7 August 2016 - Pentecost 12 - Hebrews 11:1-16

We just finished singing a hymn by the Reformation-era Moravian hymnist Peter Herbert, which opens with the line, “Faith is a living power from heaven.”

A “living power.” That’s a compelling idea. I want power in my life. I want to be able to take control of my circumstances, overcome my challenges, and prevail in my conflicts.

I want other people to bend to my will, and I don’t want to be compelled to bend to theirs. I want things to go my way, so that I will prosper and succeed in my pursuits.

If faith can be such a living power in my life, then I want some of that faith - the more, the better.

But is any of that even close to an accurate understanding of what faith is, according to the religion of our Lord Jesus Christ? Is faith a power that we can tap into and exploit for our own selfish ambitions?

Is that what we were singing about a few minutes ago, when we described faith as “a living power”? Well, no. Because we didn’t sing merely that faith is a living power. The full phrase was this:

“Faith is a living power from heaven that grasps the promise God hath given; a trust that cannot be overthrown, fixed heartily on Christ alone.”

One of the most fundamental descriptions of the essence of Christian faith is found in today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Genesis, where we read:

“And [the Lord] brought [Abram] outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”

This is not a description of Abraham’s belief in the existence of God - although he certainly did believe in God’s existence. This account teaches us so much more than that.

Abraham’s faith was a confidence that what God says - everything God says - is true. He did not just believe in the Lord. He believed the Lord.

God’s threats and promises are not empty. God will do what he threatens or promises to do. And what God declares to be so, is so. This kind of faith comes from God - “from heaven,” as the poetry of the hymn expresses it.

And by what means does God create within us a faith in the truth of his Word? By speaking his truthful Word to us, and by opening our minds and hearts to hear, and to receive, that truthful Word.

There is power in faith. But it is not a power that serves our will in this world. It is a power that serves God’s will - for us, and in us. And it is a kind of power that the unbelieving world does not notice or value.

Examples of this divine power in faith, in the lives of noteworthy believers in God’s promises from Old Testament times, are given in today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews. One of those examples is Abel, about whom we are told: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain.”

Abel’s faith empowered within him a firm and unswerving trust in God, and an understanding of God’s plan for human redemption.

The sacrifice that Abel offered was a sacrifice from his flock - which involved the shedding of the blood, and the death, of the animal that he, in faith, offered to the Lord. This prefigured the ultimate and final sacrifice of Christ, whose offering of himself in death would atone for Abel’s sins, and for the sins of the whole world.

His brother Cain’s sacrifice, in comparison, was a grain offering. This offering - which involved no shedding of blood - did not properly foreshadow the death of humanity’s substitute and Savior on the cross, as Abel’s sacrifice did.

Abel’s sacrifice was an acted-out confession of Abel’s faith, that his peace with God, and his righteous standing before God, had their basis in the death of another for his sins. Cain’s sacrifice confessed no such thing, because Cain had no such faith.

Now, Cain did believe in God’s existence. It was to God that he was presuming to offer his inadequate sacrifice.

But Cain had no true faith in God. God’s promises were not received by Cain. God’s Word was not believed by him.

There was no power in Cain’s superstitious faith, such as it was. And in jealousy, Cain murdered his brother Abel.

Now, from the world’s perspective, Abel’s faith did not serve him very well. It did not protect him from Cain’s evil designs. He suffered a great injustice at the hands of his brother.

So, what good was his faith? How was the power of this faith in evidence, as Cain sneaked up behind him, and smashed in his skull?

This is the answer: Through the acceptable sacrifice that Abel, in faith, offered to the Lord - and through everything that this sacrificed symbolized and pictured - Abel “was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”

Abel’s faith did not empower him to live forever on earth, and to avoid the mortal danger into which his brother’s hatred had put him. But his faith - or more precisely, God’s promises which he accepted in faith - did empower him to live forever with God, justified and counted as righteous by God.

Abel believed God’s promise of redemption through the Messianic Seed of the woman. This was a promise that was first made to Abel’s parents. They certainly taught it to him. And he certainly believed it.

Abel lived and died in the power of that promise, and in the power of that faith, worshiping and thanking God for his mercy for as long as he lived on earth. And by his example, from the pages of Holy Scripture, Abel is still proclaiming to us that promise, and that faith.

