Walk which Way?
Did you notice the apparent disconnect between the Collect and the Gradual? The Collect prays that we follow the steps of Jesus in the way that leads to eternal life, but the Gradual tells us that the paths of God are beyond tracing out. So how are we to know which way to walk? Stay between the borders of the path.
You can see both borders clearly in this text. The first border is not everyone goes to heaven. You may think that doesn't need saying, but in America, or perhaps in modern society everywhere, it needs emphasizing. Not everyone goes to heaven. Just because you're a decent person here, a good family man, an upright citizen doesn't mean you'll go to heaven. Death doesn't automatically lead to life. Indeed for most people it leads to everlasting dying. In America, if you die as a soldier, policeman, or fireman, you are regarded as dying a hero's death and you certainly go to heaven. Not true.
Far from talking about automatic entries into heaven Jesus talks of struggling and not having strength. Literally Jesus says, "You must agonizesthe to enter through the narrow door." Agonizesthe is where our word agony comes from. You must agonize to enter heaven. Originally it meant to contend for a prize in the public games. It came to convey the meaning of an intense struggle.
Jesus shows the intensity of the struggle by adding that the door is narrow. This is the Greek word stenos from which we get the medical term stenosis which is the abnormal narrowing of a passage in the body. There's spinal stenosis, pulmonary stenosis, arterial stenosis, and more, and none of them are good; all of them take effort to overcome. This is a fitting picture. Jesus Himself compared heaven's door to the eye of a needle. Can't get much narrower than that, can you? No wonder Jesus says literally that many will not have the strength to enter.
But that's not the picture in the text, is it? You don't see people with knuckles bleeding, hoarse of voice, unable to lift their hands to knock some more. They have plenty of strength. It's just that the time for asking, seeking, and knocking is over, and so is the time for answering, finding, and being opened to. There will come a day when Scrooges wake up to find it's the day after Christmas, when a person dreams they die and wakes to find they aren't dreaming, when it's not a matter of struggling, agonizing, or strength but of heaven's door being shut. And this isn't the ordinary word for shut used 16 times in the New Testament. This is the intense form, and it's used only here. It means "to shut fast," "to bar."
This is no joking matter but it's like those "you might be a redneck" jokes. Based on our text you might be a Nadab or Abihu. I mentioned last Sunday these 2 sons of Aaron who offered strange fire to the Lord and were killed by God for it. In our text the people cry out, "We ate and drank with you." Go to Exodus 24. There we are told that the 70 leaders of Israel ate and drank while seeing God. Four others are actually named: Moses and Aaron, and Nadab and Abihu. Two other sons of Aaron aren't named and aren't mentioned as being there. The text emphasizes Nadab and Abihu were.
These 2 who ate and drank before God were shortly consumed by fire shooting from the presence of the Lord. You might be a Nadab or Abihu if you think proximity to the saved means you are certainly going to be saved. You might be a Nadab or Abihu if you think being around where Jesus taught as opposed to being taught by Jesus counts for anything.
Someone has observed that you can miss heaven by eighteen inches. Eighteen inches is the approximate distance between your head and heart. The people who don't make it through the narrow door know who Jesus is. They just don't believe in Him; they don't trust Him. They don't have faith in Him. People frequently mistake factual knowledge of God with saving knowledge. Factual knowledge alone doesn't save anyone. I mean it knows the facts. Jesus is God. Jesus came to earth to die and pay for the sins of the world. Jesus rose again on the third day to prove His payment was accepted by God. The Devil himself knows all this but is not saved thereby.
Knowing something is not the same as believing something. You can make yourself know something, but you can't make yourself believe something. That takes an act of God; that takes a miracle that God only works through His Words and Sacraments. And it's not a one and done miracle. Just as you can't eat one meal and be done but need constant feeding to stay alive. So faith only stays alive through a constant feeding from Word and Sacraments.
People stay away from church for weeks, months, years and think that when they see heaven's door about to close on them because of sickness, age, world events, etc, they'll quickly run in. They will be surprised to find that Jesus doesn't know them. They think that because they know the facts of salvation, because staying away from Word and Sacrament hasn't led to their forgetting any of the facts of the faith, they still have the faith. They don't, and Jesus doesn't know unbelief or unbelievers.
