“Lord, will only a few be saved?” This is a question we hear asked of Jesus in the thirteenth chapter of the book of Luke. Jesus answers in a way that is not pleasing to the people who ask the question. He says that many who are last will be first in the kingdom of God, and many who are first will be last. Will the number of the saved be few? In effect, Jesus is replying, “No, many will be saved, but this means that you who claim to know me will be shut out, while the outsiders, those whom you presumed would be excluded from my fellowship will get in.”ﾝ
One can almost hear them plead with Jesus, “Are you saving us? Give us some clues, we need to know what to do!”ﾝ
Jesus’s reply is oblique: “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” The narrow door. What does Jesus mean by that? I assumed St. Paul would be waiting for us with his decision at the pearly gates on the threshold of heaven. The fact is, Jesus does not define the door; nor does he give the dimensions of the door. He describes it only as “narrow.” Does this mean we have to slither through sideways? Do one’s wide hips of sin preclude admittance? Why wouldn’t the size of the door be wider so that more people could fit through it? Ours is not an exclusionist God, right?
I think the door is narrow because it has to be. I can’t imagine a sign above it reading, “Welcome to the best-you-could-do-door?” That refrain, “I did the best I could do” can be abused and be used an easy cop-out. If that were the case we would always be changing the dimensions of the door for ourselves. The door is narrow to prevent sloppy moral relativism and half-baked religious absolutism. Most people are skeptical when anyone or any religious faith is too certain that they and they alone are among God’s elect. Pope Benedict XVI set off a firestorm of criticism last month among Protestant and other Christian denominations when he reasserted the universal primacy of the Roman Catholic Church. Citing an encyclical written for Pope John Paul in the year 2000, Pope Benedict issued a statement reiterating the belief that other communions, save for the Orthodox who were characterized just as defective, all other communions were not true churches but merely ecclesial communities and therefore did not have the “means of salvation.”
Human divination in defining who is in and who is out is always risky business, especially knowing that Jesus prayed to God asking that his believers become one body manifested by their common bonds of love. From the Gospel of John: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in then and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that world may know that you have sent me…” (17: 22-23). Our Lord sounds anything but exclusivist. Yet, some others may define the door as narrow by insisting that one must profess Jesus as Lord to get through the door. Jesus does not say that in Luke’s Gospel. Some others would insist that Jesus is insinuating that he is the door. Jesus does not say that either; he is not the door. Rather, Jesus is the way through the door. And it is our posture taken at the threshold of the door that defines our salvation.
What am I talking about? If you’re wondering if the number of the saved will include you, and how will you know, you might be asking the wrong questions. One cannot judge by either looking in the mirror or out on the street. And one must not count membership as the most important thing to be concerned with. Jesus makes it clear that hanging out at St. James’s, eating and drinking with the clergy at Wednesday night suppers and the like are not enough. We must realize that it does not count where we are, or who we are, or what we are, but rather what we do. We must be prepared to answer Jesus who will ask, “Did you feed the naked? Did you give water to the thirsty? Did you take care of the poor?” And when one answers, “Well, actually no, I did not do any of those things. I was busy just doing the best I could do.” Jesus will respond, “Well, then, I think you have more to do, don’t you?”
What I am getting at is that we must strive to live our lives as one who does not presume God’s grace. We must strive as though admission to the kingdom depends entirely on our own doing, but knowing that ultimately it does depend on God’s grace. And as you know, through experience, contrition and forgiveness are the welcome mat on which we all stand.
Last Sunday after church, I hunkered down with the “Styles” section of The New York Times, to begin my usual scouring of the wedding announcements for any one I might know or any officiating priest I might know. Each week the paper sends a reporter to cover a wedding it deems worthy of special recognition. I usually scoff at this feature because the couples highlighted are only interesting because of their wealth and their pedigree. Oh, but not in last week’s paper. If anything, the couple featured would have once been considered the scum of the earth, and would have been covered in the “National” section for their crimes and the blight they inflicted on the inner city of Baltimore. This couple proves wrong our faulty assumption that only people like us, who have a natural affinity or pleasing appearance, will be saved. Theirs is a story of shared redemption, of two broken lives and one new beginning. Two people whose posture with Jesus Christ will usher them into the kingdom.
