Deacon Cornell's Homily


Isaiah 66:18-21
Hebrews 12:5-7,11-13
Luke 13:22-30


August 20-21, 2016, Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

I am going to ask you two questions. I don't want you to answer out loud or raise your hand but just answer them in your mind. Are you absolutely sure that you are going to heaven when you die? Are you absolutely sure that every one that you love is going to heaven when you die? I didn't need to see your hands because if everyone here knew that everyone was going to heaven there would have been much louder singing of Gather Us In , and maybe even some dancing in the aisles during the Glory to God as we gather to give thanks and praise for that good news. But I think it is safe to say that there are people who are not sure if they are going to heaven. I wonder what they heard as they listened to today's Gospel. Did they hear good news? Or did they hear their worst fears confirmed because if Jesus is saying that only a few make it to heaven, they are probably not in that select group?

Before we can hear the good news in today’s readings, I think we first have to look at what they are not saying. I would suggest that Jesus is not saying that only a few people make it to heaven for eternity. To understand why that is not what he is saying, we have to look at the context of this reading. In fact, we have to look at 3 separate contexts.

The first context is how Jesus speaks. Jesus is not making a prediction or sharing a divine view of heaven’s census here. He is using rhetoric, language used effectively and persuasively. He is using rhetoric to make a point. Last week we heard Jesus say he came to set the world on fire. As someone who has kids and grandkids living in Southern California, I wonder whether people who live out there in the middle of all those forest fires, were taking Jesus’ remarks literally. So what point is he trying to make with this rhetoric we hear today?

For that we have to look at the context of this story in the Gospel of Luke. For Luke, the journey to Jerusalem is symbolic of an ever-increasing conflict with the Pharisees and scribes. This story happens right after Jesus a woman who had been crippled for 18 years on the Sabbath. The synagogue leaders chastised Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Jesus is using this rhetoric to let people that heard those leaders know that the way to the kingdom is not rigid adherence to the law but a living out of the law as it is written in our hearts. The Sabbath was made to give humans rest; what could be more appropriate than giving this woman rest from this infirmity on the Sabbath. Between today's story and the curing of the woman on the Sabbath, are two little characterizations of the kingdom of God starting small but growing large, affecting all around it. And this story ends with Jesus saying that people will be entering the kingdom from all over the world, not just from the tiny nation of Israel. It is hard to imagine that Jesus is saying only a few people get to heaven.

And finally we have to look at the context of the Good News as announced by Jesus, and reinforced by the whole of Scripture. For Jesus, the kingdom of God was not about which individual goes to heaven or not. It is about the reign of God, God's justice, mercy, and love, here in this place and this time. Jesus came to announce this good news: that God is merciful, and forgiving, and lovingly inclusive. John reminds us that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.” And for Jesus, the kingdom is not just about when we die and go to heaven. He constantly proclaimed that the kingdom is at hand; it is something we can start to enter here and now.

So the point Jesus is trying to make is not that only a few people go to heaven but that those who think the kingdom of God can be entered because of your nationality, or your religion, or who your friends are, miss the point. The kingdom of God is only accessible to those who have the discipline Paul talks about in the second reading.

Discipline is not a very popular word in our culture. To many it is the opposite of , or even an obstacle to, that grand icon of our culture: freedom. But the truth is that true freedom only comes with discipline. The kingdom of God is true freedom where there is mercy and justice and peace and joy. And that mercy, and justice, and peace, and joy can only be experienced by those who subject themselves to God’s discipline. Unfortunately in our culture, it is almost to the point where Paul’s rhetorical question, “For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” is not rhetorical at all.. It requires an answer and all to often the answer is: many a child is never disciplined.

Jesus rightly characterizes the discipline that leads to the freedom of God’s kingdom as the narrow gate. It is not impossible but it requires effort. The irony is that if we look at the alternative, not going through that narrow gate requires much more effort and is much more painful than going through it.

Take Michael Phelps. Certainly the last few years have been a very narrow gate for him. Besides the grueling physical training, he also had to go through substance abuse recovery, all the while becoming a father. What was harder? Going through all that or allowing the substance abuse episodes tarnish all his past accomplishments?

Is it harder to subject ourselves to the discipline of the commandments and the beatitudes than it is to suffer the pain and disappointment of a life lived outside God’s discipline? I think the answer is obvious on the intellectual level. The challenge is to make it obvious in our hearts and our guts. And we don’t have to wait till we die to start to enter into the kingdom of God. God’s discipline makes it accessible to us right here and now.

So “Strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.” The good news is that the narrow gate that we must go through is not a set of rules or a religion but a person: Jesus Christ. Jesus is the way, the truth, the life, the gate. We must enter the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ, who reveals to us a God who will go to the four corners of the world, who will stop at nothing, not death, not descent into hell, to bring all of us into the kingdom! That my dear people, is really good news.

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