You never really know a person until you know how that person perceives himself. I'm sure you must have had those experiences like I have had when you were sharing with another person and that sharing became deep, when pretentions were dissolved and defenses failed and honesty prevailed. You sat on the edge of your seat or you stood at attention in your mind to listen to what that person had to say, because you knew that person was sharing his innermost feelings about who he is and what he's about. Those are the kinds of moments when people really meet, when deep calls unto deep and soul touches soul.
When it's the Son of God who is sharing with us in that sort of fashion, the intensity and the revelation multiply a hundredfold. And that is precisely what is happening to us throughout the gospel of John, where Jesus shares with us his great claims about himself. In these great "I Am" passages, Jesus is telling us who he is. He's sharing with us his innermost conviction about his own life.
There is a sense in which these sayings of Jesus gather up the whole of the gospel message, for they're really autobiographical vignettes. They are Jesus' . So let's look at one of these sayings of Jesus. Listen to it. Sit on the edge of your seat, if you will.
"I am the door." The setting for that claim of Jesus is the story of the Great Shepherd. Jesus' hearers did not understand the story when he told it to them, so without reservation, as plainly and as boldly as he could, he made the reference to himself, saying, "I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture."
Let's live with the setting of that story for a moment. In Jesus' day, there were two kinds of sheepfolds. There was the communal sheepfold in the villages and towns. The shepherds keeping their sheep out in the fields by day would bring them back into the village at night, and they would be enfolded in that sheepfold. It was a place with a strong door, and that door had a doorkeeper. Only the doorkeeper had a key to the door, and no one could enter the sheepfold except a shepherd known by the doorkeeper. That's the kind of fold Jesus was talking about in the first part of our Scripture lesson.
But there was a second kind of fold. During the warm season, the shepherds would take the sheep far, far away from the villages. They would stay gone for weeks at a time, and at night they would enclose the sheep in folds that were built out on the hillside. Those folds were simply walls enclosing a space, with an entrance. There was no door to that entrance, and once the shepherd had put his sheep in the fold for the night, he himself would lay down across the opening. So there is a sense in which the good shepherd was the door. And for the sheep to enter or depart from the sheepfold, they had to pass over the shepherd's body. It was that kind of sheepfold that Jesus was talking about when he referred to himself as the door.
In the most literal sense, the shepherd was the door. For there was no access to the sheepfold except through him. Now, with that kind of image, the theme of my sermon is disarmingly simple. Listen. The purpose of a door is to either shut something behind us or open something to us. Isn't that simple?
Through Christ the door is shut to an old life of sin and guilt, pain and loss.
Christ is the door. "If any person enter by me, he will be saved." What does it mean to be saved? To enter the door and shut something behind us? At the very heart of it, it means at least this: Through Christ the door is shut to an old life of sin and guilt, pain and loss. Doesn't that sound awfully fundamental? It is. But I don't know a more desperate need on the part of people today than the need to know that their sins are forgiven, that their guilt can be done away with, that they are accepted, and that the door to the past can be shut behind them.
The New Testament abounds with some challenging, words that too many of us have taken little thought of. Listen to Paul as he speaks to Timothy. "This is a saying sure and worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners." And listen to Jesus as he speaks in the gospel of Luke. "Those who are healthy do not need a doctor, but those who are sick. I did not come to invite the virtuous, but to call sinners to repentance." And listen to Paul as he writes to the Romans. "God showed his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
Now nail this down in your mind; underscore it. Acknowledging one's self a sinner and accepting the grace and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ is the one experience that makes us a Christian. That is the core of the gospel. It is the core of the Christian experience. So let's live with that idea for a moment.
Do you remember Psalm 51? Ancient editors accredit this psalm to King David. The setting of it is that David had been found out. He had become involved with Bathsheba in an adulterous affair, and he'd gone so far as to plan for the death of her husband. With sham and pretense and intrigue, so many of the great commandments of Israel were broken by the king himself. You can almost feel the tears in his voice and know that his voice is cracking when he cries out in that psalm: "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy steadfast love. According to thy abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin, for I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation."