Another example given in today’s reading from Hebrews, is that of Abraham. We are told that “by faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.”

What did Abraham’s faith do for him, as far as getting a country of his own was concerned? God had promised him that he or his descendants would have the land of the Canaanites for themselves someday.

But for Abraham - and for his son and grandson, too - that promise didn’t produce anything. Did it?

For his entire life on earth, Abraham lived as a foreigner in that land. He lived as a wanderer, in tents, and not in a stable and secure city. So what did his faith get him?

This is the answer: By faith “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”

Abraham would have enjoyed a more stable residence in this world, if he was able to have it according to God’s will. At a later time in history, his remote descendants had a stable residence, in the Holy Land.

But what was most important to Abraham, and what Abraham - beyond any doubt - was certain of, was the eternal home that would be his, in God’s eternal city.

He was not alienated from God on account of his sins - which he deserved to be - but he was welcomed and embraced by God, in divine forgiveness. And he would be welcomed and embraced by God forever.

There was power in God’s declaration to Abraham of what would definitely come to pass. And for that reason, there was also power in Abraham’s faith in the truthfulness of what God had told him.

It was a power that sustained Abraham through all the trials and disappointments that he experienced in this world; and that brought him to the end of his mortal life still with his certain hope intact.

God had spoken to Abraham. And Abraham believed what God had told him. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

There is power like this in your faith, too - if your faith is like the faith of Abel and Abraham. This is not the kind of power that you can make use of, to fulfill your earthly dreams, or to succeed in your earthly endeavors. It is a power that makes use of you.

When you believe what God tells you, God’s Word becomes a part of you. And God then brings you into what he is doing - in his church, and in his world; in time, and in eternity. It is by the gracious working of his Spirit that you do believe what he tells you.

It is God’s convicting and faith-creating power that leads you to believe that you would be lost forever without Christ; but also that in Christ God has found you, and reclaimed you. It is God’s judging and justifying power that causes you to accept as true his warning and promise, that the wages of sin is death, but that the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

As a Christian in this world, whose life is filled with the living power of faith, you will sometimes succeed in your endeavors, and be outwardly blessed in ways that are obvious to all - believer and unbeliever alike.

Hard work and honest effort will often result in prosperity. Treating others with kindness will often result in others treating you with kindness. When you pray for a miracle, you may receive a miracle.

But as a Christian in this world, whose life is filled with the living power of faith, you will sometimes fail in your endeavors, and outwardly suffer great injustices and heart-breaking disappointments. You will often pray for a miracle, yet not receive it.

As Abel was killed by his brother, so too are Christians in this world often persecuted and killed by fellow members of the human race. As Abraham wandered this earth without a permanent home, so too are Christians often forced to flee as refugees from their homelands, and to become dependent on the charity of others just to survive.

But there is power in their faith nevertheless. In fact, during such times of outward hardship, the living power of faith is, in some ways, more pronounced than ever.

The saving faith that God has given to his suffering saints through the gospel in Word and Sacrament, is powerful enough to keep them connected to Christ, and to keep them filled with the peace and hope of Christ, through any hardship or grief - even to the point of death. The power of our faith, as the Holy Spirit has put that faith within us, gives us the ability in all circumstances to believe, and to say with St. Paul:

“For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

And the power of “your” faith, even as your conscience may be troubled by an awareness of your faults and transgressions, nevertheless allows you to hear and to heed the invitation of the one who has already died for you, to redeem you from sin and guilt:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Regardless of how low you have sunk - in embarrassment, shame, regret, and remorse - the faith that God gives you, and that is now your faith, has within it the power to believe these words, and to be lifted up into the joyful embrace of Christ by these words.

The words of Holy Scripture are the words of God. They have as much power when they impact you, and they had when they impacted their original audience.

What St. Paul says to the Corinthians, then, regarding what he had preached to them, applies also to what he preaches to you, through his inspired writings - and to what all the apostles and prophets preach to you from the pages of the Bible:

“My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”

And St. John, in his Gospel, records this exchange:

“Then they said to [Jesus], ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”

We close with these words, also from the hymn that we sang a while ago:

“Faith finds in Christ whatever we need to save or strengthen us indeed; receives the grace he sends us down, and makes us share his cross and crown.”

