Luke 13:22-30 / 25 August 2013

“Lord, will those who are saved be few?” You wonder sometimes. I sure have. How many will be saved? When you look at the condition of the world around you, when you look at the state of the church today, when you consider the diminishing impact that Christianity seems to have in the world, you begin to wonder. Will only a few be saved in the end? How many are going to make it past those pearly gates? Will you?

We don’t know what was on the mind of the person asking the question. Perhaps he was thinking the same things that we do. Perhaps he saw the crowds of people pressing around Jesus, pushing Him for a miracle, demanding favors, looking for some “in” with Him, and the person wonders aloud, “Are there any believers here or are these all just a bunch of religious looky-loos looking for handouts?” Perhaps the question comes out of a sense of religious pride and arrogance. “I know I’m in at the feast that has no end, but look at all these losers hanging around Jesus. Are you telling me that they’re in too? And where are they all going to sit? And will there be enough room? And am I going to be bumped from my seat?” It’s kind of like looking at all the people at the gate at the airport and thinking, “Are all these people getting on my flight?”

One thing is certain. The person who questioned Jesus was sure he was in and was concerned over just how wide the pearly gates were. Will many get in or only a few? Am I a member of an exclusive country club of the elect or a countless mob of redeemed humanity? We love exclusivity so long as we’re sure we’re the ones on the inside. The question “Will many be saved?” presumes that the one asking the question is saved and the only question is how crowded heaven is going to be. Unfortunately, this attitude prevails among religious types. We presume we’re in, and the kingdom of God is some exclusive country club of the elect, a refuge for the redeemable, a sanctuary for the salvageable, a spa for the spiritually fit, a gathering of the winners in a world full of losers.

Ever think like that? Thank God I’m not like those other losers who don’t have the intelligence or sense to worship on Sunday morning, who don’t see the need for forgiveness, who don’t seem to care about Sin and even laugh at the notion. Ever catch yourself thinking of the church, of your congregation, as the religious equivalent of a political party where the like-minded all get together and talk about how right and smart and holy they are?

Will those who are saved be few or many? What do you think? And on what basis will you decide?

Jesus throws a kind of parable monkey wrench into this question. “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” Narrow is the path that leads to life; wide is the path that leads to destruction. The way into the kingdom is exceedingly narrow. All roads do not lead to heaven. All paths do not bring you to God. There is only one narrow path and door. The way to eternal life is a small cross-shaped opening in the solid stone of the Law. The Law shuts the door to sinners. The Law says, “Be perfect, be holy or you’re out.” It doesn’t matter how hard you try, how hard you throw yourself against the wall, how high you can jump trying to hurtle over it with your religion, you can’t make it. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven. A sinner cannot fit through the narrow door no matter how much he strains and squeezes. If it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than it is to squeeze a camel through the eye of needle, then it is downright impossible for one who is born in the sin of Adam to make it through the narrow door of salvation.

With man this is impossible; with God all things are possible, including the justification of the sinner.

There is only one way through the Law, only one opening in this impenetrable wall, and that is the narrow door of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He is the narrow door, the singular opening that leads to life with God. “No one comes to the Father except through me,“ Jesus says. There is no other way. Every other path leads smack into the closed door of the Law, no matter how pious, religious, rigorous, zealous, full of works and rituals and disciplines it might be. And when the master rises and shuts the door, no amount of knocking is going to open it. No amount of credentialing is going to persuade Him. You can save your breath about, “Lord, we ate and drank in your presence and you taught in our streets.” Mere association with Jesus isn’t enough. It’s not associating with Jesus that gets you in, but dying and rising with Him.

Jesus was speaking to the religious types of His day. Those who thought they could please God and earn His favor by their works. They religiously kept the fasts and feasts and tithes and traditions. They trusted themselves instead of God and His mercy. They despised their fellow sinners and judged them. They were the winners, they were the ones who had the honored seats in the kingdom. They were entitled and God was obligated. Just look at how religious they were! They made the right religious choices in life. They kept all the religious rules. And yet they hear from behind a closed store, “I do not know where you come from. Go away, all you workers of evil.”

It’s one of the hardest lessons for us to learn that the kingdom of God is opened to sinners justified for Jesus’ sake. Our old Adam thinks in terms of merit. We deserve it. We’ve earned it. The first should come in first, the last should come in last. That’s the way it works. Life is hard and eternal life should be just as hard. Good should be rewarded, evil should be punished, and we’re perfectly fine and comfortable with the notion that the door will be shut to all those religious hypocrites out there so long as the door is open to me.

In fact, we like that privileged position. We love being the ones invited to the front of the line, the VIP section. We like being the ones the bouncers let into the nightclub while everyone else waits expectantly out on the street or gets turned away. I was at the blood lab this week for some routine blood work. At 8 AM the place was already full of people, most of whom hadn’t eaten in 12 hours, eager to get their samples taken and get to breakfast. I had an appointment that I made online the week before. I rolled in, signed the sheet, and was immediately let in. I had my blood samples drawn and I was out in ten minutes while the rest of the mob waited their turn. I felt smug, superior. I had made an appointment. I was above average, ahead of the mob. I felt like a winner.

We think, with our old Adam, that this is the way the kingdom of God operates. And we discover otherwise. We discover a kingdom that is exclusively inclusive. It is as narrow as one Death of one perfect Jew on a good dark Friday afternoon on a cross outside of Jerusalem. That’s the door that opens the kingdom of heaven to sinners. That’s how exclusive the kingdom of God is. Only One can get in on His own merits, and His name is Jesus.

Yet Jesus does not go through death and resurrection for Himself. He drags all of humanity with Him. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world. He bore the sins not of the chosen few but of the uncountable many. Just as the first Adam dragged all of humanity into Sin and Death, so the Jesus, the second Adam, pulls all of humanity out of Sin and Death into justification and life.

The narrow door of the kingdom is also a wide door, a universal, catholic door open to the nations. Jesus commanded His church to make disciples of all the nations. Isaiah said that the word of salvation would go out from Israel to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, to Tubal and coastlands, to those who were the ancient enemies of Israel, to distant islands, to those who had not yet heard the saving name of Yahweh. And God would bring them together on His holy mountain, and “all flesh shall come to worship before me,” declares the Lord.

Will only a few be saved? That depends entirely on how you look at it. If you look at it “from below,” from our perspective, the answer is “not even a few, but no one.” No one can be saved on his or her own merits and works. And if you look at it “from below,” from what we can see and know on our own, you can never be sure that you are among the chosen few.

But if you look at it “from above,” from God’s viewpoint, lensed through the narrow door of Jesus’ cross, then the answer is “not a few but a many, a great multitude no one can count from every nation, tribe, people, and language. Not the exclusive few, but the inclusive many, gathered from the ends of the earth to eat and drink at the marriage supper of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end. That narrow door of Jesus’ death is wide enough to include the worst of sinners, the chief of sinners, even the likes of you and me.

Will only a few be saved? Like so many questions of salvation, the only way to get it right is not to start with ourselves but to start with Jesus. He is the exclusively narrow door that leads to eternal life. And when we look at Him and not at ourselves or at others, we don’t even have to ask the question in the first place.

In the name of Jesus,