Lessons: Luke 13:22-35, Phil 3:17-4:1
One of the ways that a magician fools his audience is through distraction. While the beautiful assistant walks on stage and opens the front of the box to show that it is empty, the magician moves around back to release a trap door.
I believe that the enemy of our soul has used this trick of distraction to fool the culture and even much of the Church. While he had everyone debating and focusing on sexuality for the last few years, behind the scenes he opened the trap door of universalism and many, many have fallen through.
Universalism is the belief that all roads lead to God and as long as you are sincere in your belief then that is all that really matters. Universalism is an easy trap door to fall though because it seems to be a more loving and enlightened belief. It certainly is the dominate perspective of our culture and you can hear it everywhere from Oprah Winfrey to discussions at Starbucks. But if you take Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel seriously, then you will conclude that universalism is indeed a trap. It is a lie. The words of today’s Gospel are very sobering words and because of the seriousness of their implications we would be foolish to rush past them.
“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.’”
The first thing that I want to point out is how Jesus turned the question around on the inquisitor. The person asking the question wanted to know about “them.” Are “they” going to be saved? When Jesus told him to strive to enter the narrow door, He was in essence turning the question around and telling the inquisitor that rather than worrying about “them” he had better be worried about himself. I like how Peterson paraphrased this section in 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).
This passage makes it clear that universalism is wrong. Jesus says. “Many, I tell you will try to enter and will not be able.” But saying that not everyone is going to make it is not the same as saying that you or I know who is and who is not. That, as Jesus told the bystander, is none of our business. Why is it none of our business? It is none of our business because we will not be the one judging between the living and the dead. That is Jesus’ job and His alone.
What I need to be focused upon therefore is where I am with God now. There is a great line in an old prayer book that I use before preaching. It captures so well this idea. It says, “And lest when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway, make me first to have pity on my own soul and to render it fit for thy service for what will it profit me to have gained the whole world and lost my soul?” (The Priest’s Book of Private Devotion, p.387).
We know from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew that while the door to salvation is narrow, the door to destruction is broad. St. Paul tells us why that door leads to destruction. It leads to destruction because it involves worshipping a different. St. Paul calls it the god of the belly.
This powerful image took me back to last week’s lessons on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The first temptation was, after fasting for 40 days, to turn stones into bread. Obviously there is nothing innately sinful about eating after a fast and unless you are on the Atkins diet there is nothing wrong with eating bread.
The real issue was rather Jesus was going to be led by His appetites or by the Word of God. Would His god be His belly or the One True God? And that same temptation faces us every day. Will we be led by our appetites or will we be led by the Word of God? Who will be in charge of my life today? Will it be the belly god or the Very God?
I have mentioned before that a Roman philosopher critiqued his society shortly after the time of Christ. As a society they had gone from caring about philosophy and culture and and arts and politics to only caring that the Senate continued to give them free food and keeep the games going in the arenas. He said that all the populous cared about was “bread and circus” and because of this they so deteriorated from within that the Empire became easy prey for their enemies without.
I mention this example again because if anything this mentality of bread and circus has grown worse. It seems to be a greater temptation today than it has ever been in our nation. The god of the belly promises to keep us full and to keep us entertained and with this so many are content. Some in our society only care about food stamps and football, while another part only wants to amass a nest egg large enough that their chief concern is how much food and how much play. The god of the belly makes the poor passive in their poverty and makes the rich oblivious in their contentment.
But Jesus does not call us to be passive or obliviously content. He does not call us to bread and circus, rather He calls us to seek first His kingdom. He calls us to a holy unrest when He calls on us to strive to enter the narrow door. Did you catch that word? Strive! Strive! Strive! That hardly paints a picture of resting on our laurels.
Influenced by the Protestant Reformation, we are clear that salvation is not by works but by grace through faith. That said, it is a foolish gamble to think that having expressed faith once, then we have arrived. I have a friend who travels all over the country and he regularly expresses concern to me that everywhere he goes he hears a cheap grace, easy-believism kind of Gospel, which is really no Gospel at all.
