Lessons – Genesis 15:1-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; St. Luke 13:22-35
One time when I was on vacation I visited a church of another tradition and at the announcement time the minister spoke very passionately about a founding family of the church that had left and gone to the Roman Catholic Church. As a pastor I could relate to the pain of losing a member of the flock, but where he lost me was when he asked the congregation to pray for that family since they had now lost their salvation by going to Rome. Conversations about who is and who is not saved make me feel very uncomfortable. While I think we should all seek an assurance of our own salvation, the way I read Holy Scripture is that it is above our pay-grade to try to decide who is in and who is out. That is left up to Jesus as the Judge and not to you or to me.
So a guy comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord will only a few be saved?” We don’t know his motivation for asking the question but since the Sadducees and Pharisees were pretty sure they knew who was in and who was out, it seemed like a fair question to ask. Clearly he wanted Jesus’ to address it.
Jesus answered, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many I tell you will try to enter and will not be able. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves are thrown out.”
Jesus does this a lot. Instead of directly answering the question, Jesus he turns the question around on the inquisitor. The guy asking the question wanted to know about “those folks” …you know, the ones going to Rome. Are “they” going to be saved? But Jesus turns it on him and tells him what he must do. He tells him to strive to enter the narrow door, which was another way of telling him that rather than being concerned with a theoretical question, he had better worry about his own soul. Peterson picks this up in his paraphrase The Message. “A bystander said, ‘Master will only a few be saved?’ He said, ‘Whether a few or many is none of your business. Put your mind on your life with God. The way to…God is vigorous and requires your total attention.’” (The Message, p.184).
Even though Jesus’ response to the man’s question could have not been more direct, it is very popular today in many churches in America to muddy that waters about that question. In an effort to paint a god who is loving and fair they propose a variety of forms of universalism, which is the idea that in the end everyone is going to be saved, in spite of the fact that Jesus just said the opposite.
One form of universalism is the idea that all roads lead to God. So it is not as important which road you choose as long as you are devout and sincere in your beliefs. But even people who claim to believe this do not really believe it. In the Old Testament there was the religion of a god named Molech in which devout followers would burn their children to death as an act of worship. Does burning your children lead to God? Of course not. So all roads lead to God except Molech.
There was also the worship of Asherah, which would involve temple prostitution as a sacrament. Would temple prostitution lead someone to a holy God? Of course not. So all roads lead to God except Molech and Asherah. What about the religions created Charles Manson or David Koresh or Jim Jones that involved the killing of innocent people. Do these murderous paths lead to God? Okay…..all roads except Molech and Asherah and Manson and Koresh and Jones. I could keep going but you get my point. It sounds very tolerant to say that all roads lead to God but if you believe that then Jesus lied when He spoke of a narrow door.
The other form of universalism that is a little subtler is that all people will ultimately make it but after first going through a cleansing or remedial process. It is proposed that suffering in the life to come will lead everyone ultimately to call upon the Lord. The book Love Wins took this approach and caused quite a stir among the evangelical ranks because it was written by a man who tried to be faithful to the Scriptures but still ends up with everyone being saved.
To be honest I would love to believe that approach is right and that all will be saved, but I don’t understand how you get there after reading what Jesus said in our lesson today. A plain reading of the text suggests otherwise. Some are inside eating and drinking at the feast and some are outside wanting to get in but are told to go away. It is a frightening picture Jesus paints, but we must believe it is a true picture or He would not have painted it.
Lest we jump to a wrong conclusion about the nature of God, I want to be quick to point out a couple of details from this passage. First it is very important to note that what is limited here is not the number of those who can be saved but the timing of salvation. It is true that the door is narrow but that still does not limit how many may be saved, it only limits the options for salvation. Let me explain it this way.
Last week Beth and I had a cookout for the clergy of the deanery. On the back of the retreat schedule I put a map from the church to our house. Go out the church parking lot, left on Baker, left on One Mile Lane, left on Peebles, last house on left. Those were pretty narrow or specific directions but if every cleric followed them, then every cleric would get there. The specificity of the directions did not limit how many could come to our house, in fact just the opposite. The specificity of the directions assured that at least some would make it. If, on the other hand I had said, “take any road and it will lead you to my house”, then no one would have made it.
Let’s ask ourselves this question. What or more accurately who is the narrow door? Jesus tells us in John 10:9. “I am the door. If anyone enters through Me he shall be saved and enter in and out and find pasture.” So numbers are not limited by the narrowness of the door. He is open to anyone because He says “anyone.”
What is limited is the time. Jesus tells us that there will be a time when the owner gets up and shuts the door and it will be too late for anyone to enter in after that. People will be standing outside and knocking to get in but the owner will deny them saying, “I do not know where you come from.”