One of the borders of the way to everlasting life is that not everyone goes to heaven. You must clearly see this border; you must admit that it is there or you will step across it. The other border is some do go to heaven. This border too must be clearly seen and confessed. The whole point of the text is, "Make every effort to enter the narrow door." See the two borders that mark the path; follow this path all the way to heaven. But when it comes to agonizing to enter let it be Christ's agony not yours. The noun form of the verb used here is agonia. It's only used once in the New Testament, and only by Luke. He uses it of Jesus in Gethsemane. Let your getting through the door of heaven depend on Jesus' not on your agonizing struggle to get in.
Let's talk about that door. If you look at the door of heaven according to the Law it is impossibly narrow. If you look at it according to the Gospel it's a gate. Jesus in John 10 says He is the door that swings open to pasture land. A door that opens on pasture land is big enough for several sheep at a time to get through. It's even big enough for a camel or two.
Be like some field goal kickers when you look at this door. In practice some kick through even smaller goal posts, so in the game the regulation one looks huge. When you're smug in salvation, when you think you can go through that door anytime you like, or when you're like the man in the text wondering about the number saved, see that door narrow, but when you're scared, chased by the Devil, the World, or your own Flesh see that door as huge, as wide-open as Jesus' outstretched arms on the cross.
It's the same with eating and dinking. When you think it's okay to stay away from Word and Sacraments, when you think that having faith is the same thing as having knowledge, then hear how Jesus rejects those who appeal to their eating and drinking with Him and to how He taught in their streets. But when you're frightened by your despising or neglecting of Word and Sacraments, remember that you have eaten and drank not only with Jesus but you've eaten and drank Jesus, His Body and Blood. And He's not only taught in your streets, He's taught you.
But you're afraid. What if you should hear those terrible words from behind the closed door, "I don't know you or where you come from?" When you're tempted to sleep in, tempted to slip away, tempted to think it really isn't that big of deal to eat and drink with Jesus in His Supper, and that you really don't need to be taught by Him anymore, then be terrified by those words, but then come back to these: Jesus knows you. He says, "I know My sheep." And Jesus knows where you come from. You're branches from Him the Vine. You're plants from His Good Seed. Jesus Himself gave birth to you right in that font. He bodied and bloodied you to Himself by Bread and Wine. He can no more deny you than He can deny Himself.
The path to heaven is marked out by Jesus with Law and Gospel. You need to always be hearing both but at their proper time. When you're in fear for your salvation, you don't need the Law. When you're taking your salvation for granted, when you're thinking that faith is a choice you make, a decision you have made, a conclusion that once you come to never goes away, which can exist without Word and Sacrament, you don't need the Gospel. So if you hear Jesus' words, "Away from Me, you evildoers" and don't cringe, go to the Law. If you do cringe, flee to the Gospel.
Literally Jesus says, "Away from Me you workers of unrighteousness." What gets you cast outside is lack of righteousness. What if what got you cast out of heaven was lack of health, physical or mental? What if it was having committed this or that sin? What if it was having doubts? It's not; it's lack of righteousness, and that you have in Jesus via Word and Sacraments. Remember how John baptized Jesus to fulfill all righteousness? Remember how Paul says that God made Jesus to be sin itself so that we might have the righteousness of God in Him? Remember how Jesus who was first in righteousness became last in sinfulness so we who are last in sinfulness might be first in righteousness?
When you come up against texts like this you must take Jesus at His Word, but take Him at all His Words. Let His Law be Law to you. Let the fact that not everyone goes to heaven terrify you, crush you, kill you, so that you have no excuses for your sins and want nothing more to do with them. But don't stop there; flee to the Gospel that Jesus is the Door of salvation and that He casts out no one who calls upon His name. Then take your seat with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of God. It's true; the paths of God are beyond tracing out, but the steps of Jesus aren't. They lead to this heavenly feast of salvation right here on earth. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20130825); Luke 13: 22-30