People of the Narrow Door

Lent 2
Luke 13
Phil 3
So, James Cameron, the director of Titanic has found the remains of Jesus. And surprise surprise, he was married to Mary Magdalene and had a kid named Judah. Well, I guess I’m done here. Glad that part of history is over.

Why do people want to come up with this kind of stuff? I think it’s pretty simple, actually. If we can get Jesus out of the way, well then his words die with him. We then can ignore what Jesus says–and we can do things our own way. But the risen Lord Jesus does not allow us to do that this morning. His words are hard and we must take them seriously.

Jesus is clear in our gospel that we enter a narrow door into the Kingdom of Heaven. If you do a casual reading of our baptismal vows, which we did in our Anglican Foundations class, you’ll see that indeed the door is narrow.

People might say, well, how hard is it for a baby to get water on their head? But, as members of the church, young and old we ‘renounce Satan,’ we renounce our sinful desires, we accept Christ as Savior and Lord. In our baptismal covenant we promise to continue in our live in Christ, we promise to resist evil, we promise to repent, we promise to proclaim the gospel and we promise to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is a narrow door. A narrow way. Few enter it. When Jesus says to ‘make every effort’ to enter the door he is using the term in Greek where we get the word for ‘agony.’ In the soft sell world of Christianity, we rarely talk of entering the church as being ‘agonizing.’ And, Christ himself is the gate or the door–and the only gate and door. As one author has said, ‘entry comes through the means Jesus provides or not at all.’

But there is more. I like the apostle Paul’s wording from Philippians, as the church we are ‘citizens of heaven.’ What does this mean? Does it mean that we wear white robes and walk around and chant? No for us, as citizens of the Kingdom we live radically and love unconditionally. We live a life of the narrow door.

I am reading a fascinating book written by a friend of mine and another author called Living on the Borders. In this book the authors say that living in the Christian community is a lot like living in an immigrant community in the United States. The US has long been celebrated as the melting pot of the world. Immigrants for many years have come into the US and been ‘assimilated’ into American life which the authors call “McWorld.” Often a family of immigrants’ language and culture will disappear within a generation or two. A 3rd or 4th generation immigrant, if properly assimilated, will no longer know his/her native language, and will no longer understand the folkways and practices of their own culture. Eventually the values and practices of the Old World are replaced with the values and practices of McWorld. The authors say that the new focus on multi-culturalism really only prolongs the inevitable. Immigrants who want to preserve their culture do so at great cost of both convenience and reputation.

The premise of the book is that the Christian community finds itself in the same place. The religious melting pot of American culture wants us all to be the same—McChurch. We are acceptable to the culture so long as we are not a threat to the culture’s consumerism and immorality. We are acceptable as long as we say we’re all the same. We are acceptable as long as we do not live the life of the narrow door.

We truly are like immigrants in a foreign land. 1 Peter calls us ‘resident aliens.’ We have to learn how to function in a world of commerce and hyperactive media. We have to learn how to speak the language. But we have to be ‘in the world but not of it.’

You see, our citizenship is in heaven. We have our own language of intimacy–the Scripture, the Prayers, the hymns and spiritual songs. We are a family. The Christian language is a language of the heart. I am excited at what I hear from you on a regular basis. Many of you ask me ‘what do we need to pray about, who do we need to pray for?’ I know that many of us exchange phone calls and e-mails sharing or concerns and our needs for prayers. That is the language of the heart, the language of intimacy. Try going up to your boss or even the grocery clerk and say, ‘hey, can you pray for me about such and such?’ All you’ll get is a funny look or the grocery clerk will get on the line and say, ‘security.’

In the church we are citizens of a heavenly country. We have our own values and ways of doing things. We even have our own language–the language of intimacy, the language of the heart.

But if we are to be the people of the narrow door, we must never take what we do and who we are for granted. We must not be wooed by the world around us. The choice to follow Christ is always the more difficult, but it is always the right choice.

I am reading a book by and about a Chinese Christian called ‘Heavenly Man.’ This book describes the life of a house church leader in China named Brother Yun. If you doubt that there is massive persecution in China today, read this book. I was reading about a time early in his pastoral career. One day, there was a meeting of state church and house church representatives. Brother Yun had a choice to make. He could register with the state church and enjoy a life without danger. Or he could refuse to register and be considered evil and dangerous.
He was tempted to register with the state church and even have a position of leadership. But the Lord would not allow it. He told the authorities, ‘I cannot serve atheists and God at the same time, to do so would be idolatry.’ From then on, he was a marked man and much of the book describes his beatings, torture and imprisonments. He chose the narrow door. Which door will we choose?

