The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16C)
August 26, 2019
Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-29
This week we return to Jesus as he travels to Jerusalem and here we find some hard teachings. As has happened again and again on this journey, the people whom Jesus meets ask him questions, seek his wisdom on important spiritual questions and Jesus’ responses have, among other things, taught about the value of possessions and shown us how to pray. Today the question is about salvation: “Lord, will only a few be saved?”
What even does that mean, “saved”? Saved by whom and from what, or even for what. In its original context, the questioner was wondering who is to be included amongst God’s chosen people.1 Luke is not thinking in the same terms as is used today by Evangelical Christians and others about the eternal fate of our soul. He is, however, asking a profound question about who is to be counted among the followers of Jesus, who is to be included in the work of the unfolding Kingdom of God. It is a question about who is in and who is out, but the answer is not what we might expect, and we need to pay attention to the subtlety of Jesus’ answer.
That answer is, in fact, an oblique one: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” On the face of it, Jesus seems to agree with the questioner that inclusion among this chosen band will be limited and that there will be many who wish for this “salvation,” but whose attempt to attain it will be unsuccessful. Yet there is more to it. Salvation is on offer to everyone and, while the path is not an easy one, we all have the power to seek inclusion. That is good news.
Jesus then tells a parable offering a second, related, but slightly different answer to the original question.
When the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door saying, “Lord, open up to us,” then in reply he will say to you, “I do not know where you come from.” Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets.” But he will say, “I do not know where you come from, go away from me, all you evildoers!” 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 and you yourselves thrown out.”
We seem to be back to the bad news, but again it is only bad news if you have not recognised the invitation and chosen already to cooperate with Jesus in his work. Sure these people may have “ate and drank” with Jesus and they may have heard his teaching, but Jesus names them as “evildoers.” It is possible, Jesus tells us, to be in his presence and yet not understand his work nor heed his call. Just sharing Jesus’ table and listening to his preaching does not automatically include us in the work of the kingdom of God.
There is another step. It is that entering through the narrow door, taking up our cross (to use another image), treating our neighbours as we have learnt, praying with the Kingdom of God in mind as we have been taught. We have agency in all this. We have freedom. We can choose after we have encountered Jesus whether we wish to respond—respond to Jesus’ call—or not.
Jesus invites us to act and the opportunity to be included in the banquet is open to all. Jesus says it himself, “The people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” That’s the message we hear again and again. Those whom society reckons successful, important, powerful are not necessarily the ones who will gain admission to the banquet because the qualifications for inclusion are set by God with God’s priorities in mind.
Last week we looked to our Star of the Sea, the star who guides our actions and she has reminded us that God “hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Those who assume they will favoured because of wealth or influence or political power, or just because they attended the right party, will find that God judges success differently. As Isaiah said, “And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies.”
I say this again and again, but it is so so true: Jesus is constantly inviting us to be a part of what he is doing. Wherever Jesus goes on his journey he invites all whom he meets into the life of the Kingdom of God, which has been given in these days, and teaches us what we need to do to respond and engage in this work of reconciling the world in and through love. Will only a few be saved? Who knows. Hopefully not. Hopefully uncounted millions, billions of the children of God will be swept up and included in the work of salvation, “from east and west, north and south.” What we do know is that the path to inclusion of the work of the kingdom of God is not the conventional or easy one. It involves making difficult choices, being unpopular, choosing compassion and love over conventional notions of success, but Jesus tells us that the easy path is not the most rewarding one, that it is not the way to learn the most or to grow, especially to grow in love. Jesus calls all of us to strive to enter through the narrow door and it is clear that however narrow it is, however challenging the passage, it remains large enough for all of us.
The Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Saint Bartholomew the Apostle, August 24, 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume