Luke 13:22-30 Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’ 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 thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
One summer day a Quaker farmer on his hay wagon was coming down the road when the mule pulling the wagon stopped and refused to move. The farmer patiently tried to coax the animal, but the stubborn mule was determined to remain in place. After sometime the devout and gentle Quaker reached the end of his rope. Standing squarely in front of the animal he
said, “Mule, thee knows that because of my religion I cannot beat thee, and because of my religion I cannot curse thee, and because of my religion I cannot abuse thee in any way. But Mule”, the Quaker continued in a deliberate voice, “what thee does not know is that I can sell thee to an Episcopalian.”
Episcopalians have always been made fun of for being lax and permissive. We have been called “Whiskeypalians” or “junior Catholics”, or “God’s frozen chosen”. Some denominations believe we make the prospect of salvation too easy, too accessible, and at little cost to the individual. Well, all generalizations and stereotypes are more fiction than fact and this one is no exception. But, whether you are an Episcopalian, a Roman Catholic, a Methodist, a Baptist or anything else, our Gospel for today is a reminder that salvation is far from being a given, and something we should not count on like the rising of the sun or the changing of the seasons.
“And some one said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.'” We have no idea who asked Jesus this question. Perhaps he was someone who felt confident in his faith and his relationship with God. Perhaps he was someone scared of death, who essentially asked Jesus – “Lord, do I have a chance?” In either case, the question of how many would see salvation was often debated among Palestinian Jews of the day who held to the belief that all Israelites have a share in the world to come. However, Jesus did not answer the question directly. Instead, he placed the burden back on the questioner by reminding him – struggle to enter by the narrow door. By his response, Jesus in effect said to his listeners, “leave to God the question of how many will be saved, and concentrate instead on your own predicament.” Or in the words of St. Paul, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
Jesus said, “When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us’. He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from’. Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence and you taught in our streets’. But he will say, I tell you, I do not know where you come from…” Is Jesus saying to his audience that a casual acquaintance with God is not enough for entry into the last great feast, into the Kingdom of Heaven; that eating and drinking with the Lord in and of itself is not enough and will not open the door once it has been closed? In our case, does this mean that going to Church, listening to sermons, and saying our prayers are not enough, that these alone will not gain us entry into the kingdom?
I have always been proud that members of my family have been Episcopalians for generations, with a relative who was rector of Monumental Church and then later Suffragan Bishop of Virginia. I have always been proud that my brother and my wife were also members of the clergy. I have been proud of my love of the church and my passion for the liturgy of our faith. But, if I was to stand today and tell our Lord all these things that I am so proud of, I have no doubt his response would be – “SO WHAT”! These things matter little in and of themselves.
The way is narrow. Being a Christian and living in faith are much more than our proud family heritages, or our Church attendance record. Certainly, we hope the good values of our ancestors will be our values and those of our children. Moreover, we hope that by being a faithful member of a Church community we will know and experience the love of God. But, we cannot count, any more than the disciples could, on the correctness of our worship or our good church organization, or our effective ministries, for entry into God’s kingdom. Outward religion in itself is simply not enough. What matters more, and what Christ is trying to point out to us by using ‘the narrow door that can be closed’, is the truth that the allegiance of our hearts is far more important than our proud families or our outward actions. When it comes down to it what matters is the commitment of our souls.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister who was jailed by the Nazis during the second World War and put to death by the S.S. in 1945, was one of a small number of German Christians who understood himself as a Christian first and a German second. He spoke out against the Nazis at the cost of his own life, and he never stopped mourning for his people. He never stopped mourning that the German church and many of its members not only put up with National Socialism, but actively sought ways to theologically justify fascism. German Christians who went to church every Sunday and turned a blind eye to the madness around them. For Bonhoeffer here was the perfect example of those who ate and drank in the Lord’s presence, but knew him not.
“Strive to enter by the narrow door”. Jesus’ death and resurrection opened for us the possibility of a new life. But, lest we become complacent, our Lord reminds us that salvation is not a given. We have been created by God as creatures who are free. Creatures who are free to choose, free even to reject God. This freedom brings with it the possibility that those who are saved may be few because many in the end may reject God. And it reminds us of the truth that a casual acquaintance with our Lord may not be enough. There needs to be confession, repentance, and a genuine commitment to the work of our Lord. In short, we must be willing to live day to day what we profess on Sundays. Christ never promised following him would be easy. Nor did he expect us to be necessarily good at it. But he bids us follow him and he promises if we do he will never leave us.
Let us pray. Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated unto you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.