Dear siblings in Christ!
Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew chapter 7 verses 13 and 14
13 ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.
14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Yesterday I finished reading a collection of essays on a revolutionary Jesus. Some authors argued that Jesus was revolutionary – the way he treated the marginal and the outcast, his emphasis on the love of one’s neighbour, and even more so of the enemy, insistence on a new kind of ethics, etc. The others argued against it, sometimes using the same Bible verses, saying that there is nothing radical in Jesus – what he says about love and care already exists in the Hebrew Bible among Jewish prophets. Furthermore, they argue that Jesus’ contemporaries were very much aware of it, even though they were not always practising it. Jesus is not really hanging out with the outcast – he eats and drinks with moneylenders and people of wealth – not exactly the poor he likes to talk about. Even the healings he performs – who wouldn’t want free medical care, especially in those days?
Like any good academic literature, those essays are thought-provoking, showing the multiplicity of approaches and interpretations of Jesus and Christianity’s interpretations of Jesus. Because Jesus’ teaching and Christianity’s teachings are not always the same. But as the essays themselves make sure to remind us – this liberty for interpretation is at the heart of what made Christianity so appealing and adaptable from day one. Maybe Jesus is vague and contradictory on purpose. We do not have one definitive gospel narrative in the Bible – we have four, and even they are claimed to be incomplete by John the Evangelist.
One thing that stood out relevant to our Gospel text today was a question posed by one of the scholars – who is Jesus talking to in the sermon on the mount? As it is tough to differentiate in the text between when Jesus is talking to his community, an ecclesia of disciples and a few more followers, or the crowds.
Today’s short text is part of the sermon on the mount. It seems to me that if we are to read this text in the context of the surrounding verses it is situated in, then Jesus is speaking not to the multitude of outsiders but to his specific community of followers.
What is the point of this little excursion in the field of biblical interpretation? Well, to put it simply, today’s text is written to believers and not to unbelievers – today’s text, if you like, is written to ecclesia to the community of the followers of Christ. In other words, to us, the Church.
Why am I insisting on this? Well, let me reread the text, thankfully, it is very short, and we will proceed again with the knowledge we just gained from our exercise in biblical interpretation.
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
In some circles, in some churches, some preachers like to use this text for evangelising purposes – that is addressed to the community outside, let’s say, unbelievers. They would interpret it something like this: following Christ is the narrow gate and the hard road. Therefore, because you are not following Christ, you are on the easy road of this life that will lead you to destruction. Therefore, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and live a life following the prescribed moral rules of our community – and this is a guarantee of salvation.
I have to say that, in a sense, there is nothing immediately wrong with that. One community has to differentiate itself from other communities. But, we need to ask what is the gospel – the good news – in such a message? The good news is actually negative news – that you will not get punished, rather than positive news – that you shall be saved. Is it still then good news? Is liberation through fear the gospel? Is the fear of losing one’s salvation if a strict behavioural code is not adhered to a good enough reason to be a Christian?
But, as we have established earlier, the text is probably not written to outsiders. So we need to ask again – what is the good news to those who already are in the Church?
Just last week, I had an argument with my Christian friends about evangelism. The three of us call ourselves in Estonian patused kristlased, which means sinful Christians – because that is indeed who we are, sinful and yet Christians – in acknowledging this, we acknowledge that we are most in need of God’s mercy. This puts us not in the position of some preachers above, who are certain of being on the hard way and shouting to those across on the easy way.
Jesus said that the gate is narrow and there are few who find it! Paradoxically those Christians who know they are sinful, are most likely being on the narrow way. Because to see sin in one’s own life, to recognise and acknowledge it – well that is truly hard! Chapter 7 of the Gospel of Matthew where our verses are located begins with precisely this reminder – that we, Christians are very quick at seeing a splinter in our neighbours eye, not recognising the log in our own. This is one of the reasons why I maintain that these verses are written primarily for Christ’s community and not for outsiders. Because we are in constant need to be reminded in our daily life of the path we are to be walking on.
