I want to begin today’s sermon with a confession. There is always a sense, whenever a preacher preaches, he is always preaching to himself. The old adage, “Physician heal thyself” is often on my mind when I’m writing anything on the spiritual life. But in the case of today’s message, I’m very aware of my guilt and even more aware of my inadequacy to speak from any position but that of a fellow sinner in need of God’s forgiveness and grace.
Here’s the confession: “For too long I’ve been a cafeteria Bible reader.” That is, for longer than I probably even realize, I have loved, cherished and clung to those passages that offer comfort and solace while, at the same time, I glossed over, rationalized, or blatantly ignored the more challenging and difficult passages of Scripture.
I suspect that I am not alone here. I love the promises of Jesus like, Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
But I have often thought of verses like Luke 14:27 as nice, quaint and poetic, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” If the first verse is true, then the second is as well.
I have held onto verses like Luke 6:20-21, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.”
And I have ignored the implications of the warnings of Jesus a little later in that same chapter, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry .Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.”
I was impervious to the fact that the “woes” were more applicable to me than the “Blessed are you’s” But if the first selection is true, then so is the second.
For too long in my Christian life I wanted Jesus as my Savior, but I kicked against him as my Lord. I wanted the Bible’s comfort, but not its challenge. In many ways, I was typical of any North American Christian. If you and I share this sin, and I’m betting more than a few of us do, it is time for us to repent. If we are going to proclaim at the end of each lesson, “The Word of the Lord” we have to stop treating the Bible as a buffet line and truly submit to it as “The Word of the Lord”
I say this all as an introduction to a challenging passage. Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke challenges us on a number of levels. I dare say it is a needed correction and moment of discipline for us. But I am convinced that taking these challenging passages to heart, wrestling with them, and discovering our part in bringing our lives into tune with the Gospels is the best, the only, way we can truly be the people Jesus has called us to be. With this in mind, let’s dive in!
Will Those Who Are Saved Be Few?
Today’s Gospel lesson from Luke begins at 13:22. It says, “He 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?”
It’s a question that has been asked many, many times through the centuries. There have been Christians who hoped the number would encompass all regardless of their faith. It has been asked by Christians who really hoped their little corner of the Christian vineyard would be the only ones allowed in. We don’t know what angle this person took, but the question itself is a good question. It should lead us to some soul searching right here at the beginning regarding the nature of salvation.
Do we understand and have we fully bought into the Biblical concept of salvation? Do we understand and have we fully embraced the reality that we face one of two eternal destinies- one potentially with God in paradise and one without God in Hell?
No one in the New Testament talks more about the coming judgement and the eternal destiny of men and women in heaven or hell more than Jesus. And yet, many of us have ignored this fact. I understand that we don’t want to be fundamentalist hellfire and brimstone types. We are after all, Anglican. And Anglicans are polite and sophisticated and nice. But how can we possibly ignore something that was so much a frequent part of Jesus’ teaching? It is reckless to avoid it.
Consider Matthew 10:28 where Jesus tells us -yes, tells us -what to be afraid of: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
In the Creed we proclaim that “He shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead.” In Matthew 25 Jesus actually describes this final judgment. He says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…and “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-34, 41,46)
Consider Acts 4:12 where St. Peter preaches, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
We quote St. Paul who said that saving us was Jesus’ mission: “This is a true saying and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
So in these verses we see that Hell is not periphery issue, but central to Jesus’ message. If we have been saved, we have been saved from this. I would hasten to add that there is more to the Christian message than this, but it certainly is this.
So the first thing we must do is acknowledge that being saved is a Biblical idea. But Jesus isn’t done challenging us yet.
Jesus’ Response, “Strive”
He doesn’t directly answer the question. But he does answer. He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13:24). The indirect answer is “Fewer than you think.” In Matthew’s version of this verse, Jesus says, “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:14)
It’s been said that the fact that we have a Highway to Hell and a Stairway to Heaven should tell us something about the expected numbers!
But what is interesting what Jesus tells us to do. He says to strive to enter the narrow door. The greek word used here literally means “to agonize” with exertion and conflict or “to fight.”
Jesus basically deflects the question and tells us to “strive”. In last week’s lesson from Hebrews 12 was the verse, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14) Again, strive.
