The Great Reversal I
Jesus says, "There are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last." Martin Luther said of this statement of our Lord, "It is to frighten the greatest saints." Notice the first part of the maxim is present tense. There are those who are last; there are those who are first. And the second part of each is future tense. There are some presently in one state who will be in a different one in the future. If you're first now, you know and have Jesus in the means of grace. If you're last now you don't have or know Jesus. In the future Judgment some will be thrown into the place of endless weeping and gnashing of teeth and some will be streaming into heaven. This is the part that frightens the greatest saints: some who are first now will on the Last Day be weeping and gnashing their teeth. Some who are last now will on the Last Day be feasting in God's kingdom.
Rather than speculate like the man in the text about how many will be saved, rather than ponder the fate of the 5 billion non-Christians in the world, rather than plan how you can reach another person with the gospel, Jesus says: "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door." Although you may be first now, you might find yourself last on the Last Day.
Even though you eat and drink Jesus now, He won't know some then. How can that be? Because the benefits of Communion can only be received by faith. All Communicants receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, but only believers receive forgiveness, life, and salvation from them. We confess, "He is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. But any who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared." Unworthy Communion is no Communion with Jesus as Savior. He who eats and drinks Communion in an unworthy matter meets Jesus as Judge says Paul in I Corinthians 11.
But wait. You are taught by Jesus right now. You sit at His feet in Bible classes and Divine Services. Hear what the 5th century church father Cyril of Alexandria said: "Many have believed in Christ and have celebrated the holy festivals in His honor. Frequenting the churches, they also hear the doctrines of the Gospel, but they remember absolutely nothing of the truths of Scripture" (Ancient Christian Commentary, III, 230).
Do you think Divine Service is like some government requirement you just have to sit through? Do you think it's like to today's educational system. It doesn't matter whether you learn or not? Don't you remember what we confess to believe about the preaching and teaching of the Word? It's not enough merely to be there. It's not enough just to hear the words. We are to hold the preaching and teaching of the Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it. An outward hearing isn't enough. Remember the Pharisees went to church every week. They studied the Bible; they read and knew it well, but they didn't know Christ in those words and so were last.
You are first now, but what a horrible picture the Lord of love paints for us. The One who commands us ask, seek, knock and promises we will be answered, find, and be opened to shows us people pleading, seeking to enter the Lord's feast, and pounding at the door in desperation. Gentle Jesus who neither raises His voice in the street nor snuffs out dimly burning candles shows us what Moses never does. Jesus shows us the people outside of the Ark pounding on the closed door pleading, begging as the rain pours down and their doom rises.
But this picture is even worse. The door is closed to some who were first in this life, but at the same time it is open to some who were last in this life. Oh the frustration, Oh the rage that makes you cry and gnash your teeth that will come on you because you see people you counted as last streaming into that door that is too narrow for you to get into. "But, but, I've been baptized. I've been confirmed. I went to church every Sunday. I ate and drank with You, Jesus. Lord open the door for me." "But He will reply, "I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!"
That's the terrifying part of this great reversal. There are some who are first now who will be last on Judgment Day, but there are also some who are last now who will be first on Judgment Day.
You are the last now, aren't you? Don't you confess to being last each Sunday. What other place but last could someone who confesses to being a poor, miserable sinner be in? What place but last could someone be who says they deserve punishment now and eternity? What place but last does a person who cries out for mercy occupy? You are confessing that the door is too narrow for you to get through. You sins are too bulky, too many to get through. You're not strong enough to force them through either. You're the tax collector in the temple who won't even look to heaven for an open door. You're the prostitute who doesn't offer excuses for her sins or even promises to do better but only tears.
You're dead last now, but Jesus is your door. Do you think He's talking to someone else when He says, "Come unto Me all you who are weak and heavy laden?" He's sure not talking to anyone who thinks they have no problem getting through the door. He's talking to you last place sinners. While you have no strength to get through the door, Jesus has it. Nobody gets through heaven's door without having lived a perfect life: I mean spotless; no sinful deeds; no sinful words; not even any sinful thoughts. That ain't me or you either, but that is Jesus. And no one gets through heaven's door by knocking or pleading either. Only those get through whose sins have been paid for. Only a holy person could pay for sins. Jesus we saw was that person, and Jesus did the paying for your sins.
Jesus' Word of forgiveness opens heaven's door to sinners. Yes heaven's door is narrow. It's as narrow as the nail holes and spear hole in Jesus' body. You enter heaven through the open wounds on Jesus' hands, feet, and side. You enter heaven through the small baptismal font which Jesus' words make a portal into heaven. Yes your sin and sinfulness make you least in the kingdom of God but Jesus' words of absolution make your first. You know how when you fly stand by and you get turned away time and again. Once you have that boarding pass, Katy bar the door, nothing can stop you from going through that door. Jesus is your Boarding Pass, not sin, not death, not the Devil can stop you from getting through heaven's narrow door now.
You are last now. You're not known by anyone really, are you? You are no one from nowhere. Who cares what you think? Who cares what you say? Who cares what you suffer? Have you ever arrived at a place strange to you and suddenly have someone call you by name? On a planet of billions Jesus has called you by name in Baptism. Jesus knows you down to the number of hairs on your head. Think a tattoo is a permanent reminder of something? Jesus has your named carved on the palms of His hands. Psalm 27 says that your mother and father can sooner forget you than He can.
On the Last Day you won't be pleading that you know Jesus as those who will be last will. You will plead that He knows you. Being a member of the Holy Christian Church, Jesus knows you as well as you know the back of your hand. Since the Church is His Body, as a member of Her you're a part of Him. Furthermore, Jesus knows you as His blood brother or sister twice. He shares your human blood in His veins and you share His Divine Blood in Communion. Jesus knowing you is what counts. The angry teen who declares, "Your not my father," has really said nothing. But if the father should say, "You're not my son," that's another matter. The One who sweat blood and shed tears in the agony of hell to take away your sins has put away all of His reasons for disowning you.
Sure you have those days when you can do nothing right. Those days when you have to be the worst Christian, mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, son, grandparent, employee and citizen. You come in last in every category you can think of. And when you have those days, you are only thinking, feeling, saying what Scripture says. There is none righteous; no not one. Out of fallen hearts only come sins. All your righteousness is as filthy rags.
On you're bad days that's how you feel; but even on your good days that's what Scripture says you are. Don't ever despair of agreeing with Scripture. Rejoice that you do. On the Last Day the door is closed to those who don't agree with what Scripture says about their righteousness. Jesus literally says to those who will be last, "Away from Me all you workers of unrighteousness." The last on the Last Day don't think they're the unrighteous. No they think they are the righteous ones. They think that out of their fallen hearts a little good does come. They think their filthy rags aren't as filthy as others. But they will look as silly as the boy does standing before you covered head to toe in dirt proclaiming he's not dirty.
We know we're that dirty now. We know that before the world we're in last place. The Scouts do more good works than we do. The Mormons are first in being kind to their neighbors. There are Muslims who rank before us in doing good. But though we're last now will be first through heaven's door then because Jesus is our righteousness. We will stream into heaven declaring not what we have done whether it be how many times we've been to Communion or how many Bible classes and sermons we've heard. We will stream through the door of heaven proclaiming what Jesus has done.
The door that is narrow to unbelief is so wide to those known by Jesus that people from all points of the compass can stream through at the same time. And all of us streaming in will be crying, "Blessed is He that takest away the sin of the world! Have mercy upon us! Grant us Thy peace!" And even if you're not first in line, even if your dead last in line, the door stays wide open until every last person known by Jesus steps safely through. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20100829); Luke 13: 22-30