Just because you were baptized at two weeks old and are a cradle Anglican does not mean that you have arrived. I could have been confirmed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and served ten times as Senior Warden, but that does not necessarily tell where I am with my relationship with God today. Past familiarity is not equal to a present relationship. Let me say that again. Past familiarity is not equal to a present relationship. They is why when they objected,“But we ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets,” Jesus’ answer was “I don’t know where you come from.” His command to strive in the present and ongoing.
Our New Testament lesson is St. Paul to the Philippians. He definitely had an experience with Jesus that led to his conversion and calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles. No one can doubt that. But he did not rest on those 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 who are we to think that we may? Jesus said “Strive” and so strive we must. 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, now, that the kingdom of God is our priority. This of course does not mean that we work our way to heaven but it does mean that if we really have a living faith then someone should better be able to find a pulse somewhere.
One last point about this text and about this we must be abundantly clear. We must be clear about this narrow door through which we are to strive to enter. Is the narrow door correct theology? No. Correct theology points us to the right door but it is not the door. Is it the Bible? No. The Bible paints for us a perfect picture of the door but it is not the door. Is it the right denomination? No. Last week I invited a minister from another denomination to join me in officiating an upcoming wedding and I go the “our-denomination-is-the-only-true-church” speech. He thinks his denomination is the door but he is wrong. There were no denominations when Jesus gave this command to enter through the narrow door, so He wasn’t pointing us to that guy’s church.
So what is the narrow door? Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel. He says, “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” Jn 10:9. Jesus is the door to salvation and there is no other door. This truth is what theologians call “the scandal of particularity” and what the Apostles called “the foolishness of the Gospel.” But unlike most theologians the Apostles bet their lives that Jesus was the narrow door and took that message to the ends of the earth. As you know most paid for this belief with their lives. It would have been a foolish thing to do if Jesus was but one of many doors.
Let’s ask one last question if we dare. Why is it that Jesus alone is the door to salvation? We answer that question in the comfortable words given after the confession and absolution in the Rite One liturgy of the 1979 BCP. It is here that we quote 1 John 2:1,2. “If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world.”
When I was in college I majored in psychology and minored in religion which equipped me to ask this important question. “Would you like to supersize that order?” One semester I took a fascinating class that combined both disciplines. It was a study of religion through the lens of Freudian psychology. And what made it even more fascinating was that it was taught by a Death-Of-God theologian who had lost all of his family in the Holocaust. He was one of the most brilliant and inspiring professors I had in college. He allowed us to freely express our views but he had a rule that if you attack another person’s religion that he would come to their defense.
Things went along smoothly for about half the semester until a student spoke a tirade about Christianity and crossed the line. At that point the professor, an avowed atheist, turned into the Apostle Paul and gave such a sterling defense of the Gospel that if he offered an altar call the class would have needed a mass baptism. I will never forget his defense. After stating that he was not a believer he said that he had to admit that of all the world religions, only Christianity has the answer for sin. Some religions deny sin, some try to outweigh sin with good works, others seek to move beyond sin through enlightenment. But, he said, none of them are the answer. Only Christianity admits that sin is a universal problem and only Jesus dealt with it through His death and resurrection. That is why He alone is the door. That is why the door is narrow. For a moment I thought that the professor was going to preach himself into salvation.
Back to Jesus’ words. It is not enough to know that He is the narrow door, we must strive to enter it. One of the best ways of doing this will be offered to you in a few minutes. It is one of the many reasons that I am an Anglican. If we will recognize that Jesus presents Himself to us through the consecrated bread and wine, and we receive it with the full intention of Him dwelling in us and we in Him, then surely we will enter through the door. I know that when I do I truly find pasture for my soul.
There are a lot of voices today that will tell you otherwise. But don’t be fooled by distraction. Listen rather to Jesus. Strive to enter through the narrow door. Amen.