a priest's musings on the journey
Saturday, August 25, 2007
Sermon proper 16 8/26/2007 Who Will be Saved?
Who Will Be Saved?
Since ancient times, human beings have wondered what will happen to us after we die. Different religious groups have offered different answers to the question, with most basically agreeing to the concept that after this life our existence continues somehow with God. For Christians, our hope is that since Christ has been resurrected, we who have been united to Christ will also be resurrected to eternal life with God in the communion of the saints. Now it remains a mystery as to how we will experience eternal life with God, since none of us have crossed over to the other side and returned to tell, but we believe that in the life to come we will experience the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other, and that God’s purpose for the world will be complete. Of course musings on the afterlife raise other questions, like, “what will happen to people who lived evil lives?” “Will people like Hitler, and Charles Manson, and notorious criminals also enjoy the joys of heavenly bliss, or will they be punished?” and if they will be punished, “will it be forever?”
The answer to this question lies in the mystery of God’s mercy and justice. Our Judeo-Christian heritage offers a variety of answers and opinions to the question “who will be saved?” Some of our more fundamentalist brothers and sisters insist one must have a born again experience or that one must be a practicing member of their church. Other Christians, including many of the early fathers and mothers, feel that in the end everyone will be saved- that even the most evil human beings in the end will be reunited to God.
St Clement of Alexandria wrote:
We can set no limits to the agency of the Redeemer to redeem, to rescue, to discipline in his work, and so will he continue to operate after this life.
Diodore of Tarsus wrote in the fourth century:
For the wicked there are punishments, not perpetural, however, lest the immortality prepared for them should be a disadvantage, but they are to be purified for a brief period according to the amount of malice in their works. They shall therefore suffer punishment for a short space, but immortal blessedness having no end awaits them...the penalties to be inflicted for their many and grave sins are very far surpassed by the magnitude of the mercy to be showed to them.
Many of the fathers taught that the full work of Christ’s work of salvation will be complete when all evil is overcome by the love of God, and God is all in all.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is asked the question, “who will be saved? Will only a few be saved?” Jesus, however, does not answer his question. Instead, Jesus attends to the real need of the man asking the question and the crowd listening to the exchange by giving his vision of what the Kingdom of God will be like. Jesus says:
18 … "What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches." 20 And again he said, "To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened." (Luke 13:18-21)
Jesus vision of God’s Reign is an expansive, inclusive, kingdom, where people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Jesus envisions a feast where all are welcome, a table in God’s presence where everyone has a place of honor- It’s a kingdom where one’s ancestry, education, social connections, and bank account have no merit. That might not sound so shocking to us, but it was for the original audience; Jesus was challenging their presumption that because they were descendants of Abraham and members of God’s chosen people that they automatically had a place in the Kingdom of God- and that those who did not share their pedigree would be excluded. Instead, Jesus portrays a feast with God where those who thought they’d be invited because they were descendants of Abraham, stand aside and watch people from all the nations of the world take their places at God’s table. As the “insiders” see the “outsiders” find a place of welcome at God’s Feast, they ask, “Lord, what about us? We ate and drank with you and talked with you in the streets?” And the Lord will reply, ‘I do not know you.” And they will be cast out of the Kingdom.
Jesus goes on to encourage them not to rely on Abraham or their religious upbringing to get them into heaven- instead, he presents himself as the narrow door, through which they must strive to enter in order to find a place in God’s Kingdom. At first glance, Jesus’ call to strive to enter by the narrow door seems to contradict Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God where people from all the nations are welcomed. His image of the narrow door is exclusive, and maybe even hopeless. The implication seems to be that only a few will be able to pass through. But a closer read shows that Jesus really isn’t contradicting himself. The invitation to enter is given to everybody- and everyone who enters is given a place of welcome, in fact some with the wrong bloodlines and the wrong credentials will find their places in the Kingdom first. Everyone is invited- but to get there, everyone must walk through the narrow door. Jesus is not answering the man’s question by saying some will be saved and some will not; instead, Jesus is describing the process of salvation, and offering whoever wishes to begin that process to strive to find the way that leads to salvation. It isn’t enough, Jesus teaches to say ‘we were baptized members of the Episcopal Church” or even that we went to church every Sunday. More is required of us if we are to be saved. We too must strive to enter through the narrow door… but what does that mean?
Well, Jesus was not talking about a door as we think of it; he wasn’t talking about the kind of door that we lock at night to keep intruders out of our homes. The narrow door that Jesus had in mind was something else entirely—it was, in fact, an open door. In those days there was the daytime door and the nighttime door. The daytime doors were really the gates of the city. Any of you who have traveled to Jerusalem or any other cities with medieval origins has seen the large city gates. Every morning they were opened to let the vegetable and market carts in—or to let the soldiers out or in. They were giant doors that allowed the comings and going of animals and vehicles and armies, groups with lots to carry. At night, though, the wide doors were closed and the entryway to the city was through a narrow door through which you could only enter on foot—with very little baggage. When Jesus says strive to enter through the narrow door, the message is that you can’t take a lot of baggage with you if you want to follow him to the Kingdom of God. Christian life very often is about letting go of some of the baggage we think is essential to our lives. In order to enter the world to which Jesus calls us, we often must shed much that we think keeps us safe. We step through the narrow welcoming door, often having to bend low to come into the place with God to which Jesus invites us. It is that place where who we know, who we have been, who our ancestors were, what our education has been, or what possessions we have do not matter. And what we are given in exchange is the healing hand that allows us to throw off whatever is burdening us, in body, mind, and spirit, and to find wholeness and salvation in life in God.
The way to salvation is open to everyone; all are beckoned to come to the feast that God has prepared. But only those who follow the way of Christ, who let go of the things of this life that keep us rooted to the kingdom of the world will be able to enter through the narrow door. What’s keeping you on the outside looking in at others who are enjoying the joys of abundant life in God? What burdens are weighing you down and disabling you from entering through the narrow door into the Kingdom of God? Jesus calls us to let it go- to trust Him alone, to cast our cares upon Him, to follow his way of self denial and self giving love…when we walk in the way of love- when we love God and our neighbor, we will discover that the kingdom of God is already within us. But, as St Anselm of Canterbury wrote, our hearts can not be filled with this self-giving God-like love until it is emptied of other false loves. When our hearts are filled with love for riches, power, pleasure, and praise, then it is impossible for us to pass through the narrow way and experience the reign of God among us. When we let go of those things, and begin to have a love for helping the poor, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, befriending the lonely, and liberating the oppressed, then we will discover that our lives are rooted in God, and that God’s own life is breaking into the world around us.
Who will be saved? Not those who belong to a particular religious group or who have experienced certain religious rituals, although they are important. But, those who will be saved are those who have made a radical change in their lives- those who have cast aside the selfish desires of their hearts and who have striven to love as Jesus loves, to serve as Jesus serves, to embrace the outcasts, and the undesirables and to offer them the seats of honor at God’s Feast of grace. Those who will be saved are those who have realized that God is love, and in order to be one with God, one must also love.
In the Name of God. Amen.
:: posted by Padre Rob+, 1:25 PM
I cried reading this...
Absolutely fantastic sermon, Padre :)
That was really an awesome sermon!