Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
“4 Cs of The Narrow Door” // A Sermon by Fr. Sammy Wood
Hebrews 12.18-19, 22-29
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last Sunday we looked at one of Jesus’ “hard sayings” — That he came to bring division, not peace, on the earth. Today is another difficult passage — notice that as Jesus’ sayings get harder and harder, the number of parish clergy at mass gets smaller and smaller. Just saying.
The passage from Luke 13 is sometimes called “The Parable of the Narrow Door.” Remember Jesus has now “set his face to go to Jerusalem” to die, and while he is traveling there someone, we don’t know who, interrupts him with a question: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” Notice: Jesus doesn’t answer his question — he does that, bends our questions around to what’s really important. What matters isn’t how many will be saved; what matters is how we can be saved. It’s not a scholastic question, it’s personal to every person who’s ever lived. So today I want to look at:
- The context of the parable
- The closed door of the kingdom
- The conditions of kingdom life
- The confidence of empty hands
First: The context of the Parable
There are two ways to mishandle this story — First: Make it all about us. It’s important to see Jesus’ words aren’t primarily spoken to 21st century Gentiles. Jesus was a Jew, all his followers were Jews, pretty much everybody he was talking to when he told this parable were Jews. N. T. Wright says:
We should be cautious about lifting this passage out and applying it directly to the larger question of eternal salvation. Jesus’ urgent warnings to his own contemporaries were aimed at the particular emergency they then faced.
Their emergency was that they were counting on their pedigree to save them — their heritage, the Torah, Sabbath-keeping, circumcision, their Jewish bona fides. Yes, the Jews were God’s chosen people, but Jesus announced a new covenant (Heb. 12.24), a new way of belonging to God, where the key wasn’t Jewishness, it was Jesus. As long as they stubbornly depended on their heritage to save them, they were in danger. Their fathers Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, all the prophets — they would be in, but Jesus’ hearers risked being shut out, even while people from east and west and north and south (that meant “Gentiles”) flooded in.
I said there were two dangers: One is that we make the story all about us rather than about the Jews who heard Jesus speak; the other danger, however, is that we think it’s irrelevant, we don’t let the parable speak to us, too. N. T. Wright again:
We should equally beware of assuming that [the parable] is irrelevant to [us]. Unless all human life is just a game; unless we are mistaken in our strong sense that our moral and spiritual choices matter; unless, after all, the New Testament as a whole has badly misled us — then it really is possible to stroll past the open gate to the kingdom of God, only to discover later the depth of our mistake.
Jews, Gentiles — everybody has to reckon with the possibility of missing salvation. That’s the second point —
The Closed Door of the Kingdom
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 don’t know where you come from.” (13.25)
Remember the “Do Dogs Go to Heaven” church sign debate that made the internet rounds a while back? A presbyterian church and a Roman Catholic church sat across a highway from each other, and one week the RC church sign read: “All dogs go to heaven.” Couple days later, the presbyterians changed their sign to read: “Only humans go to heaven, read the bible.” And then it was on:
RC: God loves all his creation, dogs included.
Pres: Dogs don’t have souls. This is not open for debate.
RC: Catholic dogs go to heaven. Presbyterian dogs can talk to their pastor.
Pres: Converting to catholicism does not magically grant your dog a soul.
RC: Free dog souls with conversion.
Pres: Dogs are animals. There aren’t any rocks in heaven either.
And the RC coup de grace: “All rocks go to heaven.”
Most of us want everybody, even dogs, to go to heaven. But the fact is that universal salvation — the idea that everyone is saved and lives eternally in heaven with God — isn’t biblical; it’s not really even Anglican. The Catechism says “heaven” is “eternal life in our enjoyment of God,” and “Hell” is “eternal death in our rejection of God.” This little Introduction to the Episcopal Church reads:
The good and the bad are alike together in the next world as they are here, and yet there is a vast separation between them in the quality of their lives. They are living on different planes of existence. One is living in heaven, that is, with God and sharing the joys attendant upon so doing; another is living apart from Him, and partaking of the misery attendant upon separation from him.