“Faith in the conscience worketh peace, and bids the mourner’s weeping cease; by faith the children’s place we claim, and give all honor to one Name.” Amen.

14 August 2016 - Pentecost 13 - Hebrews 11:17-31; 12:1-3

The term “Olympics” comes from Mount Olympus, in Greece, where Zeus and the other Greek gods supposedly lived. The ancient Greeks competed with each other in various “Olympic” contests in honor of these gods.

When the Romans came on the scene as the dominant political power in the Mediterranean world, and absorbed the Greeks into their new empire, they picked up on this Greek athletic tradition, and perpetuated it.

These ancient competitions serve as the inspiration for the modern Olympics, which are underway as we speak, in Brazil. These ancient competitions also serve as the inspiration for the racing analogy that today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews presents to us, as an illustration of the meaning and character of faith.

We usually think of faith as something passive. In relation to God and his Word, faith doesn’t really do anything, but it trusts in what God does for our salvation.

In this sense faith simply receives what God offers, as our soul rests in God’s grace, and is reconciled to God through the mediation of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. As St. Paul writes in the Epistle to the Romans, “to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”

This is all true. But this does not exhaust all the Biblical imagery regarding faith, and what faith is like.

The Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz observes that “there is the further question concerning the exercises of faith under the cross, in obedience, in prayer, and the expectation of bodily and spiritual blessings, when the person is reconciled by faith. In regard to this question the Epistle to the Hebrews discusses how faith, after justification, exercises itself through suffering, and receives various gifts and benefits.”

That’s what our lesson today is talking about when it compares faith - and the exercise of faith in the life of a Christian - to the running of a race. In this sense, faith is active, always in motion, always striving toward its object and goal. In faith we actively reach out to Christ, and actively grasp him.

And just as the Epistle to the Hebrews exposes us here to another aspect of the Biblical doctrine of faith, so too does it also expose us to another aspect of the Biblical doctrine of sin. We are given this admonition:

“let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us...”

Usually we think of sin in terms of humanity’s inner corruption, which inclines us away from God and causes us to be God’s enemies; and in terms of humanity’s rebellion against God and his law, which invites God’s judgment. Jesus himself said: “whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

Again, this is all true. But this also does not exhaust all the Biblical imagery regarding sin and how sin hurts us.

Sin paralyzes us spiritually. It is like a ball and chain that weigh us down and bind us up, making us spiritually immobile. It is that aspect of sin that our lesson today is addressing when it admonishes us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely,” so that we can run the race of faith.

A smart runner will take off anything he doesn’t absolutely need to be wearing before he begins his race. I’ve even heard of racers who shave down the rubber on the side of the soles of their running shoes to minimize the weight.

Runners will also make sure that their clothing is not clingy or restrictive. They will wear only as much as they need to, and none of it will be tight-fitting. Everything that would limit the movement of their arms or legs in any way is laid aside.

That’s the way it has to be with us as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith, if they are real, always go together. If a desire to embrace the forgiver of sins is genuine, it will be accompanied by a corresponding desire to lay aside the sin, which would prevent us from being able to run the race of faith if it were not laid aside.

The Formula of Concord - one of our church’s official creedal statements - warns that “a person should not concoct a kind of faith that can exist and remain with, and alongside, an evil intention to sin and to act against the conscience. Instead, after a person has been justified by faith, there then exists a true, living ‘faith working through love.’”

The Formula of Concord also observes that “many construct for themselves a dead faith or illusory faith, which exists without repentance or good works - as if true faith, and the evil intention to remain and continue in sin, could exist in a single heart at the same time! That is impossible.”

You cannot run the race of faith if you have not, in repentance, “laid aside” all deliberate, evil intentions, and turned away from all intentional, wicked actions. If these remain with you, and on you, they will weigh you down, and prevent you from moving in God’s direction.

You cannot run the race of faith if your mind is bound up with a straightjacket of greed or lust, or if your soul is hobbled with the restraints of hatred or pride. If you willfully cling to your sins, and allow them to cling to you, you cannot at the same time cling to Christ.