Lastly, and here’s the crux of the matter (pun intended). As a church we are a community that is called by Jesus. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

What was the problem with Jerusalem? You see, they had a vocation, a calling to be a light to the world around them. The whole purpose of the Law of Moses and the worship of the Temple, was to reveal the nature of God to the world. Remember the great commandment of Jesus that summed up the law: ‘love God and love your neighbor.’ Jerusalem struggled to live up to its own calling. And Jesus uses the language of the prophet Ezekiel when he says that Jerusalem becomes a ‘desolate’ place–similar to how Ezekiel described Israel in exile.

It is easy, though, to pick on Israel or Jerusalem. As our bishop said wisely in the Christian Education hour last week–if when we read the parables or teachings of Christ and we see ourselves as the ‘good guy,’ we are not reading the gospels rightly.

The Church has a calling–we as Christians have a calling to fulfill God’s purpose in this world. Under God’s care, the Kingdom becomes like a mustard seed–a small seed that becomes a huge tree that birds can nest in. We, as the church, are an integral part of his Kingdom work. How are we doing in that work?

The door is narrow, but you would think it was wide. We are supposed to agonize to enter–but rarely we see our faith life in such terms. We’re here for comfort, not challenge. The consequences are much worse for those who do not enter–weeping and gnashing of teeth, but we rarely have a burden for those who do not know Christ.

Some of the most difficult language that Jesus speaks is found in this passage. He says that there are many who will seek to enter the door that he will simply say ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ ‘But we ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets!’ ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me all you evildoers!’

Those words are frightening–‘I never knew you, I don’t know you or where you come from.’

This faith of ours is an agonizing faith. We come to the Kingdom with the full intent of knowing and following Jesus. Actually, there is no other way to come. Bring it all or not at all.

We don’t become Christians the same way we become Democrats or Republican or Shriners or members of the country club. Our membership is not like a membership to the museum. We are citizens of heaven. To be a Christian is to know and to follow Jesus. We do not carry a card, we have a real, living, refining, relationship with Jesus. As one author has said,

‘It is a tragically erroneous assumption to think that a mere formal connection to [Jesus] means that one will celebrate with him in the end…the central issue is knowing Jesus, not just having casual contact with him.’

In places like Scotland, the village churches usually only have 30 or so elderly folks show up on Sunday. In Scotland, they only have communion twice a year, so to stay on the rolls, you have to come out at least for the two communion services. What happens those two times? The place is packed. Twice a year folks keep their formal relationship with Jesus intact. But is it a real relationship?
But what about us? This is where the season of Lent is so valuable. ‘People get ready, there’s a train a comin’…are we on the train?

When they ask Jesus, ‘will only a few be saved,’ Jesus turns it back on them. ‘Make sure you strive to enter the narrow door…’

This passage falls on the heels of the teaching that the Kingdom is like a mustard seed. The small becomes great–like the tiny Christian movement that overtook the world in a few centuries.

I hope that we can see ourselves as that mustard seed. By some standards, we are small and insignificant. But our calling is great. We have a choice to make. We can live up to that calling and be people of the narrow door, or we can surrender to the culture.

When Brother Yun was reflecting on his choice to stay with the house church movement rather than join the communist led state church, he said the state church was like a caged bird. There is no freedom there. In fact they must constantly report to the authorities, they cannot teach about Jesus second coming, they cannot evangelize, they cannot teach children, they cannot teach about healing or about the casting out of demons.

But as he said, ‘the caged birds have a hard time reproducing.’

‘In the house church we are truly free in the Holy Spirit. We are in constant danger but we are free. And free birds are the best at reproducing.’ There is no way of knowing how many house church Christians there are in China. Many estimate that there are millions. And I’ve heard that many are learning Arabic so that they can go out and preach in Muslim lands. I hear they are grateful for the Communists, because they have taught them how to persevere and how to suffer.

We probably feel a million miles away from Chinese Christians. We have no worries of persecution. But the calling that God gives us is the same. Since there is no danger, why not preach the gospel. Since we are free to pray as we wish, why not pray? We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Live as people of the narrow door, fulfill the calling that God has given you!