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 listen to them. I am the door. If anyone 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. — John 10:7-10 ESV
Sometimes when, in his words, my dad thought I was getting “too big for my britches”, he would say to me, “It doesn’t take a genius to see that you aren’t one.” At the time, that sort of a statement was lost on me which I suppose proved his point.
So Jesus comes along and refers to me as a sheep. I’ve seen sheep. There are few animals less capable of independent survival than domestic sheep. They are bred for their wool, their milk, and most importantly, their docility. Wild sheep cannot be sheared, milked or led anywhere. But domesticated sheep possess an instinct that is critical to their usefulness. They have a herding instinct and a hierarchical social structure. They will follow. This is a great strength and a great weakness.
Jesus here describes himself as a door. Doors open and close and stand firmly between two things; inside and outside. What’s inside is pasture and what’s outside is thieves and robbers. So who are these thieves and robbers who came before. Who was Jesus referring to? I think he answers that succinctly. It’s “all who came before”.
A couple of chapters back (John 8:53-59), the Pharisees asked Jesus this question, “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” Jesus responds with what those Pharisees would describe as fightin’ words; Jesus surprisingly says “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” This answer wasn’t lost on those Pharisees who literally began looking about for some stones to throw. Apparently, the Pharisees thought the question was rhetorical.
So Jesus isn’t just the door from that point onward, he’s always been the door, even before that fellow Abraham… you know… “was”. This is as true for Abraham, as it was for this Pharisees, as it is for me. To find safety and pasture, we must enter through that door.
But to find that door, to even be aware that there is a door, we need to hear his voice. It’s how we know we belong to him. But we’re not called to him as shepherds, or even sheep dogs. We’re called as sheep. Like sheep have their wool and their milk, we too possess various gifts and abilities. But those things are useless without one other notable trait. What makes us sheep usable, is our willingness to follow. Wild sheep also possess wool and milk but it’s a bit hard to get to and they have the opinion that it belongs to them.
As Jesus was getting ready to “go somewhere they couldn’t follow” the mother of James and John recognized a coming leadership vacuum (Matthew 20:20-28). She casually mentions that those two sons of hers would look spiffy in papal hats and recommends a promotion. In response, Jesus called them aside and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants be first among you must be your slave.” For the disciples, this kind of talk just had to be a disappointment.
Since then, we’ve redefined the word “servant” to mean leadership because we just can’t see this working out. Honestly, how will we convince folks to pay for the new wing on the leadership training resort without some pretty strong leadership. What would we talk about at Christian conferences if we didn’t talk about leadership? Attendees would stay away in droves with a theme like “learn how to follow”.
It’s hard to find contentment as a sheep when everyone’s saying that everyone who’s anyone is a shepherd. I think that job’s been taken. Remember that guy guarding the door? You know, the one whose voice we’re meant to recognize? He’s under the impression that he’s the shepherd. He says that all who came before were robbers and thieves and I think that might also apply to some who come after. So unless your mom is a faster talker than James and John’s mom, you might try being content as a sheep.
The problem with sheep is their gullibility. All a wolf has to do is put on some hip clothes, quote a few bible verses and promise a better pasture. A pasture where some day other sheep might follow you and admire and love you for your God given shepherding skills. The wolf will tell you that following is for ordinary sheep and he can see that you’re something special. Inevitably, sheep will follow the wolf to a different pasture thinking they’ve discovered a hidden truth, a special gift, or a secret power. A pasture where you know the difference between good and evil. Truthfully, it’s kind of an old con, but sheep still fall for it.
Jesus has promised us good pasture and abundant life. But it’s not a life where we get to be the shepherd. And abundant doesn’t mean problem free. We have one shepherd and we can all attain the high rank of “child of God”. This makes us the flattest organization on earth and pretty much guarantees chaos. But it’s also our strength. It’s the variation in a species that gives it flexibility and survivability. Nothing can take us all out. Unity simply means we follow the same shepherd not that we agree with other sheep. If we follow him, we’ll end up in the same place. The pasture’s good and, sure, your fellow sheep might bray like donkey’s and bite at your ankles on occasion, but you can tell if they’re sheep by their willingness to follow and serve. My advice it this. Never follow anyone that isn’t serving beside you. If they’re not serving, they’re probably not sheep at all.