In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It seems that Jesus has been talking a little too much about judgment recently. Saying things like, “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Things like, “Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky, but you don’t know how to interpret this present time.” Things like, “You had better settle your case with your divine accuser before you get to the Court, or else you will be thrown into prison; and you will not get out until you have paid the very last penny.” Things like, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
No wonder, then, that this person asks Jesus from the crowd: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” After all that judgment talk and “negativity,” you can kind of understand the question. Now I don’t know where this person is coming from. Maybe it’s a smug, self-satisfied question: “Besides me, of course, Lord, are the saved few?” Or maybe it’s a despairing question: “Lord, if the saved are few, how can I be sure I’m in?” Of course, it may be only an academic question. Here’s another rabbi to question Jesus about theological curiosities. This is probably closer to the sorts of questions we ask today. As a matter of theological curiosity, will those who are saved be few? It’s an abstraction, and it really has nothing to do with us. And even if Jesus answered the question, what good would that do us? Would it help you to know the number of the elect? It’s a question about people in general, about them; it has nothing to do with you.
But Jesus refuses to answer academic theological problems. He’s not the least bit concerned with satisfying the curiosity of this questioner, or with satisfying ours. Salvation is not an academic question for Jesus; it is a matter of your life and death. So Jesus says to the crowd, “Struggle, strive, strain to enter through the narrow door. For I say to you that many will be seeking to enter, and will not be strong enough. And the day will come when the master of the House will get up and close the door. And you will begin to stand outside and knock and say, ‘Lord, open to us,’ and He will say, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ And you will say, ‘But we ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ And He will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from Me, you workers of evil.’ And that will be a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, and you will be on the outside looking in. You will see your religious heroes, your religious ancestors, on the inside eating and drinking in the eternal feast of God with the holy ones of God from every corner of the earth, but you yourselves cast outside. And first will be last and last will be first.”
Now we will try to distance ourselves from Jesus’ words. We will try to abstract them, to make them academic questions. We will be tempted to ask, “I wonder how many people sitting in churches on Sunday morning will find themselves on the outside looking in.” We will begin to think about people in our own congregation, and we will try to figure out who will be in and who will be out. Jesus has no time for that sort of question. This question is for you and me: what about me? Not those who are not here, but those who are. We, who have gathered in this place to hear the word of Jesus, to eat and drink His own Body and Blood in His presence; we, who call ourselves Christians; will I be on the outside? Will Jesus say to me, “I don’t know you”?
The temptation is always to tell you a list of things that you must do to make sure you are on the inside. Some steps to follow so that you will know you’re not left out in the cold. But that wouldn’t work. You wouldn’t do them. Neither would I. Even if we knew that this particular list of things would get us into the pearly gates, we might try for a while, but we can never sustain it. In fact, we do have such a list, shortened into two things: Love God with everything you are, have, and do; and love your neighbor as yourself, giving every neighbor everything he or she needs. That’s the list, but it just doesn’t work; it can’t get you in the door, and it can’t keep you in. It won’t sustain you in the struggle, and it won’t cause the master of the house to let you in. Lists of to-dos have no power to save.
So today I have a different word for you: instead of a list of things you can do to insure you get through the narrow door, I am here to lift up your drooping hands, which grow weary of the struggle; I am here to strengthen your weak knees, which are prone to collapse under the weight of sin and life in general; I am here to lay out a straight path for your feet, prone to wander—God, we feel it! That path is not one you have cleared or paved; it is the path Jesus walks to Jerusalem. And so we’re back at verse 22: Jesus was journeying on to Jerusalem. That may seem like a verse you can just skip over, a mere mile-marker in the text, but everything is in that verse! Jesus’ weary hands are lifted up and nailed to a cross. Jesus’ knees weaken in the agony of death; yet, even in His agony, His struggle, His striving in Gethsemane and in the hours to come, He follows the will of His Father. But Jesus’ feet never leave the path that is laid out. He sets His face to go to Jerusalem, and nothing can turn Him aside. He alone opens the narrow door for you to enter, as through His own flesh. His struggle becomes yours, on the way from baptism to the resurrection. And it is a struggle, it is strife, it does strain you to the breaking point, and then some. Everything around you is tearing at you, trying to pull you away from Christ, who is your life. It is a fight to the death to hear His word and receive His gifts. The whole world is opposed to Him, and so to you. But this is all proof of the Holy Spirit in you. Because if you did not have the Spirit from Christ, you would never struggle. You would not fight against your flesh. You would not strive against temptation. Your flesh is perfectly happy to go along with any and every sin. But you have the Spirit; you have been claimed by Jesus.
That Jesus who claimed you is here today, with the door wide open: in the midst of your pride, your despair, your academic problems, your attempts to satisfy your curiosity; He is here to give you the one thing you really need: life in the midst of your death. The ones who are outside, who hear the thud of the door as it closes on the last day, they weren’t struggling, striving, straining for the sake of the Kingdom of God. They were straining, striving, and struggling for everything they thought they needed in this creation. Sure, they had heard Jesus. They had even eaten in His presence. But they thought He was simply a piece of their lives, rather than Life itself. They knew Him as a historical, academic curiosity, the way you know about Roman caesars or Greek gods and goddesses. But they only begin to knock when the door is closed. They only begin to stand and call out to Him when they are already outside and it’s too late. Those outside in the end will find that they were always outside. Those inside in the end will find that they were always inside with Jesus, eating and drinking and listening to His life-giving voice. The problem that the people in the crowd had was that they thought they were in because of their genealogy; they were seeking to get into the reign of God, but they were knocking at all the wrong doors. They missed the fact that Jesus, who is both the Way and the Door, was right there in front of them. And He says to us what He says to them: What are you looking for? What are you seeking? Seek first the Reign of God, and look! It’s right here in front of you! The Father gives it to you. Are you trying to get into heaven? Looking for the meaning of life? Trying to be good enough? Working on your spiritual resumé? Stop it! Here I am. And I know the way is long, and I know the struggle is hard, and I know the strife is fierce. Come and rest here. Come and eat and be strengthened; the journey is too much for you. But I have walked this way, and I am the only life there is. I was last and dead so you can be first and alive. Come in and eat the h’ors d’oeuvres of the feast that has no end. I know you; you are mine. I have written my Name on you. And I will bring you safely through the narrow door. On the day when the door is closed, you will find yourselves inside with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the holy ones of God gathered from every corner of the earth, the multitude without number, eating and drinking in the feast that has no end.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/19/16