Illustration: The most vivid experience of that anguished prayer and its answer that I can recall came in the life of a young couple. It was hundreds of miles from here in another church, so I do not violate their confidence. They were a bright young couple, handsome, with everything going for them. They had the world in their hands. But then they played loosely with love, and she became pregnant before they were married. Without counseling with anyone, they decided to have an abortion.
Later they married, and everything went beautifully. They were so successful in their vocations. Then they decided to have children. When I met them she had been pregnant twice, but she had lost both the babies about eight or ten weeks after conception. And now she was devastated with anxiety because she was carrying the third child, and she was overcome with fear that she would lose that child also.
I never will forget the occasion when in torrents of tears, years of guilt poured out of her. It was guilt over that past sin, and fear anguishing fear, a kind of hellish fearthat God was punishing her in the loss of those two previous children because of her past sin. And I will never forget, either, the restoration of their joy when out of that remorse and repentance they claimed the forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. They renewed their commitment to him and allowed the door to be shut to that past.
Our experience may not be as dramatic as that young couple's, but as many people as there are in this congregation this morning, there are scores of people here today who are anguishing in guilt, who are somewhat paralyzed by guilt because they have not yet confessed, repented, and accepted that forgiving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. I don't need to remind you of that guilt. You feel it deeply in your life. But maybe I need to remind you of this. Listen to the promise of Scripture: "As far as the east is from the west, just that far will he remove our sins from us." We can shut that door to our past.
But your pain may not be the pain of guilt. It may be the pain of that divorce that tore your family apart, and the door on that needs to be shut. It may be an untimely death when you felt you were robbed of a loved one, and you still feel that loss. The pain of emptiness is like a knot in your stomach. You question God, and you go even beyond questioning. You blame God. Bitterness gnaws in your stomach and causes knots to come there and make life taste sour. The door needs to be closed on that pain.
There's another kind of pain that's here today. I know it's here. It's what I call the pain of lost time. It's most typically present in alcoholics. I don't know anything that robs people of more quality relationship, more precious time with loved ones, than alcoholism. But there's another kind of pain of lost time. Fathers who have given themselves passionately to their professions and have ignored their families know that pain. The alcoholic is healed now, the father has the proper perspective, but the damage is done and the pain is there. We need the door shut against that pain and loss.
Hear this. Jesus said, "I am the door." A door functions to close something behind us. And if we don't allow that to be closed behind us, we can't experience the opening of the door to something before us. That's our next consideration.
We all need to open the door to a new, abundant life.
The life to which Jesus calls us, the door that Jesus is, is an open door to life. There's a quality of life that we will never know apart from Jesus Christ. For not only are persons saved, delivered, and healed through Jesus who is the door closing something behind them, but if they enter through Christ the door, the next verse says, they will go in and out and find pasture. It's a beautiful image of being protected and sustained. It is a life of trustful relationship to God and loving service to our neighbor. Let's look at that image, considering the latter part first.
It is a life of loving service to our neighbor. Jesus said that "as the Good Shepherd, I'm willing to lay down my life for the sheep." There is no more characteristic phrase describing the Christian life than that. It's a life of loving service to our neighbor. The going out is as important as the coming in. Let me illustrate.
Illustration: He was a preacher at the turn of the century. His name was Washington Gladden, and he was as well known in that day as Billy Graham is known in ours. He grew up in a very Christian community, and he had learned well that a person needed to find peace with God and experience the new birth. But that experience seemed to elude him. He went to every revival meeting that came along and listened intently to the preachers and followed their instructions. He went to prayer meeting every week and listened with interest to all the testimonies that were shared, and he tried to lay hold of that experience that so many other people seemed to have found. But night after night in his early life, he would go to bed in the attic room of his father's farmhouse having sought but not found. And certainly he didn't have the kind of feelings that seemed to be present in all the people who were giving their testimonies.
