Last Sunday of Church Year

Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossions 1: 11-20; St Luke 23:23-43; & St Luke 13:22-30

He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’gordon

26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

The lectionary for today relates to the fact that it is the last Sunday of the church year. The subject of the lessons from the holy gospel is that the end of the church year is a time of fulfilment, Jesus ministry is fulfilled when He is crowned with thorns as the crucified King. And we shall see how the gospel lessons interpret this. To understand we must realise the Gospel narrative uses various words in the Greek language which indicate time not simply in terms of its chronology, its chronos (χρόνος). For example, the kind of thing Shakespeare had in mind in his famous soliloquy by Macbeth at the news of the death of Lady Macbeth: –

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

20Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

25That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

That is chronological (χρόνος) time. But the gospel also uses another word to speak of time not of time which just finishes, which comes to an end: Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow kind of time. But time understood as having a purpose. We have no English word which expresses time as having a purpose, we only have words for time which expresses duration, a beginning and an end. But there is another word used in the NT for time which expresses not simply the passing of time, as in (χρόνος) chronological time, but time in terms of purpose. This word is Chairos (καιρός) which means fulfilment of purpose.

We can understand something of this mystery relating to our experience of time when we consider the relationship between the two lessons from the holy gospel of St Luke before us today. The reading set for the day, St Luke 33., the crucifixion of Jesus, his awful death on the cross between two thieves. The other from St Luke 13: 22ff, we read; –

Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23 Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

He said to them, 24 “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. 25 Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

26 “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

27 “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

28 “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. 29 People will come from east and west and north and south and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. 30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

In St Luke’s gospel the whole narrative of Jesus ministry is considered in terms of its (καιρός), its purpose. So, we read in chapter 9: verse 51 that “When the days drew near for him (Jesus) to be received up he set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem.”  From this point in the gospel narrative everything that happens is related to the fulfilment of Jesus ministry in Jerusalem and the crucifixion. This is the purpose of Jesus journey to Jerusalem and for the next 15 chapters of the gospel; that is the context and meaning of all that happens and is said.

This journey upon which Jesus embarks, “Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem”, lasts until chapter 23 & 24 of the gospel with the crucifixion and its aftermath and then into the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, where we see the purpose of the journey fulfilled when, after the cross and resurrection, Jesus is “received up” into heaven as the risen Lord of the church.

It is in this context, this very specific context, that we must understand Jesus words that meet us in the gospel reading. For we must understand our journey, our life’s time, in the light of this journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. For our life’s time is given purpose and meaning by Jesus life’s time in His journey to Jerusalem.

The journey which Jesus undertakes to Jerusalem is one which started as he “set his face steadfastly” toward that city. We are to see in this, that the passion of Christ which he here sets his face toward, is not an accident that overtakes Jesus. His cross is not some fate which happens to him. His passion is that which He sees as the fulfilment of His life. This fulfilment is his identification with us as the Son of God. His taking to himself our flesh, with all that that entails in terms of what it means for him. Here he enters the far country of our human godforsakenness. This is the journey which Jesus is travelling, this is the way he embraces in v.51 of the 9th chapter of St. Luke when he sets his face “steadfastly to go to Jerusalem”.

It is in the light of this very specific journey that we must understand our journey as this is referred to by Jesus words in the lesson from St Luke 13. Which I read.

Jesus speaks of a narrow way, of few there be who find it; of exclusion, a shut door, and weeping and gnashing of teeth; of the last who shall be first and the first who shall be last.

Where is the popular image of Jesus as the Galilean carpenter, the itinerant teacher with his homespun philosophy of the golden rule; who speaks of the fatherly care of God for all people. These sayings are particularly harsh on those who acted on the assumption that they had a friendly relationship with God, that God was as it were one of them, a “mate”. They say, “We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets.” To them the reply is, “I do not know where you come from.” The final judgment will bring many surprises; those that think they are in will be out and those who appear to be out will be in.

There have been those in the history of the church who, confronted with this puzzle, have propounded a teaching which said that since God’s judgment is just, and since we cannot do anything to justify ourselves, and since some will be excluded by God’s judgment there must be a hidden eternal decree by which God elects some and excludes or damns others. Those who accepted this preposterous thesis nevertheless sought assurance in signs of God’s election of them according to the material blessings which they claimed God had given them. Poverty on the other hand was understood as a sign of God’s judgment. Some social historians have attempted to blame this doctrine as having a significant influence upon the easy acceptance by Christians of the excesses of early capitalism. And this doctrine is not too removed from those incredible TV evangelists who peddle the teaching that if you have worldly success then God is on your side. There are many to whom this godless doctrine is their practical rule of thumb for understanding God’s action in their life: the acquisition of private wealth as a sign of God’s blessing and poverty as a sign of God’s judgment.

Well these harsh words of Jesus turn this comfortable doctrine which infects the church and the lives of many Christian people upside down. Jesus says there is no way we can know, in terms of who we are that God is on our side, that the door will not be shut in our face: that we will not hear the reply to our pleas, since we believed we were on familiar terms with God,  Jesus the Judge says to these people, “I do not know where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!”

But how is this harsh exclusiveness in Jesus words about God’s judgment to be understood?

 How are the terrible misunderstandings of such words in the history of the church to be avoided?

We must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus utters these words on his way to Jerusalem where he is to die. The Son of God descends to the depths of our human condition before God in this his final godforsakenness. Thus, the words of Jesus in their harshness are meant, in the first instance, to draw our attention to the immeasurable cost of human redemption. The fact that our relationship with God is bought at such terrible price. The eternal Son of God, clothing himself with our humanity and shedding his blood, means that our relationship with God is not a truth or reality controllable or manipulated by our petty religious foibles or fancies.

These harsh words of Jesus are intended to indicate that the narrow way that leads to life, or the door that is to be opened, is not a way or a door that can be found and opened by us at all. It can only be opened for us not by us. It is precisely in this that the narrowness of the way consists.

There is nothing mysterious about feeling we are on good terms with God when our natural inclinations and temporal interests are served by that fact. We too can say, like the people outside the shut door, “We have eaten and drank with you and you have taught in our streets.”

What is mysterious to us is that the narrow way that leads to life before God is not found by us. The harsh words that exclude all human attempts to find an easy way to God and avoid the contradictions of the human condition: the narrowness of the way, the harshness of the judgment, is meant to lead us to the awful humility of God who in the inconceivable freedom of grace takes the godforsakenness of our human condition upon his own heart and bears it, and in bearing it, bears it away from us. It is this singular mysterious action of God, which is the narrow way that leads to life, the door that shuts out all those whom believe they can find their own way to God by their good deeds, their happy personal circumstance, or spiritual experiences and ecstatic ecstasies.

The harsh words of Jesus are meant to drive us to depend upon God’s free grace. And this grace alone! God’s mercy is not an abstract idea of goodness; it is demonstrated to all who hear these words from the One who speaks them. In Jesus, the one who “sets his face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem” for our sake. It is this One, the crucified God who is the judge of the world whom we must name as our King and only saviour, when we stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is in and through his redeeming work that our life, in its ending, is fulfilled in its purpose.

Dr. Gordon Watson.

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