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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 12 – Year C

Dear God, “If I cannot find the face of Jesus in the face of those who are my enemies, if I cannot find him in the unbeautiful, if I cannot find him in those who have the ‘wrong ideas,’ if I cannot find him in the poor and the defeated, how will I find him in the bread and the wine, or in the life after death? If I do not reach out in this world to those with whom he has identified himself, why do I imagine that I will want to be with him, with them, in heaven? Why would I want to be for all eternity in the company of those I avoided everyday of my life?”[1] Amen.

Do you ever think about who gets to go to heaven and who doesn’t, who gets in and who gets left behind? If you are a fan of the popular books called the “Left Behind Series” then you know there are a whole lot more people who get left behind then ever get to go to be with God. In fact, these books tell us that when the “rapture” comes the elect with disappear in a flash and if one of the elect just happens to be the pilot of your 747, or the mother driving your carpool, or the surgeon performing your triple bypass, well then you are just out of luck.

But that kind of strange theology aside, think about it. What about that coworker who is harmless but who drives you crazy – have you ever wondered if you will have to spend eternity with him? Or the guy you pass downtown with the purple spiked hair, nose ring and full body tattoos – does he get to go and how is he going to look in a flowing white robe with angel wings? The bully who picked on you in school, the girl who broke your heart in college, the parent who cared more about their work than their relationship with you, the mother-in-law who can’t stand you and never thought you were good enough for her son or daughter – do these folks get to go? And that is just on a small scale, what about the scoundrels of history – Hitler, Mussolini, Pol Pot, Nero, Genghis Khan? If at the end they were in fact really, deeply sorry for what they had done and opened themselves to God – do they get to go to heaven? On a more personal note – do you get to go? What kind of odds do you give yourself – 3 to 1 in favor or 4 to 1 against? Is it something you even think about? Do you have trouble believing there is a heaven?

These and many other questions about the life after this one have been asked by the faithful for thousands of years. Jesus must have been asked about it numerous times, as he was in our gospel for this morning – “Lord will only a few be saved?” Unfortunately Jesus didn’t directly answer the question; if he had we might have settled a lot of stuff a long time ago. Instead, Jesus just said – “strive to enter through the narrow door; for many I tell you will try to enter and will not be able.” Now before the Reformation in the 16th century the simple answer to the question, “who gets to go to heaven,” was – the church decides. The church taught they controlled the fate of the believer. The church decided whether or not you received the sacraments that kept you in touch with God. The church decided whether or not you needed to be excommunicated for some notorious sin. After the Reformation the answer to the question “who gets saved,” became a little more complicated. John Calvin the father of Presbyterianism (among other things) believed that salvation was completely predetermined by God. The elect were the elect, the condemned were the condemned – God knew who was who and there was nothing you could do to change which group you were in. Double predestination it’s called – some people are predestined to heaven and some are predestined to hell in spite of how well or how poorly they live their lives. On the other extreme, Universalists believe that in the end everyone goes to heaven. God’s will is not to condemn anyone but to correct everyone, therefore after death we all get corrected so that eventually everyone is admitted into the life beyond.

Interesting, isn’t it. What do you believe? Some days there are quite a number of people I wouldn’t mind sending straight to hell, but other days I hope heaven is bursting at the seams, especially with the people you might least expect to see. But having said all of this the truth is – salvation is God’s business and not our business. We can have our theories about who goes and who doesn’t but in the end it is all up to God and all I can say to that is – Thank God! Jesus didn’t directly answer his questioner in today’s reading because He knew that such issues were better left to God and God’s mercy. What this person needed to know wasn’t who got to go but rather – if you want to go you have to be prepared, you have to pay attention, you have to arrange your life and your self so that you can fit through God’s narrow front door.

I agree with Marcus Borg when he says that we shouldn’t think of Christianity as a religion where salvation only takes place in the afterlife, because that often makes our faith into a religion of requirements – what do I have to do to get in? What’s more, focusing on the afterlife can make Christianity quite clubby because there is an in crowd and an out crowd. But finally and most importantly, thinking of salvation purely in terms of the afterlife focuses our attention on the next world rather than on the transformation of this world.[2]

If you look at the gospels you see that Jesus’ ministry wasn’t about getting people into heaven; it was about bringing as much of heaven to earth as he could. Jesus proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God and how we are to live in that Kingdom. He spoke about love, forgiveness, justice, and the need to care for the downtrodden and the lost. He embraced the castoffs of society, forgave the sinners, chastised the self righteous, healed the sick, and commanded us to do the same. Through his death and resurrection Jesus knew that God would take care of the heaven part – Jesus’ resurrection making possible our resurrection. Our job is not to worry about what becomes of us after we die, our job is to continue to do Jesus work on earth. As it has been said – “salvation is not putting a man into heaven, but putting heaven into man.[3]”

Strive to enter by the narrow door, Jesus says. Strive to transform yourself into someone who loves what God loves. Strive to be someone who is passionate about what God is passionate about. Strive to do all these things not because you think you have to in order to be saved but rather because you want to be like the God who has already saved you.

Let us pray. Dear Lord, the way is narrow but your grace is broad. Discipleship is difficult but in your service there is perfect freedom. This life is so short but your love is everlasting. Help us to be your servants. Teach us to walk in your ways. Transform our hearts and our lives so that we might know and make known your Kingdom now in this time and in this place. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

[1] Jim Forest , Prayers for Blessing and Reconciliation, compiled by Lyn Klug

[2] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p.172.

[3] Maltbie D. Babcock

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