We don’t know the number of those who will be saved. But we know we serve a God who has come to save. And we know that we serve a God who has called us to engage in the conflict, to enter the fight, to strive for holiness.
It’s much the same idea that St. Paul is talking about in 1st Corinthians 9:24-27. He says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” And in Philippians 3, he says, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13b-14)
Striving or Settling
So are we striving? Or have we been settling?
Francis Chan, one modern Christian writer I really like, put it this way, “Has your relationship with God changed the way you live your life?” Striving or settling?
Striving is to take seriously the call of God to obedience and holiness. It is to take seriously our identity as the people of God. It is to take seriously the vows made at our Baptism and Confirmation.
William Law, an Anglican priest writing in the early 1700’s put it this way:
“The devout person lives no longer to his own will, or the way and spirit of the world, bot to the sole will of God; who considers God in everything, who serves God in everything, who makes all the parts of his common life parts of piety by doing everything in the name of God, and under such rules as are conformable to His glory.” (Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, 1729, page 3)
We are called to strive in our faith, to push back -hard- against the world’s pressure for us to conform to its mold. Jesus in turn commands his people to live differently, to love differently, to believe differently. And folks, this is where the adventure is. When we cease settling and start striving we begin to see amazing things happen—not only in our own lives, but in the life of our church and in the community around us.
The cost of not striving is great. In fact it is catastrophic- not only for our own lives but for the 2/3 of the world’s population who have yet to hear the Gospel. Do we believe that God loves them and cares for them? If we believe that and understand that we are tasked to take the message of salvation to them, how can we possibly sit back and just relish in our own private spirituality?
Look at second part of the “strive” verse. Jesus says, “Many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” Whoa? Jesus, are you for real? Why not? He tells us in the next verse. “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.’” (Luke 13:24b-25)
There will come a time when we are out of time. There will be a time when the opportunity is gone, the door is closed. Jesus, who is the Master, in this parable will say in essence, “I do not know you.”
And the people respond in verse 26, “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.” The people in this parable were familiar with Jesus, had brushed near him, but failed to love, know or follow him. They did not strive after him. They were comfortable for sure. They settled for far less in this world and for even less in the next.
Jesus tells them to go, “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.” (Luke 13:28)
Does this not make the urgency of our striving much more clearer? Does this not make our mission to the world and to our community that much more compelling?
Growing our church is not about building a kingdom for ourselves. It is about building the Kingdom of God, or ushering more men, women, and children into the presence of God and away from a Christ-less eternity. Sometimes people think to talk about church growth focuses too much on numbers. But let’s consider something.
Let’s say Sheryl and I and our three kids are on a road trip. We stop at McDonald’s for a bathroom break and a snack. Then we pile back into the car and head on our way. Ten minutes later, Sheryl turns to me and says, “Honey, we have 3 kids.” I say, “Yes, I know.” And she says, “But we have only 2 in the car! We left one!” What if I said to her, “Honey, that’s just your problem; you’re so caught up in numbers!”
You and I are not just numbers. We are souls. The people you pass daily, strangers and friends alike are souls. And the most loving thing we can possibly do for them is to at least invite them to know the grace and love of God and to give them the chance to experience the life and eternity that God holds out to each one. We are called to strive for them!
Conclusion: Putting It All Together
So how many will be saved? None of us really knows. God alone knows. I get the impression that Jesus doesn’t really want us to worry about the specifics. Obviously many will choose to not enter. But the invitation is for all. Consider 1 Peter 3:9 which says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
How does this happen. Well, listen to Romans 10:14 which says, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”
No, we don’t know how many will be saved. But we have a part to play. On the one hand, Jesus calls us to strive in our faith -to seek obedience and fidelity to our faith. On the other hand, He gives us the great mission and privilege of growing his Kingdom and increasing that number by helping others call on Him and coming to know Him.
My prayer is that we do not rest, but that we, as individuals and as a church, strive. That we strive to be faithful. That we strive to be obedient. That we strive to build the Kingdom by growing His Church. I pray we never settle and that we keep in mind what is at stake by accepting both the comfort and challenge of the Bible. Jesus finishes this passage by describing heaven, “People will come from east and west, north and south, and recline at table in the Kingdom of God.” May we strive to be a part of making that vision a reality for all who will come. AMEN+