Grappling with the Narrow Gate

Luke 13: 23-30

I am going to be honest and admit that when I read the passage that the lectionary set out for this week, I thought to myself,’ I don’t really like what this has to say.’   Feeling kind of confused as a novice preacher, I decided to go consult Ben.  His office is right next to mine and I could see his door was open.  I told him that I was struggling with the texts and I found myself disagreeing with them.  I didn’t know how to preach about it if I didn’t agree with it.  Then Ben reminded me “Just because it is in the Bible doesn’t mean that you can’t argue with it.”  And with those wise words came relief.  I don’t have to fit myself to the Bible and I don’t have to make it fit to me.

I felt like I was sitting in my introductory biblical studies classes at divinity school all over again.  When I started divinity school I didn’t know much about the Bible.  I had always been told it was the word of God, and I didn’t question what that meant.  I didn’t know much about biblical history and interpretation.  I was shocked to find out how many people had been part of writing the Bible, how many times it had been translated, and how different the versions are.

Many of you may know this already, but I find it fascinating to be reminded of the history of how the Bible came to be the way it is today.  First there was the oral tradition of passing on the stories from one generation to the next by word of mouth.  Before the invention of printing, books were copied by hand.  That was back when the Bible didn’t have verses or chapters. There were hundreds of years when there weren’t even any divisions between words, no punctuation marks, no capital letters and no vowels. Words were divided by Jesus’ time, but vowels weren’t used until the sixth century A. D. Gradually, capitalization, punctuation and paragraphing worked their way into the Old and New Testaments. Bible chapters didn’t come into being until the 13th century. In 1448, Rabbi Nathan broke the Old Testament into verses. The New Testament wasn’t divided into numbered verses until 1551 and those are for the most part the verses we have today.

Before I learned all of that, I thought of the Bible kind of like Jesus.  Something along the lines of the Bible had its own immaculate conception and virgin birth, entering the world pure and holy and perfect.  But no, just like Jesus there is a lot of controversy about it.  The humanness of the Bible becomes evident once you get beneath the surface.  Many, many people over thousands and thousands of years wrote the Bible. So how does that make sense with our understanding of the Bible as the word of God?

The concept of revelation is at the heart of Christian faith.  Some see Scripture as direct revelation by God, but I find myself agreeing with scholar Dennis Bratcher who wrote “I do not understand the Bible itself to be direct revelation. Scripture is a witness and response from the community of faith to God’s revelation of God’s self. God revealed Himself in history and the Community of Faith interpreted those events to us in what we now have as Scripture. The Scriptures reflect the ‘story of God’ as it was woven into the life of the community of faith through the centuries. People through the centuries passed on the testimony, and grappled with the implications. So, Scripture as we have it is the story of divine revelation (God’s word) told in culturally conditioned human words.”  When we read the Bible today we bring our own culture, language, knowledge, historical experience and personality to the text and we grapple with its implications in living out being the people of God today.

In divinity school we were taught that we cannot arrive at a true understanding of God’s Word by detaching texts from their contexts to find personal meaning in them. It is easy to take the words out of context and try to apply them directly to our lives today but, given the complexity of the Bible and its history, that can create problems.  That does not take into account that what we might be reading and living out as the exact word of God has been translated hundreds of times over centuries, and there may have been some mistakes along the way.

In a Reader’s Digest article they pointed out some mistakes in translation that led to some humorous new interpretations such as the WIFE-HATER BIBLE An 1810 version read, “If any man come to me, and hate not . . . his own wife (instead of :life”), he cannot be my disciple.”  And the “SIN ON” BIBLE. The first English-language Bible to be printed in Ireland, in 1716, encouraged its readers to “sin on more” rather than “sin no more.” A similar error in 1653 had declared: “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God?”   We know about these mistakes but what about all the changes, mistakes and inconsistencies throughout history that we’re not aware of?  I am pretty sure that there had to be at least a few.

One of my favorite writers and theologians, Frederick Buechner describes the Bible in a way that resonates with my understanding.  He wrote that the Bible is “a disorderly collection of sixty-odd books which are often tedious, barbaric, obscene and teem with contradictions and inconsistencies.  It is a swarming compost of a book, an Irish stew of poetry and propaganda, law and legalism, myth and murk, history and hysteria.  And yet – And yet just because it is a book about both the sublime and the unspeakable, it is a book also about life the way it really is.  It is a book about people who at one and the same time can be both believing and unbelieving, innocent and guilty, crusaders and crooks, full of hope and full of despair.  In other words it is a book about us.  And it is also a book about God.  If it is not about the God we believe in, then it is about the God we do not believe in.  One way or another, the story we find in the Bible is our own story.”  That may sound strange to some people.  I know at least a few of you might ask, how is the Bible my story?  Or you may firmly state that the Bible is definitely not your story, but could it be?