But back to the argument I had with my sinful Christian friends. It was over the way we evangelise those who are not Christian. It arose when one evening, a few friends and I were in a bar, and a new person joined us. After a round of introductions and finding out that I am a theologian, she asked – so tell me, why should I believe in God? I answered her something like – you shouldn’t if you don’t want to. My Christian friends found it weird that I didn’t try to tell her why she should believe in God; tried to persuade her to choose Christ.
You see, I recently read some writings by Pope Francis and was shocked, in a positive sense, to find that in the Roman Catholic Church, proseletism is prohibited. Proselitism means to persuade someone to change their religious belief. So, according to Catholic teaching, Christians shouldn’t go around trying to convert them to Christianity. This is a very interesting development because you can rightfully ask – but aren’t Christians supposed to share the Gospel – the Good News? And how are they then supposed to do that?
Yes! You are right! We are supposed to. But I agree with Catholics, we shouldn’t try and force people to Christianity. How are we then to spread the Good News? Well, the answer is easy to give but most difficult to implement – we are to live the gospel. Our lives should reflect the risen Saviour. This is what today’s text means. To live in such a way that people would see that there is something different about us. What is this difference?
This difference is not an adherence to some kind of strict moral and ethical code. The narrow gate and the hard way are not about what you do but how you do it. This difference is not going to church every Sunday or saying prayers every day – although those are important and necessary activities to grow in our Christian life. This difference is not even not drinking alcohol, not having sex before marriage, or not swearing, although once again, there can be plenty of good and positive in a lifestyle of moderation, and it once again can help us to grow in our Christian life.
What, then, is this difference? I do not know if I can fully illustrate it in words. It is, after all, done by Jesus Christ who comes and changes us, and not our attempts at changing ourselves, or maybe I should say saving ourselves. For each and every one of us it will be different and individual. For some, it might even be one of the above-mentioned things of strict moral life. Maybe the transformative power of Jesus is liberation from years of self-destructive alcoholism. Maybe it is a discovery of a long-term committed relationship, willing to go as far as to sacrifice one’s ego in love of another – that is, to marry them. But it is done in and out of love for our Lord and our neighbour, and not in and out of fear of being punished and perishing.
The work of salvation by grace alone that we Lutherans hold dear is not a work of adherence to a collection of teachings, ethical standards, or of behavioural norms. The work of salvation by grace is a work of love. God loves humanity and dies on the cross for that love for an other. We are challenged to do the same. The narrow gate and the difficult path, the only behaviour we are expected to perform is taking up our cross in love for an other.
There is something common to all of those who walk through the narrow gate and on the difficult path.
Let me illustrate it with another example of a friend of mine. One of my closest friends is Roman Catholic. Sometimes I call him to our Church to take communion, and he feels unworthy – in his own words – he feels he is too sinful. Of course, such feelings of sinfulness can be oppressive and weigh us down. But a pearl of wisdom that another friend of mine shared, who is himself a Baptist: our Roman Catholic friend showed himself being a true Christian as an acknowledgement of one’s sinfulness is a sign of repentance. In acknowledging one’s sinfulness, not to think that I can do something to change my predicament by myself, but to lay it at the foot of the cross where Jesus dies to liberate us from sin.
I think this is the best way to show Jesus Christ to the world outside of our community. To show people that we are just like them. That we are not perfect, that we have struggles and battles like those close to us. And, here comes an important “and”, we are called by Jesus Christ with all our imperfections to be the Children of God – that is the Good News. That Jesus calls us just like we are. Walking every day on the hard road, we need to remind ourselves that we are not special because we are Christian, but we are special because God loves all human beings, you and I. We need to be reminded – to quote the current bishop of Rome – that either we are all saved together, or nobody is saved. We cannot live in selfish isolation of thinking we are perfect for walking through the narrow gate and being on the hard road. Because walking through the narrow gate humbles us, erases all our pride, and shows us who we truly are – sinful Christians saved by grace.
There is a saying – that to be Lutheran is to be ecumenical. If you allow me to conclude my already very ecumenical sermon with the words of Fatima Prayer that is said by Catholics praying the decade of the rosary:
“O my Jesus, forgive us, save us from the fire of hell. Lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of your mercy.”