Universalism is nice and winsome, it’s attractive, it’s polite — but it’s not the picture we get from the Bible. It’s not what we get from Jesus himself. Jesus says we can feast with him (go to mass every Sunday), even sit at his feet while he teaches (know the bible cover to cover), and still not know him. The closed door is deadly serious. So what do we do?
In a word: We “strive.”
Third: The conditions of kingdom life
Jesus said strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. (13.24) I’ve preached about this before, and I won’t spend time on it, but the word for “strive” is agonizomai; the Greeks used it for the agony of the athlete in the stadium. Agnoizomai means to fight the way a Katie Ledecky or a Michael Phelps or an Ashton Eaton does, to give 100%, resist every distraction, every indulgence, to be who we want to be. You see, there’s a sense in which life in the kingdom of God is a life under conditions. Jesus says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14.15) St. Paul says “Be imitators of God.” (Eph. 5.1) We know about perfect bodies — we’ve seen them on our TVs in Rio the last fortnight — but Jesus says strive for “perfect souls.” Graham Tomlin says “spiritual fitness”:
means developing qualities of love, patience, generosity, forgiveness, race, and so on. These qualities are the very ones that will enable you to keep a marriage together, give generously to those who need it even when you’re short of cash, react with grace and kindness to someone who offends you, or remain patient with an infuriating and unfair colleague at work or in church.
Those are qualities tailor made for the narrow door.
One last point — How can we ever be confident that we’re good enough?
On my vacation, I picked up a book my friend Beth Maynard recommended called To Believe in Jesus, by Ruth Burrows. That’s her pen name; in her Carmelite community in England, she’s just Sr. Rachel. It’s a wonderful book that says salvation is God’s work and we cooperate with it. I’m still sitting with this passage toward the end:
This is the hard part — the doing our utmost and then having to count it as nothing . . . . God has given each of us the task of fashioning a beautiful vase for him which we must carry up the mountain in order to place in his hands. This vase represents everything we can do to please God, our good works, our prayers, our efforts to grow to maturity; all this God values most highly. Into the making of this vase, then, we put all we have, our whole self. It is for God we are fashioning it, we tell ourselves. When it is finished we begin our journey up the mountain. When we reach the top — the vase . . . it isn’t beautiful anymore. There it is in our hands, a tawdry, common pot . . . . the vase into which we had put our all. A deep instinct is telling us . . . [b]eautiful or not, we cannot take it with us, we must go to God with nothing in our hands.
No matter how hard we try, we can’t go through the narrow door with good works in our hands as an entrance fee. There is no fee — not anymore. Our agnoizomai doesn’t save us; another agony does. In Gethsemane, Jesus was in “agony . . . his sweat like drops of blood falling down to the ground.” (Luke 22.44) That blood, his agony, saves us. Our only confidence is the confidence of empty hands. Let your hands fall open — then, in gratitude, cooperate in your salvation.
Consider that an invitation.
☩ In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
- Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: SPCK and Westminster John Knox, 2001): 170.
- J. B. Bernadin, An Introduction to the Episcopal Church, 5th ed. (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1983): 87.
- Graham Tomlin, Spiritual Fitness: Christian Character in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum, 2006): 43.
- Ruth Burrows, OCD, To Believe in Jesus (Mahwah, N.J.: HiddenSpring, 2010): 91-92.
- Interestingly, as with last Sunday’s story about the mother bird who protected her babies in a forest fire, the Dogs in Heaven story appears also to be entirely fabricated, using something known as the “church sign generator.” See http://www.snopes.com/photos/signs/dogheaven.asp (last visited 18 Aug. 2016).
- Audio of this sermon available at https://www.dropbox.com/s/zn44xw8vxe8pu9f/4%20Cs%20of%20the%20Narrow%20Door.m4a?dl=0.