Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Cornelius' Country Club for Sinners

Have you heard the joke about the Episcopalian whom St. Peter took on a tour of heaven? Or the one about the Methodist, Baptist, and Christian Scientist talking outside the pearly gates? Or the one about the line of Catholic nuns who were waiting to get in? Yeah, there are lots of jokes about getting into heaven because lots of us like to joke (and worry) about who’s going to be there. Our collective fascination with who’s in and who’s out is nothing new.

One day, as he was making his way toward Jerusalem, Jesus was approached by someone who asked, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” (Luke13:22-29). What an interesting question! And I’m curious how you hear that question in your mind’s ear: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” How does that sound to you? Is it the question of someone who is worried about whether there will be enough room for him? Or is it the inquiry of someone who is concerned that heaven might be too crowded a place to spend eternity? I’m really not sure. For the first part of Luke 13, Jesus has been teaching parables about the kingdom that both suggest its breadth (the mustard seed) and its exclusivity (the fig tree). For me, it’s hard to know what’s on this person’s mind. And maybe that’s the point of Jesus’ response.

In reply to the man’s question, Jesus gives the kind of answer we’d expect him to give. He starts by saying, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” But, by the end of the response, he says, “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” So which is it? Is the door so narrow that many will not be able to enter? Or is it the kingdom feast so huge that people will be able to stream in it from all directions? Yes. It’s both. And it depends on how you look at it.

The problem with this man’s question is the same problem we have when we start asking who is in and who is out: grace is a wonderful thing, but it’s easy to take for granted, and it’s even easier to resent. Notice that the man’s question isn’t about him it’s about others. As soon as our focus shifts from ourselves to others, the wonderful, amazing gift that is grace becomes problematic. “Wait a minute!” we say to Jesus. “It’s fine for people like me to get into heaven, but what about all those other people? What about the real sinners—the ones who didn’t even show one ounce of remorse during their lives? You can’t mean that they get into heaven, too!” Grace is a gift we’re eager to receive and willing to share with people we like, but, as soon as we see that God loves our enemies just as much as he loves us, we think it’s unfair. It’s like a government handout or affirmative action. If we’re getting the check, it’s because we deserve it. If they’re getting the check, it’s clearly bad for our country.

Jesus returns the focus to the one who is asking. “You,” he says to the man, “strive to enter by the narrow way. Don’t worry about anyone else. Take care of your own relationship with God. Keep your eyes focused on your own path. Don’t worry about anyone else. Let God take care of them.” Yes, the kingdom of heaven is a lot bigger and a lot fuller than you could ever imagine. But don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about who is in and who is out. Concern yourself only with what God promises you. Start by celebrating what God’s grace means for you. If you focus sufficiently on your own path, you’ll discover what it means to celebrate whoever else is on the journey with you.

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