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Sunday March 11, 2001
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Mead

Luke 13:22-35

How Many Will Be Saved?

“Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter by the narrow door…”

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Let me begin by telling you two stories. Each concerns an encounter with door-to-door religious salesmen, one with me, and one with my wife Nancy. From the Episcopalian point of view, mine was a defeat while Nancy’s was a victory. Both stories serve this sermon’s point.

First, my story. Nearly thirty years ago, when I was newly ordained and a graduate student in theology at Oxford in England, the vicarage doorbell rang while I was trying to shave. Nancy and I lived on the third floor. The vicar was out, so I stuck my head out the bathroom window (my hastily wiped face still splotched with shaving cream) and called down to the door, where I saw two crisp-looking men in brown suits.

“What do you want?” I asked. As soon as they identified their group, I said, “No thank you. I’m an Anglican priest.” Without missing a beat, they answered, “That’s all right. You can be saved too.” The last thing I remember is banging my head on the window.

Nancy did better. Some years later, in Pennsylvania, two members of the same group called at our rectory. When they began to tell her that—her faith and church notwithstanding--she needed to be converted (to their sect), Nancy asked them if they taught that only 144,000 were to be saved, which they confirmed. “Doesn’t your group have over a million members?” she further inquired, and they confirmed this as well.

“Well,” she concluded, “if there isn’t enough room in heaven for your own, why do you want more?” They left the rectory porch, quickly.

In Jesus’ day, the orthodox answer to the question, How many are the saved, was that all Jews – except impenitent sinners and apostates – would find entry to the Kingdom of God. There was also room for godly Gentiles who did their best to conform to the ethics and monotheism of Judaism. Others, like the Essenes (the people who kept the Dead Sea Scrolls), taught that only a tiny righteous remnant--even of the Jews--would be saved. Since there was a sense in first century Palestine that things were coming to a crisis and an end, the question of the number of the saved was a bit of a preoccupation.

But notice, Jesus turns the numerical question into a personal question. He does not say how many will be saved; he says we must strive to enter by the narrow door. Further, he does not provide a calendar date for the end; he says we must be prepared for the end.

The fact is, Jesus himself in today’s Gospel is heading from Galilee to Jerusalem to meet his end. He was acutely aware of what was ahead of him: “It cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.” And then he laments over Jerusalem and his rejection by the Holy City’s religious leaders. But it is Jesus’ death which opens the door to the Kingdom of Heaven. To whom?

Church membership by itself does not ensure entry into the Kingdom of God. It isn’t enough to say, “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.” It isn’t enough that your grandmother was married at Saint Thomas. It isn’t even enough to say, “I’m an Anglican priest.” You have to want to enter the Kingdom. “Strive to enter…”

Is the door narrow because the Kingdom of God is a tiny sect or remnant of the narrow minded? Saint John in the Apocalypse saw in heaven a “multitude no man can number, of all people, nations and languages.” No, the door is narrow because it represents one thing, namely, the first and great Commandment: I AM the Lord thy God; thou shalt have none other gods but me. It is narrow because Christ is the door; he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one goes to the Father but by him.

The Apostle in today’s Epistle reading bluntly describes the life of those who prefer other choices: “Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with their minds set on earthly things.” (Phil 3:17-4:1)

A seventh century saint puts it more gently. “Anyone who really loves God prefers to know and experience God rather than his creatures. The whole set and longing of such a person’s mind is ever directed toward God. For God is superior to all his creation, since everything which exists has been made by God and for God. And so, in deserting God, who is beyond compare, for the inferior works of creation, we show that we value God, the author of creation, less than creation itself.” (Maximus the Confessor in Wright, Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, p. 131)

Strive to enter by the narrow door. How? It isn’t complicated. It is as simple as believing and desiring God. Last week we heard Saint Paul let the cat out of the bag on that subject, when he wrote, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

So the door is narrow, because there is only one God and one Lord, and we must believe him and desire him above all. We must want to enter God’s Kingdom enough to let go of other things that might compete with God. If we are unwilling to let go of these things, we might not get through the door.

But Jesus tells us we will find that the Kingdom contains a multitude no one can number, full of surprises. Those who do not care but imagine nonetheless they are simply entitled, will be outside, weeping and gnashing their teeth. But countless others, drawn by faith and desire, will come from east and west and north and south. The first will be last and the last first.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus has very little time left on earth, and there is an urgency in his words. He is going to his death, which will open the Kingdom of heaven to all believers. He does not answer questions of human curiosity and speculation. Instead, he turns to us, and asks, What do you want? Do you want to be with Me? Here is the door. It is narrow. Only you can take yourself through it. Let go of everything else. Walk through the door. See what’s on the other side. I am the door.

Lent is just the time to focus on this one thing needful, the supremacy of God over everything else. Lent reminds us of first things. Lent tells us this: God first! Seek ye first the Kingdom of God. Strive to enter by the narrow door. It leads to the infinite expanses of Heaven.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.