Sunday, July 1, 2012

Exclusivity and Mercy: Two Sides of the Same Coin (Luke 13:22-30)

Trinity Episcopal School For Ministry
Luke 13:22-30

‘til 2010

“He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem.  And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.  When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then 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. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’  In that place 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 but you yourselves cast out.  And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.  And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Passages like the one Joanne read this morning usually leave me depressed.  I mean who wants to hear about places where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” and roads that are so narrow that many will try but few will get in. 

I don’t know about you but I’m pretty clueless about how to preach this stuff to myself let alone the inclusive, hell-haters of the 21st century? 

It’s in passages like this that our hippie Jesus sounds less like the homeboy Christ who’s always “down and never frowns,” and more like one of those weeping Old Testament prophets we don’t even read anymore. 

Unfortunately, most of us come to the Bible with what I like to call an “exclusive claims” radar.  We’re so used to hearing the alarmist assertions of politicians and radio crazies that once our pulsating radio waves detect the presence of exclusivity our brains shut down, depressive funks ensue, and we hear nothing else. 

Now this is an unfortunate reality.  For smarties like Drs. Rod Whitacre and Don Collett tell us that if we actually read these texts closely, we’d see that there is much more than meets the initial glance.  They tell us that if we read these texts afresh with our radars less sensitive we would discover that these passages not only voice exclusivity, but they also utter the greatest hope of all. 

I know that for some of you this may sound like misguided religious optimism, like that dude who’s always saying “Hey man, look on the bright side,” when the world is caving in on you.  But I’m gonna ask you to bear with me for a couple minutes as I make the case that Rod and Don are actually on to something. 


Taking a look at Luke 13:22, we find that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem when “someone” asks, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”  A question just as important now as it ever was back then.

Jesus replies by saying, “Strive to enter through the narrow door.  For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”

Now, I must confess that I’m one of those people who I talked about earlier who come before the Scriptures with an “exclusive claims” radar pulsing faster than the speed of light.  (Yes, I’m projecting my issues onto you).  When I read passages like this I enter into depressive funks.  I start to think of my Jewish relatives and non-Christian friends, and begin to wonder—all over again—why a God who supposedly loves the world would make the way to eternal life so narrow. 

It’s moments like these that I identify with the fictional character Ivan Karamazov from the book The Brothers Karamazov.  He puts it this way: 

“Look, suppose that one among all those who desire only material filthy things, that one of them, at least, is like my old Inquisitor, who himself ate roots in the desert and raved, overcoming his flesh, in order to make himself free and perfect, but who still loved mankind all his life, and suddenly opened his eyes and saw that there is no great moral blessedness in achieving perfection of the will only to become convinced, at the same time, that millions of the rest of God’s creatures have been set up only for mockery, that they will never be strong enough to manage their freedom.” 

Or to put it in the words of this passage, will never be able to “enter the narrow door.”

But the way Ivan and i come at this passage is completely mistaken.  You see, I come to passages like this with the preconceived notion that the fare for entering the narrow door is the achievement of human perfection (or at least monk-likeness).  I think to myself if Jesus only came to save those blessed few who could put their freedom to perfect use, then what good was/is the Cross?

Again, I must reiterate, my assumptions are entirely misguided.

Jesus does indeed say that the way to salvation is to “strive to enter through the narrow door.”  And the Greek word for “strive” (agonizesthe) is a word for intense exertion.  As a point of comparison, the English word “agonize” comes from the same Greek root.  Jesus said that we need to make every possible effort to enter the narrow door that leads to salvation. 

But contrary to mine and Ivan’s assumption—this does not mean, of course, that any of us can ever be saved by our own efforts.  Throughout both testaments, the Bible is clear that salvation is by grace, not works, so that God will receive all of the glory. 

What this text is saying is that the narrow door is Jesus. And the way to enter is naked trust in his finished work for us.

Until you and I are convinced that this is the only means of salvation we need to keep striving to internalize, to understand the radical nature of the Gospel of Christ. 

I know that “narrow doors” are not very popular in this pluralistic age.  I, like many I know, would prefer to say that all doors lead to heaven for it is the very exclusivity of Christianity that turns so many off. 

Yet, while I don’t think that we completely understand the "mind of Christ" on this matter(!)[1], we do believe that there is only one door to salvation, one narrow door, and that door is Jesus.  We believe this because Jesus said it.  We also believe it because we know what salvation demands.  We know that in the words of the 1928 Prayer Book “we are miserable offenders and that there is no health in us.”  We know that we need a perfect sacrifice to atone for all the wrong things that we have done, and a perfect holiness to make us righteous before God. 

The only place to find that sacrifice is at the Cross, and the only person who has achieved that perfect holiness is the Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, it is only through Christ that we can enter salvation.  He is the only gateway to eternal life.

Unfortunately, most of us still insist on finding our own way to God.  We object to a door that insists that we "be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect"[2]  That could be blind to our own efforts.  That does what we could and can not do for ourselves.  Therefore, we in trade the unique message of Christianity for a more universal religious concept—karma. 

But karma is not the narrow door, my friends.   

A proper illustration of the narrow door is found in John Bunyan’s wonderful allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress.  In this story we find a man named Christian who leaves the City of Destruction to look for eternal life.  One of the first people he met on his journey was a man named Evangelist, who told him how to begin his pilgrimage.  Evangelist pointed to a gate, and told Christian to go and knock on it for further instructions.  When Christian reached the gate and started knocking, he suddenly became afraid that his sins would keep him out.  “May I now enter here?” he wondered.  “Will he within/open to sorry me, though I have been / an undeserving rebel?”  When someone came to answer his knock, Christian said, “Here is a poor burdened sinner.  I come from the City of Destruction, but am going to Mount Zion, that I may be delivered from the wrath to come; I would therefore, sir, since I am informed that by this gate is the way thither, know if you are willing to let me in.” 

This is the burdened cry of every sinner: Will God really let someone like me enter the one narrow door to salvation?

The answer is resounding yes, as Christian discovered.  Jesus answers our prayers for mercy and grace.  He not only shows us the door, but gives us the gift of faith to let us in, so that we can live with him forever. 

And this is the greatest hope of all that we find in a text I often find myself hating.  When our radars are turned low we find that exclusivity and mercy are two sides of the same coin.  For while the crowds were warned that to go it their own way brought death and condemnation, at the same time they were also invited to enter the narrow door into a world of unconditional acceptance. 

We who have been given the gift of faith have walked through the narrow door, and as a result of this, you and I have peace with God.  For the wrath of God that we deserved has instead been poured out on God himself.  And this is the greatest news of all—a Gospel of love that declares that our past, present, and future sins are forever forgiven.  In it we are freely given a perfect holiness that shines before God, even when we fall short.  

For such a love as this, let us respond in kind and proclaim the—Good News—of the narrow door—Jesus Christ—who died so that ALL might live. 

In light of this passage, let us love and serve our neighbors, especially our enemies, just as Christ loved all of us while we at enmity with him. 

[1] Christian greats throughout the centuries have wondered if the work of Christ on our behalf overflows to even those without a conscious faith in Jesus (Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Karl Barth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and C.S. Lewis to name a few).  Personally, I am hopeful, but very unsure.  Regardless of one’s beliefs on this matter, it should in no way diminish evangelistic efforts to both those who have never heard the Good News of the Gospel, and those who have fallen away.
[2] Matthew 5:48

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