A sermon given at Choral Evensong by The Rev’d Joan Claring-Bould, on the 21st of August 2022.
“Lord, will only a few be saved?” (Lk 13:23)
The story is told of St. Catherine, who when once unceremoniously dumped from her horse into a pool of muddy water, complained:
“Lord if you treat your friends like this, no wonder you have so few of them!”.
There are many people who question, that if this God of love and peace we are taught to believe in really exists, why does he let so many innocent people suffer and die in wars and accidents and dreadful illnesses?
Perhaps like me, you have had times when you may not have not so much wondered whether God exists, but more where could God be in this challenging and confusing time in my life?
Tonight’s second reading from St Luke’s Gospel reminds us that the way of Christian
discipleship was never promised to be an easy way. Here in Chapter 13 of Luke’s Gospel for the first time since Jesus began his mission his destination is brought to our attention- and that destination is Jerusalem. It is in Jerusalem that he will accomplish his exodus from this world (following his trial and cruel execution), and return to his Father.
The way of the Cross- the way of suffering is the way of Christian discipleship. Jesus is encouraging his followers to have the courage to follow that difficult way.
In the context of tonight’s reading Jesus is addressing the Jews – the Israelites- who saw Jesus as a threat to their orthodoxy and were out to trap him. The story of the gospel is aimed at these people who believed that their salvation was guaranteed by their race and by following the letter of the law. Jesus understood how hard it would be for them to understand that their law had been fulfilled in a new and life giving way that he was demonstrating through his life and teaching. He anticipated their opposition but continued to encourage them to take up his invitation for them to follow him.
Our story begins with an unknown person, presumably one of the Jews, asking Jesus “Will only a few be saved?”
In typical fashion Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly, but rather turns back to the questioner himself and says, (You) “strive to enter through the narrow door; for many I tell you will try to enter and not be able to”.(Lk13:23)
Jesus is trying to get his protagonists to hear that there is no easy way to enter the Kingdom of God – that ruthlessly following the law was not enough- that being an Israelite was not enough- but the narrow way of obedience to Love, demonstrated by the life and teachings of Jesus, was the only way to the glory of the Kingdom. The door is narrow because you can’t pass through it by being members of a community. The only way through the door is through an individual desire to follow the way of Jesus.
Then he tells them a parable about a man who has shut the door after a banquet and is not willing to let latecomers in. Not only is the door shut, but the late comers are turned away and condemned as evil doers who will weep and gnash their teeth when they see their honoured prophets eating in the Kingdom of God.
These are very harsh words, but I want to suggest that they are less about what might happen to these people in the life to come, and more about Jesus concern for his listeners then and now to choose the path that would lead to life and justice and peace and joy now, as a premise of the life to come. The urgency here is connected to the limited time Jesus has left for his earthly ministry, and he warns them through the parable that they need to hear and take action -that simply having eaten and drunk with the master in the parable of the banquet, they will still find themselves locked outside if they have no relationship with the master.
The parable finishes with the words that Jesus really wants his critics to hear.
“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 would have been extraordinary Good New for the Gentiles and all who were previously categorized being precluded from the Kingdom.
“Lord, will only a few be saved?”
Jesus gives us no clear answer. He simply says “You come and follow me- you enter by the narrow gate”, and we are reminded to leave the judgement about salvation of others to God.
Bp. Tom Wright points out that theologically there are diverse opinions about who will be saved depending on which scriptures are quoted. St John is quite a universalist, and Paul with a few notable exceptions (Romans 2:1-16) pays little attention to the concept of hell. It is not mentioned at all in Acts and the vivid pictures at the end of the book of Revelation, whilst being really important are extremely hard to interpret. Yet (he says) it would be unwise from this to ignore the weight of other scripture references and biblical teaching and assume a universalist position with any certainty.
The truth is we don’t know.
Even so, as we grow in our Christian discipleship we get a deeper sense of the loving, compassionate nature of God, who longs for communion with us.
Jesus leads us along the narrow way to salvation by way of the cross, but he does so with grace and generosity and with his arms outstretched to embrace anyone who is willing to risk embarking on that journey of love.
Returning to the beginning of tonight’s reading Jesus gives two descriptions of the Kingdom of God, each of which demonstrates the abundance of God’s grace.
In the first illustration he compares the Kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed, that seemingly sown without much expectation, grows into a huge tree whose branches offer a welcome to all who want to find a home there. The tree represents the greatness of God’s saving love.
In the second illustration, Jesus again points to the great generosity of God’s saving love. A woman takes some yeast and buries it in three measures of flour until all of it is leavened. It is important to realise that this amount of flour would feed about a hundred and fifty people, indicating that God’s love abounds, and that there is room for everyone at the Messianic Banquet.
So to conclude, it is good for us to be reminded that we must all strive to enter through the narrow door, which is not simply a matter of lip service or following rules or inheritance, but asks of us a personal commitment to Jesus and a willingness to walk the way of the Cross.
The door is narrow, but it is we ourselves that hold the key to the door. It is the desire of Jesus that we all choose to walk through that narrow door which leads to abundant life.
No-one is promising that it will be easy, but we do have a promise that it is the way that leads us along the path towards the communion in love with God for which we were created.
And we don’t have to wait to the end of our lives for that reward. When we dedicate our lives to God we start to see and experience God’s grace and the power of God’s love not just in the happy circumstances of life, but surprisingly in the difficult times as well.
From Ps 103 vs8
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy; long suffering, and of great goodness.