Sermon – August 21, 2016
14th Sunday after Pentecost
“Striving for the Narrow Door”
I saw a statistic this week that said, out of all the high school athletes who compete in swimming, you have a roughly 1 in 5000 or 6000 chance of making it to the olympics. That's the numbers for men and women's swimming respectively. That's also just for one sport – it varies of course by the sport, but in any case, to make it that far as an athlete you really have to overcome great odds. And that's just getting there, whether or not you win a medal.
And as he often does in these kinds of situations, Jesus seems to dodge the question. Our Lord could have simply answered yes or no. Or he could have said, “Well, I figure about one out of every five.” or, “it's really about 50-50.” or “1 in 6000”. But rather than answer the question directly, as he so often does, he responds with what one needs to hear rather than what one may want to hear. Of course, he always answers well.
And here the answer may well give a clue to the agenda of the questioner. Why would someone ask, anyway, how few will be saved? Likely, to comfort himself in his own worthiness. Hoping to hear, no doubt, that the way is broad and easy and open. And if that's the case, then I can rest assured for I am certainly better qualified than most people. I pay my taxes. I go to church. I don't abuse my family. Sure I have some little issues, but not as much as that guy or that guy. So, I'm good. I'll get in. I just know it.
Is that what he's saying?
It better not be. For if so, all of us would be automatically, and permanently disqualified. Scripture is clear, as I ran across Psalm 14:3 again this week, “They have all turned aside; they have together become corrupt. There is none that does good, no, not one.”
Lord, will those who are saved be few? Well, if salvation depends on your works and your merit and your level of qualification before God then the answer is, “NO one will be saved.” Zero. Everyone tied for last. No medals, no trophies, no reward in heaven. Only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Only being cast out by a God who doesn't know you, and isn't impressed with your weak and corrupt attempts to prove your mettle. A just God cuts through all the baloney we tell ourselves, and applies his law to us with terrifying results. Depart from me all you workers of evil! And SLAM goes the door.
Well that's one scenario. That's the way it goes if you strive to enter based on your striving. If you think you can do it, you can't. You need Jesus.
“Oh, but we know about Jesus!” some might say. Jesus anticipates this, too. Some will say, “Hey look, we saw you in the streets and heard you teach in our synagogues. Some of us even ate with you! C'mon Jesus don't you remember us?” But knowing about Jesus means nothing. It's not the outward acquaintance that counts. Luther puts it this way:
“For even though you know that He is God's Son, that He died and rose again, and that He sits at the right hand of the Father, you have not yet learned to know Christ aright... until you also believe that He did all this for your sake, in order to help you!” (AE 30:30)
Faith in Christ is that narrow door. And the door is in the shape of a cross.
Just as the people of Israel were spared from destruction by the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and crossbeam, so are the people of the New Israel, you believers in Christ, saved from destruction by the blood of the lamb shed on the cross of Jesus.
The kind of striving for the narrow door Jesus means is not an exertion of effort, but an exercise of faith – and that faith in him. “Strive for the narrow door” means, “Have faith in me, Jesus!”
For he is, himself, the gate for the sheep. He is himself, the stairway to heaven. He is the door. He is the way, and the only way to the Father. But what a way he is!
At first this way may seem narrow and hard. But the mystery is this, when we finally despair of ourselves and trust in him – we find the door has been opened wide. So if you are weary and burdened, he invites you to come and rest. “My yoke is easy,” he reassures us, “and my burden is light”.
So how few or many will be saved? Jesus says “people will come from east and west, and from north and south and recline at table in the kingdom of God”. And that seems, after all, like quite a few!
Now we also see a few more things here. One, salvation is for all people from all nations – north, south, east and west. It's not just for good Jews who have all the right lineage. Nor is it only for white bread Americans of German descent. In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. But he calls people from all nations with his wide-ranging and far-reaching gospel. So there's even more hope for you, no matter where you come from. Isaiah already saw this coming, as we heard in our Old Testament reading today. And it is fulfilled in Christ.
And the second thing is that we find our fellowship in him at the table. Reclining at table, that is, sharing a meal, in the kingdom of God. The final celebration of God's people in glory is often pictured as a meal, even a grand feast. But it is a meal that we have a taste of, even here and now.
Yes, he feeds us that meal – he gives bread that is his body and wine that is his blood - to all of us from the four corners of the earth, and throughout all the generations. We are united as one in the great company of heaven. Even those who have gone before us and now rest from their labors join in the great feast with us, transcending time and space and even death itself in Christ.
“And behold, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.” In other words, some who you think have the least chance of salvation will be there. But their sins won't be counted against them. Their dark deeds will stand forgiven.
But others, who seem to have the best credentials will be left out. Many will even be surprised by this! What counts is not race, nationality, or social class. What matters is not how big of a sinner, or how clean your record. What matters is Christ, and Christ alone. Faith in him – the narrow door.
That door stands open to you this day, in the absolution, in the proclamation of his word. The meal is set before you this day, and he invites you to the feast. The way to heaven, so narrow on our own, is open, always, to you for the sake of Christ. Repent and believe. For Jesus' sake. Amen.