Let me tell you about the groom’s pedigree: In the late ‘70 and early ‘80s, Donnie Andrews, now 53, was known for his drug dealing and daring robberies. In September of 1986, to pay for his worsening heroin habit, he took a job from one drug dealer to kill another drug dealer. Wracked with guilt and shame, he turned himself in and was sentenced to life in prison the next year. His bride: Fran Boyd, now 50, was a heroin addict who shoplifted to get from fix to fix, swapped drugs for sex, and let one of her sons start using and dealing drugs at the age of 15. Their separate stories of decline into drugs and violence are nationally known: Mr. Andrews was the inspiration for the character Omar Little, a ruthless thug who stalks dealers on the HBO series “The Wire.” Ms. Boyd was the protagonist of “The Corner,” an HBO miniseries that chronicled her fall into addiction.
Donnie and Fran met over the telephone in January of 1993 when Edward Burns, a former Baltimore homicide detective whom Donnie had surrendered to in 1986, and David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who had written about Donnie’s criminal activities, hooked them up long distance for mutual support. Donnie was serving his prison sentence in Arizona. The two men had a hunch that Donnie, who was turning his life around by earning a general equivalency diploma, taking college-level courses and studying the Bible, could influence the life of Fran, who was still working the streets.
The first time they saw photos of each other was two years into their relationship. Five years later, in 1998, Fran, Mr. Simon and Mr. Burns began lobbying for Donnie’s parole by traveling to attend his hearings in Arizona and eventually they convinced the federal prosecutor who put Donnie behind bars, to work for his release because of his transformation in prison. In April 2005, Fran’s unwavering love and loyalty was rewarded with Donnie’s release after 17 and a half years of time served. Fran now spends her days walking her old haunts, persuading addicts to go into rehab and working with a local hospital’s H.I.V. prevention program, when she is not at home raising the three nephews and nieces she rescued from their troubled home. Donnie is now an anti-gang outreach worker for the Bethel A.M.E. Church. They were married on August 11 after a lengthy courtship that was a much about turning their lives around as it was about finding each other. The pastor who married them said, “They show us something about salvation, since now they’re using their skills from the corner to pull other people through.”
This is what I am talking about when I say it is our posture that counts when we approach the door to salvation. We will struggle; we will fail; we will be an abomination, but with Christ’s help we can still be counted worthy to walk through the narrow door. There is not just one specific point in our lives or one specific incident from which we will be judged. Grace is God looking at our sorry lives and giving us the green light when we do not deserve or expect it. Grace is a second, third and fourth chance. The criminal on the cross with Jesus at his crucifixion is proof positive of that. We always will have one last chance at the very end to make amends. And I do not believe that God would look at our lives in their entirety and see that we have truly sacrificed to live moral and productive lives and then banish us to hell. God is not precarious. At some point we have to trust in the mystery and omniscience of God because in my mind a God who creates is a God wanting to save.
When I read about people like Fran and Donnie I think of them as people worthy of passing through the narrow door and walking into the arms of God because of their posture as God-bearers. The duty of faith, the sign of membership in the kingdom of God, is that you make the world around you more Godly—you try to pull other people through. You make the world better, and spread love and healing where you are. And you can do this from a posture of pain and failure or from a posture of health and prosperity. Jesus judges the things that we do and are, rather than things that we avoid and are not. And we must always keep in mind that God is the final judge, but God’s love is greater than the greatest of human love. The love of God in us imbues our posture as God-bearers and makes our human love bigger and more gracious and accepting. So that even if we are now not in the kingdom of heaven, we can make the domain of earth, better, happier, and more saved. Amen.