical gate, the shepherd would set himself on the ground. He would lie down, and spread his body across the opening which allowed entry and exit. By doing this, the shepherd was able to know who or what came and went. In this way he was the protector of the sheep when they were in, and he offered them the abundance of green pastures when they went out.
Jesus does the same for us. He is the door that leads to God, offering comfort and refuge, and providing for all our needs. In him, we know the safety and security of community, and the sustenance and love that God provides. The door isn’t the house, it’s not the dwelling place, not the goal. Rather, the door is a passageway into the house, a means of getting to a destination. Jesus is the way to God, the way to abundant life, the path to true freedom. He’s the means by which we get to God. And the traffic is moving in both directions. Jesus is also the way God gets to us.
In our passage today, we don’t hear about a door that separates the sheep from Jesus – because Jesus is the gate, the door itself. Unlike those who come to the door of an imposing castle, or to a secret hideaway, we need not beg to be let in. None of us needs to throw ourselves against a door, or scratch and claw our way in. Jesus is the door that is open to us.
Again, doors are important because they reflect something within. They give an impression about the character of a building and about what goes on inside. When we look at Jesus, we believe that we’ve seen as much of God as we ever hope to see. Here is not only a door into the house, but a door that tells us a lot about the house, about God and God’s kingdom. A house where we’re given not just life, but life in abundance. Where we’re not just surviving, but flourishing. Where we’re not just getting by, but thriving. Where we’re given not just existence, but joy. Jesus offers more life than most of us can possibly imagine.
How do we imagine that abundant life? It’s different for everyone. For the blind, it’s sight; for the deaf, it’s hearing. For the single parent it might be companionship and support. For the bullied teenager, it might be acceptance and friendship. For the impoverished, it might be dignity and self-determination. For the retiree, it might be involvement in a worthwhile cause. Abundant life looks different for everyone, but it’s always found in response to anything that seeks to rob the children of God of love, purpose, and joy.
This morning we’re here in the house of God, gathered around this sacred table. How did we get here? We had to come through the door. That door is Jesus. We took hold of the handle and opened the door. Or, maybe more to the point, that door miraculously, graciously opened to us, and we walked through the threshold and came inside.
And now that we’re here, gathered as a congregation, as a flock, God calls each of us to share the openness, the abundance, and the love that we know in Christ. Like the front door of our entryway, we need to invite people in. Like the front door of our sanctuary, we need to radiate God’s love out. We must be open doors ourselves, for we are the body of Christ. Amen.