The kind of repentance that God demands is not simply a matter of saying you are sorry. It is a matter of being sorry - for what you have done that you should not have done, and for what you have not done that you should have done.

The prayer of repentance that we speak together at the beginning of each service is not a magical incantation. We don’t use the sound of the words to cast a spell on God, and to manipulate and trick him - in a self-serving way - into ignoring or overlooking our sins.

It doesn’t work that way at all! Unless you really mean those words, and are using them to express your sincere anguish and deep regret before the Lord, they are only a vain repetition that invites his anger.

If you are sorry for your sins, you will hate your sins. And with the Lord’s help, and in his strength, you will want to lay them aside, and to cast them as far away from you as possible.

Therefore, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Jesus is here called the “founder and perfecter of our faith.” This is perhaps not the best translation.

The Greek term rendered by our version as “founder” might better be rendered as “beginner.” A variant of that Greek term also appears in John chapter 1, where we read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

And the Greek term rendered by our translation as “perfecter” might better be rendered as “finisher.” A variant of that Greek term appears in John’s crucifixion account, when Jesus is quoted as saying, “It is finished.”

And so, in the context of his racing analogy, Jesus is described by the writer of Hebrews as the beginner and finisher of the race that is our faith.

It’s easy to imagine that this race of faith is, as it were, taking place on an oval track, where the start line, and the finish line, are the same line. In a literal race, on such a track, the runners set out on their race at the same location where they eventually end up.

And in our Christian faith it’s very similar to this. Jesus is the one who gets us started in our life of faith, and he is also the goal toward which our faith is pressing.

Unlike the start and finish line on a literal race track, however, Jesus is not just an inanimate scratch in the dirt, or a splash of paint on the pavement. Instead, he is very much alive, and the giver of the spiritual life that impels us forward in our life of faith.

At the beginning of our race, in our baptism, Jesus launches us out into a life of trusting discipleship. And from the finish line, in his resurrected glory, Jesus draws us forward in hope, to everlasting life.

And along the way, as we are going around the track of our race of faith, whenever we falter, or stumble, or start to feel worn out - wondering if we will finish the race - Jesus rejuvenates us by his word of gracious pardon, and refreshes us by the divine sustenance of his Holy Supper.

On the news of late we have heard many disappointing reports of “juiced up” Olympic athletes, who have been banned from the current Olympic games. These athletes were not trying to compete fairly - on the basis of their training and natural fitness - but they were cheating, by taking into themselves the unnatural strength of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.

In the spiritual race of faith, however, this sort of thing is not cheating. You and I cannot even begin to run this race in our own strength, by virtue of our own human religiosity. Nobody can. Only Jesus has made it possible for us to have faith, and to be saved by faith.

For the joy of the resurrection that was set before him, Christ endured the shameful death of the cross. Our sins needed to be atoned for by a perfect divine-human Savior. Only Jesus could accomplish this for us. And in love for the whole human race, Jesus did accomplish this.

Now, as the crucified and risen Savior, Jesus bestows upon us his limitless grace and forgiveness - whenever we do slip into sin, and call out to him in humility for the healing and help that only he can give. And he, as it were, injects into each of us, by his Word and Spirit, all the supernatural strength we need to run this race - to stay on our feet, to press forward, to persevere without giving up.

All of that comes from Jesus. He says, “Without me you can do nothing.” He also says, “With God all things are possible.” With Christ sustaining us every step of the way, we are able to do what we would otherwise never be able to do.

We repent of our sins and believe his gospel. Every day, we repent and believe.

And we live in that faith, as we run the race that has been set before us - energized by the grace of our baptism into Christ, and encouraged onward by the promise of the resurrection victory that will be ours, through the victory over sin and death that Jesus has already won for all his saints.

We close with one of the most uplifting passages in all of Scripture, from the prophet Isaiah, which seems especially fitting for what we have been considering today:

“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.”

“Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Amen.

21 August 2016 - Pentecost 14 - Luke 13:22-30

Is Christianity exclusive or inclusive? A belief in tolerance has been exalted in our society almost to the level of an unassailable dogma, to which everyone is expected to conform.

So, if Christianity is in fact exclusive of some, and not inclusive of all, the society’s commitment to tolerance would mean that Christianity must either be rejected, or corrected.