His soul continued to be troubled, and his mind continued to be distressed. Then he met a preacher who had the sense to tell him that the faith of a Christian is not a matter of feeling; it's a matter of faith. It's a matter of making a decision, submitting the will and trusting Christ to make the difference. If you've done that, said that preacher, you don't have to experience the raptures and the ecstasies that these other people experience. If you're walking as Jesus walked, you can trust him to show you the way.
Washington Gladden began to do that, to walk in Jesus' way, and he became the most noted preacher in the latter twenty years of the previous century and the first ten years of this century. More than any other person, he brought the application of the gospel to the social issues of the day and shaped the church. It is no wonder that Gladden could write the hymn we'll sing for a closing hymn after a while: "O Master, let me walk with thee / In lowly paths of service free / Tell me thy secret, help me bear / The strain of toil, the fret of care." He had found the door in loving service to his neighbor.
The second part of that is, it's the door to a trustful relationship with God. Again an illustration will serve us, and then we'll close.
Illustration: Another young preacher was in his first appointment, and the challenges and problems of that parish raised so many doubts within his mind that they really undermined his faith. He would have been lost had he not met Grandma Sudley. Grandma Sudley gave him life. Let me tell his story as though it were mine.
I used to visit Grandma Sudley when I wanted to get away from complaints and troubles of the congregation. I would pretend to be making calls on , but I was really going to be with a friend. "How are your ladies?" she would always ask.
And I would always respond, "They're still after me."
"Not me," she would say. She always asked me to pray for her, even though we both knew that she prayed more frequently and more powerfully than I did. It was her way of affirming me and letting me know she needed me.
Then came the day I received the word that she was dying and her family wanted me to come see her. I went with fear and trembling because I knew that if she was dying, I was losing my greatest friend, the greatest minister to me. When I got there, the family were clutched together, and the nurse came and said, "She'll see you now, Preacher."
"Me?" I asked.
"You're the pastor, aren't you?" I had to go, even though I didn't want to go. I felt so inadequate and alone and weak and sad. They had a tube in her nose and other tubes in her arms, and all I could say was "God, help me." I kept hoping she wouldn't wake up, and I stood away from the bed.
Then she stirred, opened her eyes, and saw me. She smiled and said teasingly, "How are your ladies?"
I tried to smile, but there was silence for a long time as I held her hand. It was soft and at the same time hardbony and brittle.
After a while, she looked at me again and said, "I guess I'm going to leave."
"I know," I said.
"I'm very tired."
Then she smiled again and said, "I've never died before."
I responded, "I've never been with anyone who died before."
She said, "We're both gonna make it, Preacher. Would you listen to me while I pray?" It was her final affirmation of me, because she knew I couldn't pray in that moment. And she began to pray. ''O Father, take me home to be with Jesus. And protect this boy of mine. He's been a good pastor to me. He has loved me and meant so much to me. Protect him. Amen."
I was crying, but she said, "It's all right. It's going to be all right, Preacher. We're going to make it. You tell the people out there we're going to make it."
"I'll tell them, Grandma, I'll tell them."
She closed her eyes and fell asleep, and that was the last time I saw her alive.
Sometimes when I drive by that cemetery out there in the country where we buried Grandma Sudley, even though it's hot and I'm sweaty and I'm running out of time, I stop the car and think about Grandma Sudley. And I thank God for a woman who trusted God so completely, who loved Jesus so deeply, that she could make a preacher out of me. I look at her grave across the hill, and I say to her, "We made it, Grandma; we made it." Grandma Sudley made it. And that young preacher who is one of the most noted preachers in America today made it because he learned it from her.
Christ is the door to a life of trustful relationship with God, a relationship that sees us not only through life, but through death as well. Jesus said, "I am the door. If anyone enter by me he will be saved. He will come in and out and find pasture." I'll close the door behind you to past sin and guilt and failure and pain and loss. I'll open the door to a trustful relationship with God and a life of loving service to your neighbor.
Now this is what you need to remember. The obvious thing about a door is that it means absolutely nothing unless you use it. Did you get that? A door means absolutely nothing unless you use it. So with The Door, Jesus Christ.
Maxie Dunnam is president of Asbury Theological Seminary.