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24 August 2013

The Narrow Gate of Grace


Jesus continues through the villages and towns of Galilee, on the way to Jerusalem, moving toward a final confrontation with the religion and politics of his time.  Along the way, his message is getting louder and more challenging.  In this account, Jesus addresses head-on a topic that may make us uncomfortable: in Jesus’ version of the Kingdom of God, people want to know, who will be in and who will be out?

Jesus, as usual, does not give the answer that people are expecting.  You see, the Hebrews of the time were particularly concerned about who would be saved and who would not be.  In fact, it was not only a matter of religion, but also a matter of identity. The Jewish people had returned from exile and now all that was needed was for God to send a savior to drive the pagan Roman Empire from the land.  In the meantime, salvation was a simple matter: make the necessary sacrifices, be marked as one of God’s people. 

Yet, the prophet Isaiah paints a different picture.  He describes the time and manner in which the final victory of God will be won.   Isaiah imagines the end of history when all will be made well: when the Kingdom of God takes up its residence among the kingdoms of earth; it will be the time when goodness and truth overwhelms all the powers that would oppress and suppress people. 

But something stands out: if we listen closely, we hear the prophet listing a series of odd-sounding places: Tarshish, Put, Lud, Meschech, Rosh, Tubal and Javen.  All of these locales are used by the prophet for a very specific reason: they are all located outside Israel. 

For a Jew hearing this, it would be scandalous: after the exiles, the oppressions, the wanderings in the desert, the battles with Egyptians, all types of foreign empires, God’s premier prophet describes the triumph of God is not in the Israelites being made the kings of the universe, but instead the time when all nations recognize that God is the Lord of all the universe.

Both the first reading and Gospel today point out to us a painful truth: no matter where we are in life, there is always room for conversion.  What’s more, salvation is a gift of God – being “saved” is the work of God, not an achievement for us.  God saves who He wants and in the manner He wants.  We are called not to scrap and fight and claw for salvation, but rather to prepare ourselves to accept the gift of God’s grace – his salvation – when it is offered to us.  This is both good and bad news, for the same reason: it teaches us how weak we are.

Jesus offers a challenging message today: one that seems, in fact, rather harsh. It goes something like this: there is a God and this God isn't us.  We are not the Messiah; we are not the saviors of the world. Rather, it is you and me – US – who need saving.  One of the great lies that our society tells us is that we can achieve things that are well beyond our reach: perfect health, wealth and wisdom, just so long as we call in the next half-hour and pay the shipping and handling.  Yet, the great liberating message: the Good News – is that it isn’t our project.  Salvation is God’s project that began with the creation of the world, continued through the People of God who consistently forgot their God, yet were saved all the same.  It didn’t end in the Promised Land, but rather reached its fullness in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ and it carries on even today because it is through the Holy Spirit that gives us life and leads us to God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus confronts the reality of where our journey will lead us.  The fact that he does this on his final journey, that of his trip to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed and die, only serve to emphasis how serious Jesus is about his message.  And the serious reality of our lives is that we can’t save our selves.  Only God can do that – there is nothing, no amount of technology, no amount of bargaining or hoping that will gain salvation for us. 

It cannot be earned: the narrow gate of which Jesus speaks teaches us that the only way to get through to a life with God is to be pulled by God. Jesus himself is the gate – and to pass through that gate does not mean a one-time decision, but rather the constant, day-to-day work of sculpting a life that looks like the Cross so that it will one day be raised to look like the Resurrection.  We are the people called by God to not only be saved but also to show others the way. 

One of my dear friends knows a priest that is slowly dying of cancer after many years of faithful ministry as a teacher.  Attempting to describe how he is living his life in his final days, she bit back tears and described him as “chiseled by grace.” Grace – the gift of God's life in the process of salvation - isn’t soft but it shapes us so definitively and often so harshly.  And yet, this is the direction we all go in life.  The decision about how and when salvation will come to us is not our decision: it is God’s.  The ways God forms us may often seem harsh;  yet they open us up to the reality that it is a good thing that only God can save us – because we can’t save ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  Indeed, perhaps the narrow gate about which Jesus speaks today isn’t narrow because it was made that we, but because we haven’t been chiseled down enough to pass through.  Salvation through the narrow gate may hurt, but we have Jesus on our side.  With him, we'll be pass through.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"God saves who He wants and in the manner He wants. We are called not to scrap and fight and claw for salvation, but rather to prepare ourselves to accept the gift of God’s grace – his salvation – when it is offered to us. This is both good and bad news, for the same reason: it teaches us how weak we are."

Matt- Please explain how this is different from predestination. Thanks.

Chris J.

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