In today’s text from St. Luke, Jesus gives us the answer to this question. Or rather, he gives us a specific answer to each half of this question.

Is Christianity exclusive? Yes, it is. Is Christianity inclusive? Again, yes, it is.

How can it be both? Well, let’s listen to Jesus in order to find out.

“And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us,” then he will answer you, “I do not know where you come from.”’”

That does sound pretty exclusive. Jesus acknowledges that everyone is, in his own way, on a spiritual journey. With few exceptions, everyone does want to find his way to heaven, or to what he conceives of as heaven, after his life in this world is over.

But Jesus says very plainly that not all who are on this quest will arrive at their hoped-for destination. Those who do not strive to enter God’s kingdom through the narrow door - and only through the narrow door - will not get in.

The seeming intolerance of this teaching has caused many in our generation to turn away from the Christian religion and to forsake their faith - such as it may have been. A few years ago I read this comment on the Internet, posted by a man who was raised in a Christian church, and who in his childhood and youth was a very active member:

“I left the church, not because I didn’t like or appreciate the teachings of Jesus Christ. I left because I found myself in a much larger world where over 400 different faiths are practiced. In each of these faiths, there are wise men and women... - all confident that their path to God is the true and proper path; and that other paths are lesser paths than their own. And, when so many wise men and women disagree on such a fundamental idea, how can a young person claim to know better?”

Indeed, how can anyone, of any age, claim to know about such things? Well, we don’t claim to know because we have figured it out on our own, through our own logical analysis and rational deductions. We also haven’t simply made an emotional decision of what to believe, based on how a certain kind of spirituality makes us feel.

We know what we know, about our eternal destiny, because Jesus has told us of these things. And his Word, imbued with divine power, has reached into our minds and hearts, and taken our conscience captive.

Tolerance, properly understood and applied, is not a bad thing. But tolerance can become very illogical and even ridiculous when it becomes the overarching principle in every situation.

It is often said that all roads lead ultimately to God. People like to repeat that phrase, because this notion relieves them of the responsibility of thinking through the claims of the various world religions, and the assumptions and methodologies of those religions. This slogan caters to intellectual and spiritual laziness and indifference.

And in this world, how often is something like that true? If I want to travel from Phoenix to Flagstaff, is it really true that I could take U.S. 60, or I 10, and would still end up where I want to end up?

When Jesus says that those who want to enter into eternal life need to enter by the one doorway that God has provided, he would be intolerant in this assertion, only if he were wrong in this assertion. But he is not wrong. He actually knows what he is talking about.

What people like us imagine to be so, or wish would be so, is not more important or more compelling that what Jesus knows to be so. And he does know.

He knows that human sin is like a set of shackles that hold us back from truly being able to enter into the presence of God. He knows, too, that - in our natural state - sin also blinds us, and numbs us, so that we don’t even see or feel those shackles.

Man in his unregenerated condition doesn’t realize how desperately incapable he is of getting himself to heaven by means of his own chosen pathways. We think we’re making progress, when in reality we are not any closer than we ever were.

But there is a door into God’s abode. Before God himself enlightens us and liberates us, we don’t see it or know about it. But it is there, and it is the only point of entrance that there will ever be.

Jesus himself tells us in the Gospel of John, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved...” Jesus is the door, because Jesus alone deals with humanity’s sin problem, and solves that problem for us.

Jesus alone, and no one else, takes the sin of the world upon himself, and carries it to a Roman cross. Jesus alone, and no one else, re-creates people in God’s image, and regenerates them by his Spirit.

As the Son of God in human flesh, only Jesus could be the Lamb of God, and only Jesus could be the one who makes all things new. Only Jesus could make a way for us back to God the Father. Only Jesus could be the door to heaven.

Men have their many theories of how to find God, and of how to achieve eternal life. But God also has his theory - or rather, he has his certain truth - of how he finds us in Christ, and of how he gives eternal life to us in Christ.

The patriarchs and prophets of old were not saved by their own personal holiness - such as it was - or by their external obedience to the law. They looked forward in faith to Christ, and by this faith they did enter through the narrow door.

We, too, are now invited to look to Christ in faith, and by means of that faith to enter into a sacred and holy place to which only Christ can bring us.