Maybe we need to shift our gaze.  Buechner also said, “If you look at a window, you see flyspecks, dust, cracks.  If you look through a window, you see the world beyond.  Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a Holy Bore and those who see it as the Word of God, which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves. “ Along with the metaphor of the Bible as a window, another interesting description of the Bible is given by Phillip Brooks who said “The Bible is like a telescope.  If a man looks through his telescope he sees worlds beyond; but if he looks at his telescope, he does not see anything but that. The Bible is a thing to be looked through to see that which is beyond; but most people only look at it.” When we try looking through the lens and not at it, when we are pulled into engaging with what has been written and with what has been left unwritten, we discover our own stories.  We find our own reflection in the Bible.

This morning I saw myself reflected in the question from Luke 13 “Will only a few be saved?” That is the question asked of Jesus and it’s a tough one.  Jesus’ answer is challenging as well.  What is the narrow gate that we’re supposed to strive to enter and why will only a few be strong enough?  I have had such profound experiences of God’s abundant love for all people I don’t want to think that some people will not be able get through the gate and be saved.

Some scholars have said that the gate is Jesus.  So would that mean we would all have to live like and know Jesus to be saved? What if you’re living in the middle of the Amazon and you have never even heard of Jesus.  Will that person, that tribe, a whole nation of God’s creation not be saved? My fear also pushes me to ask “Will I make it through the narrow gate?  If only a few will make it , how do I know that I will be one of them?” Will I be saved?  The uncertainty of having to face that question is uncomfortable.  That is probably why I tried to avoid it and then tried to explain it away with all my biblical history studies.  Maybe I could find out that this part of the Bible was a mistake too.  Whether it is a mistake or not, it is there to be engaged with and as you can tell, I have grappled with this narrow gate.

Where I doubt, some people look at this passage with total certainty and easily claim their status as God’s chosen. Episcopal Priest Barbara Crafton makes the point that “people who are too certain that they and they alone are among God’s elect have throughout history made the faulty assumption that only people like them will be saved.” But God, Jesus says, all the time, over and over again, does not count membership as the most important, does not count who you are or what you are, but rather counts what you do. He says, “Did you feed the naked? Did you give water to the thirsty? Did you take care of the poor?” God says to us, “Well, then I think you have more to do, don’t you?” But in my fear I say how much more exactly do I have to do, God?  I want a clear answer.  Sometimes I can see us treating it as a point system.  Visiting the sick – 5 points, preparing a dinner for the Night Ministry 15 points, mission trip to do hurricane relief in Jamaica – 50 points.  Once you make it to 1000 you’re guaranteed entrance in the narrow gate!!! If I do five more mission trips and one more meal for the homeless with that be enough?

And again that is missing the point.

I really don’t think God is keeping score. No, because Jesus said “The last will be first and the first will be last” and how will we ever know where we are in line anyway?

In Luke 13:22, the people listening to Jesus might have thought that they would be first in line for the kingdom of heaven.  Do you ever have the sneaking feeling that you’re at the front of the line or the back? One of the things that causes the biggest problems in our faith is the tendency to take it all for granted. Maybe that is what Jesus was warning against.  We are encouraged to strive, not to live complacent lives.

God is beyond our understanding, and living a life of faith often means that we live in the unknown.  That could be the reason why we seek the comfort of feeling like our faith is all figured out rather than facing too many difficult or unanswered questions.  But just because we don’t know the answers doesn’t mean there aren’t any and just because the Bible says one thing, it may also say the exact opposite.  So we live in the now, we grapple with the gate.  We try to live the best way that we can, doing good not so we’ll be guaranteed our spot in heaven but because we have experienced God’s love and grace, and it compels us to follow in Jesus’ ways, loving our neighbors, feeding the hungry, caring for the lonely and in those times, we see Jesus face to face.

You may at some point find yourselves at a narrow gate or a door that shuts in your face.  You grab hold of it and struggle trying to open it, believing that this is the only way, and then God, in that amazing way that God has, turns you around and changes your view of the world and changes the world itself.  I am reminded of the movie, The Sound of Music and the famous line “when God closes a door, God opens a window. “  Sometimes we’re so focused on the closed door or gate we don’t see the other openings.  God shows us paths we didn’t notice before, and we set out on our journeys with new hope.  Knowing that in time our vision will again be narrowed and we will doubt and question God.  In our questioning we might turn once more in search of guidance to God’s words and, looking through the telescope, we will glimpse other realities beyond our own where God’s love is never too narrow to let you and all life in.