NARROW GATE…..BIG FEAST!
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON August 22nd, 2010
Luke 13:29 “And men will come from east and west and from north and south and sit at the table in the kingdom of God.”
Luke 13:22-30 is a marvelous image of heaven as a great banquet, which is reinforced by the Epistle to the Hebrews 12:18-24.
At first sight, this gospel reading seems to contain two contradictions. At the beginning, responding to a question about how many will be saved, Jesus says, “Many will seek to enter and will not be able.” So this gospel reading begins with the Christian faith being exclusive, and it concludes with it being inclusive.
Jesus says, “Strive to enter in the narrow door.” He then tells a parable, which is quite stark: People will knock at the door (presuming this is heaven) and the householder will say, ‘I do not know where you come from’. Then follows that wonderful image, “…you will weep and gnash your teeth”. This is an image we associate with hell.
If only a few will be saved, who will they be? Will we be included? Some Christians rather enjoy this passage. They like the fact that they will certainly go to heaven because they are, of course, correct. Whereas their neighbors (even those awful Episcopalians!) won’t have the door of heaven open to them.
The conversation concludes with Jesus painting a picture of heaven as a banquet – and there are the patriarchs feasting with people from every corner of the world.
Now those hearing Jesus tell this story were, no doubt, dismayed at the thought that they, good Jewish believers, would not feast with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets – but thousands of gentiles would.
How could this be? They were God’s chosen people. The Lord was not only written into their law, but they were named by him, and they knew his name. It was because the Jews had the name of God that they were guaranteed they would join him at the end of life.
The narrow door that leads to the feast is not too narrow to exclude non-Jews. From that door it is a narrow way of how we live and behave. In other words, heaven is promised to those who work hard to follow Christ, and particularly dealing with sin.
In fact, the narrow door through which we enter the way is Baptism. Then we get on with the hard task of living the way of Jesus. One parishioner has laughed and commented, “Oh, I’ve been trying to walk the narrow way all my life.”
When we speak about the door to heaven, we are talking about salvation from sin. It is that moment at the end of our lives when we believe that we will be saved from our sins. Salvation is really what the door to heaven really implies. In his sermon in Acts 4 St. Peter says these words about Jesus:
“There is salvation in no one else for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
So salvation comes through Jesus, through his name. Not that bearing the name of Jesus or belonging to his people automatically guarantees heaven. That was the mistake the Pharisees made. They thought that because they were the leaders of the chosen people they would get into heaven, no matter their thoughts, words, or attitudes. That’s what the prophet was talking about in Isaiah28:14-22. He talked about them scoffing.
In Philippians 2:12 St. Paul says on this same subject, “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” Work out your salvation. So when Jesus says, “Strive to enter the narrow door,” he wants us to seize the challenge and follow him with commitment and enthusiasm, even if it’s been decades since we were baptized.
Then, almost as a contradiction, we have this image of the thousands, perhaps millions, streaming to the feast in the kingdom of heaven. The image of heaven as a feast is a very familiar scriptural image.
In Isaiah 25:6-9, the prophet gives an image of a great banquet on a mountain. It is there that death will be destroyed forever as all peoples enjoy a rich banquet prepared by the Lord of Hosts. The passage concludes with this, “See, this is our God in whom we hoped for salvation. We exalt and rejoice that he has saved us.”
Salvation is not just what we are offered, or what we have to work at – but it is a hope for us as Christians because of what Christ has done – his saving death on the cross. So we exult and rejoice that he has saved us.
This is a wonderful conclusion to the question, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” We cannot get away from the fact that God’s embrace is so wide that no one is outside salvation or unable to enter heaven, unless they willingly decide not to follow the way.
Jesus told many parables about feasts and banquets to illustrate to us what heaven is like – a place of rejoicing, fellowship, fun, of all that we want, a place where we will be happy forever.
For those who don’t like the idea of judgment, which is implied by the narrow door, the banquet is a powerful image of God’s acceptance and love. We have these two images in Luke 13:22-30 close to each other – and both of them can be taken too far by Christians.
Those who maintain that to be a Christian involves a narrow view of life – perhaps not much fun – that excludes most people that are different to them, they may think that they are true to the Gospel, but they are not. Even in a welcoming and loving congregation, like ours, there can be judgmentalism.
On the other hand, those who advertise their church as inclusive seem to break with holy tradition, and offer no standards of faith or discipline.
It is no coincidence that when Jesus left us an abiding memorial of himself, it was a meal. And not just any meal, but it was the Passover meal. He commanded that we do this as often as we drink the cup. That’s why at All Saints’ we have a daily Mass. He promised that through the sacrament of the altar we would not only have taste of heaven, but also a promise of it for us.
If the image of a banquet is given in scripture as an image of heaven, then the re-enactment of Jesus’ Last Supper gives us a promise of Heaven – and a taste of it through the sacramental signs. So the Eucharist becomes a wonderful image of God’s love offered to us through Jesus.
In the same way the image of a narrow door – the admittance to the banquet – must surely be baptism. Jesus took John the Baptist’s ceremony of washing of sin, and commitment to a new way of living, to be the entrance into God’s love through washing – baptism.
If the Eucharist is God’s feast, baptism is the narrow door that leads to life and the feast. Baptism, for Christians, is the way through the narrow door. As we live out our baptismal promises, we are enabled to walk the narrow way. The sacrament of Holy Communion strengthens us to walk in that narrow way. And when we fall, there is sacramental confession to pick us up and make us whole again.
Yes, it is a narrow way that Jesus offers those that want to be Christians. But that narrow way leads to the great feast of heaven, where all are embraced and welcomed.
Jesus has given us two sacraments to set us on the way and keep us not only on the way – but close to him who is the way.