Today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 13:22-30, begins with a question from a member of a crowd surrounding Jesus: “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”
Jesus’ answer is shocking!
He doesn’t give the man a number.
He doesn’t tell the man that good people who do good things will be saved.
Instead, He tells the man in Luke 13:24: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.”
What is Jesus saying?
What’s the effort He’s talking about?
And what is the narrow door?
When Jesus says “make every effort” or, as other translations put it, “strive,” He is not joining the chorus of the first-century Jewish teachers or all the other religions of the world besides the faith commended by the Bible in saying, “You’ll get saved if you try really hard.” Jesus is not saying that we’re saved by our good works.
If Jesus were saying that it would represent a whiplash-inducing flip flop from what, just a few verses before, He taught.
In Luke 13, starting at verse 18, He tells a parable about the Kingdom of God, saying that it’s like a mustard seed which a man planted in his field, which later became a tree in which birds perched.
Starting at verse 20, Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like a bit of yeast a woman put into sixty pounds of flour until it permeated and expanded the size of the bread dough she made.
In these two parables, the mustard seed and the yeast represent God’s Word coming from outside ourselves–the Latin phrase that Luther used here was extra nos–to bring God’s grace, faith, salvation, and His Kingdom to human beings who could not do anything for themselves. The soil couldn’t grow a mustard tree apart from the seed and the agency of God and the farmer. The flour couldn’t become bread apart from the yeast and the agency of God and the woman.
The Kingdom of God comes to us from outside ourselves God the Father sends His Son Jesus to save us from sin and death. The Holy Spirit sends the Word of God, seemingly small and inconsequential, into our lives and it produces saving faith in Jesus that, alone, makes us fit for entry into God’s Kingdom!
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus doesn’t contradict Himself.
The root word translated from the Greek in which Luke wrote his gospel as “make every effort” or, in some translations, “strive,” is ἀγωνίζομαι (agonizomai) from which we get the English words, agonize and agony.
It was a word the Greeks used of the struggle and discipline employed by athletes to train and compete. The disciplined athlete strives for a prize, a trophy, or a reward, sometimes money, which she or he had nothing to do with creating.
The athlete’s job is to lay aside things like not getting enough sleep, eating too much, eating the wrong things, or using harmful drugs, habits that may keep them from attaining the prize created for them by others.
Jesus is saying that the free gifts of salvation–including God’s forgiveness of our sin, new and everlasting life with God, and being with Jesus at the heavenly banquet that never ends, gifts achieved for us by God through the cross of Jesus–is available to all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus to be their God and King!
This is what the preacher of Hebrews said in last Sunday’s second Bible lesson: “...throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles…run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith…” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Jesus once said that it would be harder for a rich man to enter heaven than it would be for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The worship of and reliance on wealth to which the wealthy are especially tempted needs to be jettisoned if the wealthy are to be part of God’s kingdom. They must trust in Jesus above all else! Listen: We all have gods and sins we need to let go of in order to follow Jesus alone into the Kingdom of God! The discipline of that may cause us agony. We are in love with our favorite sins. But nothing this dying world has to offer compares with being set free by God to grasp the outstretched hand of Jesus for all the blessings He offers us freely!
We live in an age when people, if they ever think of God, see Him as a nice guy, a pushover. They figure God won’t let anyone to hell.
Let’s be clear: Jesus, God in the flesh, did die on the cross for everyone. But He doesn’t force salvation on anyone.
The doorway to a life with Jesus is wide open to everyone even though our inborn sinful nature, our inborn desire to be like God, along with the world and the devil, work to push us away from Jesus.
Jesus says that there’s only one way to life with God. It’s the narrow way. And that narrow way is Jesus. “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved,” Jesus says in John 10:9.
Jesus expands on this theme in the next verses: “Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’”
There will come a time when the door allowing people to have eternal life with God, the narrow way, will be closed. The door may close at death, when it will be too late to enter eternity with God through repentance and faith in Jesus. Or, if people are alive when Jesus returns to the world, to bring judgment, it will be too late for people to take shelter in His grace and forgiveness. In those moments, no matter how much people may pound at heaven’s door, those who haven’t turned to Christ in repentant faith in this life will pound in vain.
And it won’t do these people any good to say, “We made big offerings to the Church. We sang hymns and praise songs. We volunteered for outreaches.”
To people like this, the owner of the house--Jesus--will say at the Judgment, “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!”
Jesus goes on to say of those around Him who think they’ll be saved by genetics or good works, left outside of God’s kingdom: “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.”
Those who turn from Jesus or who take Him for granted or who keep him removed by an arm’s length in this life, will have an eternity of pain and regret.
But Jesus doesn’t end His answer at that. There is good news!
He says in verses 29-30: “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed, there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”
You can take great comfort from these words from Jesus, friends!
People from the world over are already part of God’s kingdom through the crucified and risen Jesus.
The Gospel Word has come to them: preached, taught, imposed by water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and given to them as bread and wine that is also Christ’s body and blood.
And through that Word, they have saving faith in Jesus. All believers can cherish the Gospel promise in Romans 8:1 (along with countless other places in Scripture): “...there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”
“But, Lord,” we might say, “I sinned this morning.” “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
“But, Lord, I’ve taken Your name in vain, stolen, lied, committed adultery, coveted what my neighbor owns. Just this week.” To those to whom the Word of God has given repentant faith, the answer is, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
“But, Lord, I’ve never been good at sharing my faith with others.” “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
As a sinner who deserves nothing from God, a rebel against God’s law of love from the moment I was born, I’m grateful that Jesus gives His righteousness to all who repent and believe in Him.
I belong to God not because I’m good; I’m not.
I belong to God not because I have the right genes; I don’t. (You can tell I lack perfect genes with one look at my oversized nose planted on an undersized head!)
I belong to God–you and I belong to God to God----because God is good and by His grace through the faith in Jesus that His Holy Spirit gives to us at our Baptism and offers to us whenever His Word is shared, He covers us with Jesus’ goodness and the power of His victory over sin and death.
Shortly before He set His eyes for Jerusalem and His cross, Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Jesus leads those who take up their crosses–that is, who daily turn from their sin that God rightly condemns–and follow Jesus–meaning, those who trust in Jesus as their Lord, King, God, and Savior–into eternity with God.
Like Joshua, who God used to lead the ancient Israelites into the promised land, Jesus leads those who believe in Him through the open door of God’s grace.
One day, when Jesus returns, that door will be shut.
But today, while the door is open wide, let us turn from sin and death, from pride and arrogance, from the temptation of thinking that the the things of this world can set us free from sin and death, and turn instead to forgiveness, peace, hope, wholeness, and life through Jesus Christ our Lord.