The Narrow Door
Ordinary Sunday 21: 22nd August, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
For the last couple of months all the media outlets have been consumed with the Federal Election campaign. Today we are into the post-mortem stage. Opportunity doesn't last forever. Yesterday we had our opportunity to vote. Today we must live with the result. The polls are closed.
At a much more serious level, today's Gospel reading tells us that the offer of eternal salvation is also an opportunity that doesn't last for ever. There comes a time when the door is shut and the opportunity to respond to the Living God is over.
Sometimes we Christians in our complacency convey the impression that the Christian Gospel is an optional extra which people may accept if they feel like it — as though it was simply there as a kind of 'psychological lift'.
To the questioner who asks, 'Lord, will only a few be saved?', Jesus says, in effect, it is time which is limited, not numbers. The door is narrow in the sense that there is not unlimited time to enter through it. 'Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.' (2Cor. 6:2)
Writing in his biography, known as The Confessions, the young St Augustine admitted that his conversion to Christ came as he woke up to the fact that his besetting sin was that of procrastination. In his agony of spirit to keep God at arms length, Augustine would pray: 'presently. Leave me alone a little while. But "presently, presently" had no present; and my "leave me alone a little while" went on for a long while'.
At the beginning of August, 386, in Milan, he'd had enough. He flung himself down under a fig tree and wept bitterly, crying out: 'How long, how long, tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why should there not be at this hour an end to my baseness?' And, as if in an answer, there came from a neighbouring house the voice of a child, whether boy or girl he could not tell, repeating the words: 'take up and read! Take up and read!' He rushed back inside and opened his New Testament at random and read the verses which stood out from the page: 'Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. ... the night is far gone, the day is near... Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of your lower nature (Rom.13:11-14).
Augustine closed the book and told his friends he had become a Christian. Within ten years, he was a bishop in North Africa, and had become one of the most influential thinkers that Christianity has ever produced. It's a wonderful conversion story that had huge consequences for Christian history.
But what of those who do not enter the door? The other side of this image of the 'closed door' leaves us with many troubling questions. In many ways I wish the preaching roster had been set for one of the other clergy today! I guess the value of preaching according to a set lectionary is that it forces the preacher, and the congregation, to grapple with difficult passages in the Bible.
Let me try to address three common difficulties that people raise about this strand in Jesus' teaching, not only in this metaphor of the closed door but in many of his parables:
- the implied lack of love;
- the motive of fear
- the fate of those who have never had an opportunity to hear the Gospel.
1. The image of the closed door implies a harsh lack of love.
I imagine that there will be many in the congregation today who would say, 'I believe in a God of love who is too merciful to close the door on anyone'.
This belief in the ultimate salvation of all people, including those who die in a state of rebellion against God, is known as the doctrine of 'universalism'.
I would have to say that the Christian who has not felt deeply the attraction of 'universalism' can scarcely have been moved by the wonder of God's love. Most of us can feel the attractiveness of this doctrine. And if we read on in Luke chapter 13 we find that our Lord weeps over the unbelief of the inhabitants in Jerusalem and cries out: 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!' (Luke 13:34). This picture of Jesus weeping over unbelief must not be forgotten when we are seeking to understand the metaphor of the 'closed door'. And yet, on closer inspection, there is an unacceptable side to it.
To suggest that all will be saved — whether they like it or not, smacks of a form of spiritual authoritarianism. Human freedom is compromised. The thought of spending eternity with God is profoundly unattractive to many people! The idea that this is going to be forced on them will hardly strike them as Good News!
God's love will never overrule human freedom. To do so would come dangerously close to rape. No; God respects our God-given freedom.
Every teenager knows — or soon learns — that just because you love someone, it doesn't mean that they will automatically love you in return. God may love us — but that does not coerce us to love God in return.
Universalism which initially looks so attractive, actually includes a number of less acceptable ingredients.
2. Motivating moral behaviour by fear.
A second difficulty that is raised about the image of the 'closed door' is that it appears to be a way of motivating moral behaviour by means of fear.
Bertrand Russell is repeatedly quoted by the so-called 'New Atheists' — Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris — to support the idea that fear lies behind our faith. Russell wrote, 'Religion is based primarily and mainly upon fear. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand.'
Christian morality is seen by these writers as a great obstacle race for which the booby prize for those who don't make it in time through 'the door' is to be thrown on the bonfire of God, the cosmic judge.
Here it is important to see how the process of judgement actually works itself out in the New Testament.
Nothing could be plainer than the Fourth Gospel's insistence that judgement is self-imposed. 'I did not come to judge the world but to save the world', Jesus declares (John 12:47). This is graphically explained earlier in the Gospel: 'And this is the judgment, (that is, this is how the process works) the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed' (John 3:19,20).
God never wanted or planned that people should be excluded from his presence. It is not that God in harsh revenge has shut the door of the Kingdom on anyone. People shut themselves out by their own choice. They turn their backs on God and God allows them to experience the consequences of their own choices.
3. The fate of those who have never heard the Gospel.
A third difficulty that many raise about the image of the 'closed door' concerns the fate of those who have never heard of Christ.
In reply to this objection it is important to understand that the Scriptures teach the principle of judgment according to opportunity. The OT prophet, Amos, makes this clear to the people of Israel. Israel's greater knowledge of God's will makes her all the more blameworthy for her failure to obey it. Those who have never heard of Christ, will be judged not by what they did not know, but by their reaction to what they did know.
Most important of all, we Christians are to have confidence in what God has revealed but at the same time, we are to be humbly agnostic about what God has not revealed. And there is much in this whole area of salvation that remains hidden. The Gospels give us no detailed answer about the fate of those who have not heard of Christ or been presented with a plausible understanding of the Christian message.
We simply have to declare with Abraham, 'shall not the judge of all the earth do right?' The Bible does not give us all the answers but it does show us the character of God, and we can trust God's judgments because we can trust God's character. As the hymn writer puts it:
- For the love of God is broader
- Than the measures of man's mind;
- And the heart of the Eternal
- Is most wonderfully kind.
Helmut Thielicke, a great German theologian, told how he had once received a letter from a mother anxious about the eternal destiny of her 18 year old son, Hans, who was killed in during World War 11.
Thielicke replied that he had no means of knowing whether God had received the boy into heaven, and for the sake of truth could not offer false assurances. 'But', he continued, 'scripture says, "Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares for you" (1Peter 4:6). The question of Hans destiny is an anxiety for you. So cast it on him! We have the promise that we never cast amiss, but that our anxiety always "hits home" to him. The greater our cares the more surely we can trust them to him'.
This is not an answer, but a redirection of the questioner to a place where she can find peace even though her question remains unanswered. However burning the question may be, however personal its implications, to know the answer, is ultimately less important than to know God and his care.
So to conclude. The metaphor of the 'narrow door' is not to be interpreted as a lack of love on God's part or a whipping up of fear by a Cosmic sadist nor an unfair condemnation of those who have had no genuine opportunity to enter the door of the Kingdom.
It is rather a salutary reminder that the whole Christian narrative is not simply a nice story about God sending his Son into the world to achieve very little. God was not merely play-acting. The entire biblical drama, as we shall recall at the heart of this Mass, was to achieve not only human salvation but the salvation of the whole creation. As the best known verse in the Bible states, 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life'.
There is a door of salvation before us. We are to strive (in the grace of God) to enter. As St Augustine came to see, it is a time-sensitive command. The day will come when the opportunity to enter is passed.