11th Sunday after Pentecost Ascension

August 25, 2019


[Jesus] 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.” (Luke 13:22-30 ESV)

This week and last week academic results are a big focus. A-Levels, BTECs, GCSEs, are not determinative of one’s future but they do significantly affect one’s options in the short term. The messages after the results are known that encourage the thinking that these grades are just one step on life’s road of many steps is both true and supportive but they don’t nullify the advice from teachers and parents before the exams or assessments were done –that it is better and more efficient and possibly easier to put the effort in now than to do it later. This is the way of this world –‘do the job right the first time, it is easier’ or ‘put the effort in now and you will be rewarded later’. The crops don’t grow unless the seed is sown. The marriage doesn’t flourish unless time and effort are put into it. Children are told, ‘the clothes don’t wash themselves so pick them or put them in the basket’. This is the way of the world. And it is a good, reasonable, and responsible way to live. In fact when troubles or tragedies come, people don’t mind helping in cases where people have been working hard; it is when people are lazy or not thought to be working, that people may question supporting or helping someone. We expect people to do what they can in this life.

It is the same with worldly religions. The philosophy, the way of doing things, the logic all seem right to us that if you put the spiritual effort in then the deity will reward you. It is simple spiritual economics –do good, get rewards; do bad, get punished. ‘Put the effort in now before it is too late’ can be the cry of religions with a linear view of time –one beginning and one ending for each of us. ‘Keep trying’ is the cry of religions with a circular view of time. But both are based on your effort = your consequence.

Christianity is also seen in this light by many people – both in and out of the Church. Whether it is definitely taught that doing good gets you to Heaven or the message is more subtle and assumed, there is a definite view around today that only good people get to heaven –clean people, sober people, married people, chaste people, nice people–often the congregation might even think or say or imply by its behaviour ‘people like us’ –and this becomes the narrow door into the master’s house. The implication is that Jesus or St Peter is checking how well you’ve behaved before you get through the door or should that be in our cartoons the ‘pearly gates’. Conversely there are congregations around today that say and welcome the poor, the smelly, the addicted, the broken, the lonely, the promiscuous, the violent, the abuser and say ‘there’s a place for you here’ –and they, also become a place for ‘people like us’. An implication can arise that the narrow door into the master’s house is for those in need but even here there can be a hierarchy of ‘brokenness’ where the abused is more welcomed than the perpetrator and you still have Jesus or St Peter checking credentials at the door.

The Early Church over the first five centuries spent a lot of time talking and arguing over the nature and roles of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit because they wanted to keep Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in focus. So they had to come to grips with, to the truth about God’s nature –gracious and holy –the incarnation, atonement, the Body of Christ, the Means of Grace –all so that we could see reality as it is –see that narrow door –hear about grace –it is open, there are no obstacles in front of it –and see ourselves as sinners who by nature either don’t want to go through that door into Heaven but make our own door or who want to bring stuff with us through the door –our accolades, our possessions, our worthiness.

What today, I think the 21st century Church also needs to remember is that the Early Church also spent a lot of time talking and arguing over sin and sinners. And this is personal because such discussions might impact and affect us –not just intellectually but in daily living. Who or what defines sin? Every generation knows that the big shapers of good and bad behaviour are the culture in which they live and the laws of the land of the time. What the followers of Jesus have always discovered is that culture isn’t perfect but promotes haves and have-nots and the legal system isn’t completely just or righteous and legality can mask unfairness and stuff that’s simply wrong. What the followers of Jesus discovered was that they were to follow Jesus in their behaviour –how they were to behave with and under authority, how they were treat all life, how they were to behave sexually, how they were to treat theirs and everyone else’s possessions, and how they were to speak to and about everyone else. A lot of following Jesus in these ways would be invisible to the culture and society of the day –everyone was or should be doing something similar –but there were times when the followers of Jesus would walk a different path. Everyone might be doing it but we’re not going to. It might be legal here but it is still wrong for us.

And at the heart of this living is the truth of the tax collector in the temple, ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner’. What the disciples of Jesus learn and try and remember is that each of us are linked in that all human beings are sinners towards God. The narrow door is open for sinners! There are no obstacles in the path. When the followers of Jesus gather, they are more a MASH unit of the wounded or a support group for sin addicts each encouraging the other to believe in faith that we are saints –God’s holy people–who receive God’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation through words, water, bread and wine –and now we live this hidden life struggling with our sins. The mark of Christianity, the first message of Jesus, is ‘Repent’ and the Christian lifestyle can be called ‘daily repentance’.

When Jesus was asked from the crowd, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?, I think the hidden question was ‘Will God only choose the best?’. The implication was ‘How good do we have to be?’ and ‘What is the pass mark in trying to follow your teaching, Jesus?’. Jesus’ answer is that salvation is an open door and it is narrow not from God’s perspective but from ours because it is only for sinners who receive God’s grace and then who live this gracious life in daily struggle against our sins serving the world. The ‘striving’ is the ‘fight the good fight’ (1 Timothy 6:12) is the training of the athlete (1 Corinthians 9:25) is the struggle to grow up and mature in Christ and to share it with others (Colossians 1:28,29) is the struggling in prayer (Colossians 4:12) which are all possible because the door is open and Jesus has saved us and the Holy Spirit is with us to help every step of the way but it is we, ourselves, who struggle, who doubt, who rebel, who sin, who question, ‘Is Jesus real?’
‘Is my salvation truly a gift?’
‘What does that mean for me today?’
‘Maybe I can put Jesus off for a while and do what I want for now?’
And then we hear ourselves saying, ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!’

The narrow door is only for sinners. That is why people will be in the darkness when the door is shut because they refuse to follow Jesus, to receive the gift of salvation, and only when the door is shut do they come banging on it because they now realise that they are not god after all.

Jesus’ answer both challenges and encourages. The door is open for everyone. He has cleared away the obstacles. We are all sinners and God’s grace in Jesus is for all people all over the world. The gift of salvation leads to striving or struggling day to day.

Don’t let pride push away God’s grace. It is given only to sinners–and yes, that means you, too.

Don’t let your definition of sin blind you to the struggle with your sins. This struggle is for your benefit –not your salvation –and for the benefit of those who live around you –so that their lives and your life are blessed.

Look to the cross and see and remember God’s grace and his help and salvation are free gifts–for the door is open but the label remains above the door ‘Sinners only’.

Bible References

  • Luke 13:22 - 30