But note, too, that Jesus teaches that our entrance into eternal life does involve a struggle. “Strive to enter through the narrow door,” he says.

In one sense, the way of salvation through Christ is very easy. It is by faith alone. St. Peter said: “To him all the prophets bear witness, that everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

But in another sense, the way of salvation through Christ is not easy. It is the most difficult and trying challenge we could ever face in this world.

Today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews soberly reminds us, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”

Following the way of Christ, and the way of faith in Christ, also means following the way of the cross; the way of self-denial; the way of daily repentance; and the way of a daily struggle against the destructive and deceptive power of sin.

Temptation to sin does not go away when we believe in the Lord. In some ways, when we orient ourselves, through faith in Christ, toward the narrow door, those temptations will intensify.

Our sinful nature goes into “survival mode” when we put our trust in Christ for salvation. Our sinful nature becomes more desperate than ever, to take back control of our lives.

Our sins are always trying to pull us away from Christ, and away from the doorway into heaven that God has provided in Christ. Our sins are always trying to redirect us onto an alternate pathway, that supposedly will still take us to heaven, but that will require a less radical commitment, and a less radical inner transformation.

But there is no such alternate pathway. There is no other point of entrance into God’s presence, than the narrow door of Christ.

As we walk the pathway that brings us to and through that door, we will be in daily conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil. But we will also be renewed daily in the grace and peace of our baptism; and will return to that baptism daily in repentance and faith - for the forgiveness and healing of Christ, and for the strength and wisdom of Christ.

So, is Christianity exclusive? Yes, it is. It might not be politically correct to say this in twenty-first century America. But Jesus says this, and we too must therefore say this. And believe this.

But is Christianity also inclusive? Again, yes, it is.

As Jesus in today’s text warns those who turn away from the narrow door of what their fate will be, he also gives a message of hope and invitation to people from the four corners of the earth, proclaiming that the narrow door, though narrow, is now open to all. He says:

“In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.”

One of the most jarring crises of the early church was their struggle with how to understand and implement Jesus’ commission to the apostles to make disciples of “all nations.” The earliest Christians were Jewish, and it was very difficult for them to come to grips with the fact that the Christian faith was not just for Jews, but was for the Gentiles as well.

It might be almost humorous for us to hear about that early debate, in view of the fact that our Jewish friends and neighbors today have a hard time imagining that the Christian faith could be for anyone other than Gentiles. But that issue was in fact something that the early church had to work through.

And we, too, still need to work through it. The Lord’s commission to the apostles is also his commission to us. We, too, are to bring the gospel to all nations - to all tribes and peoples and races.

But this universal scope of the gospel does not just translate into an obligation that he places on us. It also translates into a message of personal invitation by which he comforts us.

It doesn’t matter what your background is: who your ancestors were, where you come from, or what color your skin is. It also doesn’t matter how far from the Lord’s pathway you have previously wandered. The narrow door of Christ is open before you.

The Spirit of Christ is drawing you toward that door. The gospel of Christ, in Word and Sacrament, will carry you through that door, and into the light and freedom of God that shines forth from the other side of that door.

No nation, and no individual, is excluded from the Lord’s invitation. In Christ - who died for all - none of us are counted as unworthy to sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and with all the prophets, at the Lord’s heavenly banquet.

All who are baptized into Christ, and who live in Christ by faith, are a part of God’s restored human family. We all have a place at the table.

So, is Christianity exclusive or inclusive? It is both.

It excludes those who refuse to enter by the narrow door. It excludes you, if you have hardened your heart to the voice of Christ, and if you refuse to acknowledge the fact that God’s Son does have the right to tell you what God’s way of salvation actually is.

But Christianity includes all those who do strive to enter by the narrow door - regardless of where they come from, or what mistakes they have made in the past. It includes you, as you - with the Lord’s help - turn away from sin, and toward the cross; and as you find your strength and hope for eternity in his certain promises.

Lo, many shall come from the East and the West,
And sit at the feast of salvation
With Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the blest,
Obeying the Lord’s invitation.
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus!

Oh, may we all hear when our Shepherd doth call,
In accents persuasive and tender,
That, while there is time, we make haste, one and all,
And find Him, our mighty Defender!
Have mercy upon us, O Jesus! Amen.