I can’t help but believe that when Jesus gave this illustration that the minds of his hearers went back to the story of Noah. While Noah was building the ark, he was a preacher of righteousness, according to 2 Peter, either by words or example or both. But once Noah and his family had entered the ark and the rains came and the earth began to flood, then the wicked started knocking at the door, but it was too late. Was God being unfair? We are introduced to Noah when he is 500 years old and the floods came when Noah is 600 years old, so the wicked were given time. Even as the floods came there is no indication that the wicked wanted in the ark because they were repentant, rather they wanted in the ark to avoid drowning. There is a vast difference between repenting of sin and wanting to avoid judgment. Prisons are full of men who want to avoid judgment but if given the opportunity would sin again and again. Repentance on the other hand involves a change of heart.
The next thing that I would like to point out about this passage is the active role that Jesus says we are to take in entering the kingdom of God. He says, “Strive to enter…” In 2007 Fr. Chris did a Lenten series for us on the 10 Commandments. It was a powerful series, one that Beth quotes to this day. During one class Fr. Chris asked us an insightful question. He asked, “If someone were to ask you how they could inherit eternal life, what would you say to them?” While I would answer that question differently today, I thought of my protestant/evangelical background that would include something like praying the sinner’s prayer or walking forward at an altar call or inviting Jesus into your heart. It’s not that there is anything wrong with doing those things but it is very interesting is to compare those responses with Jesus’ when a man asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus said to him first, “You know the commandments…”
I’m not suggesting here that our works saves us, but we cannot ignore Jesus’ point here about striving to enter the kingdom. Too much of what is offered as salvation today is a form of “easy-believism” or what one theologian called “cheap grace.” There is more to entering the kingdom of God than walking forward at a revival 20 years ago or being a cradle Anglican or serving ten times on the Vestry before you retired. Our faith is to be living faith, a current and vital relationship with Christ where we trust in Him with all of our heart. To say like the folks in Jesus’ story, “We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets” really only says, “We met a few years ago.” But that was not good enough because meeting someone a few years ago is not the same as living in the kingdom today.
Our New Testament lesson is St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He definitely had an experience with Jesus that led to his conversion and call to be an apostle to the Gentiles. But he did not rest on that past experience. Just a few verses before today’s lesson he says, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
If the Apostle Paul was not resting on his past experiences and accomplishments then we had better not gamble that our past is enough. Jesus said “Strive” and so strive we should. As Peterson put it, “‘The way to…God is vigorous and requires your total attention.’” (The Message, p.184) There should be evidence in our lives today that the kingdom of God is our priority. This of course does not mean that we work our way to heaven but it does means that if we really have a living faith then someone should be able to find a pulse.
Often people have a difficult time wrapping their minds around how on one hand grace is a free gift that we do not earn and yet on the other hand we are told to strive to enter the kingdom. Let’s shift our thinking from spiritual rebirth to natural birth to see that there is no contradiction here.
Let me speak to the Mothers. Mothers, was there anything that your child did to earn the gift of life that you gave them in the womb? No. When your child was in the womb did you love him or her? Of course you did and yet there was nothing that they had ever accomplished in their lives, except maybe occasionally kicking you in the bladder. So here was this person that you loved and to whom you gave life and they had done nothing to deserve either.
Next question. Was there any work involved in birthing them? Would it be fair to say that both you and the baby had to strive to enter this world? In fact for some of you “strive” would be a terrible understatement because it felt closer to the Aliens movie where the creature came bursting out of people’s chests. If in natural birth the free gift of life and the striving to be born are not contradictory, then neither do we need to see in spiritual birth a contradiction between the gift of grace and striving to enter the kingdom. Both are a reality.
Here is where the season of Lent can be so helpful. If we approach Lent as something we survive until Easter, so that we can go back to eating all of the chocolate we want or whatever it is that we have given up, then we are missing the point. Lent is a gift, and opportune time to take a careful look at our lives and to adjust them so that our faith is healthy and alive. The classic disciplines of Lent of fasting and study, prayer and almsgiving and these are practical ways that we strive to enter the kingdom. Once again, I am not saying that we enter the kingdom by giving up chocolate. But I am saying that our faith is more than lip service or something that we did way back when. Our faith, true faith, engages us with Jesus in the here and now. Jesus said we are to seek, ask and knock and it is through the disciplines of Lent that we do just that.
In a few minutes a fresh invitation will be offered to each of you as you come forward to receive Christ, veiled in the bread and wine. In the 1979 prayer book the priest says, “The gifts of God for the people of God, take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving” That is an invitation to enter through the narrow door. Don’t in your minds try to invent another way. There is no need for that. Simply accept what is being offered to you, just as it is offered to you. The door is narrow but by the grace of God you will enter in. Amen.