It is a gathering unlike any other. Isaiah describes it as people coming from all corners of the world – every make and model, color and variety. Citizens of every nation from east and west, north and south. All streaming to Jerusalem, to God’s holy mountain bring their offerings of worship. All invited by God, all coming to the Lord God, all of them seeing the glory of God.
Someone in the gospels asks question: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” I wonder if the questioner’s understanding of salvation – even the offer of salvation – is very different from the prophet Isaiah’s. Maybe the questioner is worried about the state of the world and can only see a few faithful people. Maybe he or she is worried about family members gone astray. Maybe the question is, as most scholars seem to believe, an inquiry whether only a few people “like me” will be saved.
In her story “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor tells a tale of Isaiah’ vision of salvation being encountered by the narrow view of the “like-me,” smug Mrs. Turpin. Her idea was that heaven was an exclusive banquet with just a few guests. The story had told of her unpleasant encounters with the “unsaved” (aka “not like me”) during the day. Later while sitting on her front porch at sunset, Mrs. Turpin is granted a vision from God. Despite all her self-assurances and beliefs, she was about to discover that God’s invitation is for more than just her and those she deems of sufficient moral character and behavior.
Mrs. Turpin sees a whole parade of the most unexpected and motley people all clapping and leaping and shouting hallelujah – and she was brining up the rear of the parade. Her idea of heaven’s limited invitation and exclusive nature was roughly shorn away in the great reversal — “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Deep within us all there is a small part of us like Mrs. Turpin – so assured we are among the elect. And right alongside is that part that fears we indeed are unworthy. And the question continues to linger: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
We all come here every Sunday – well most Sundays – OK, OK I get here when I can. I am a good Catholic. I go to Mass and receive communion. I listen to the Word of God. I listen to the homily. OK, OK, I mostly listen to the homily. I volunteer. I try to be good. I pray. I go to confession. I do things. Isn’t that striving enough? Maybe we do those things and still we hear “I do not know where you are from.” At least Mrs. Turpin made the end of the heavenly parade.
Jesus says that salvation requires effort, strenuous and intensive effort—that it will be like squeezing through a narrow door. That there is sense of urgency and we’ll have to seize the moment and strive agonizingly because the door won’t always remain open. And that we should never get smug or complacent about salvation, because he may be surprised who gets in and who doesn’t. And for those who claim a special relationship with Jesus, those who ate and drank with him? Who heard his Word? Well, Jesus says to them: “I do not know where you are from.”
But wait a minute here. Isn’t salvation a gift from God. Aren’t we saved my grace alone? Aren’t we saved by the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Why do I have to strive in order to receive the gift? Why can’t I just open my hands and arms and receive the all embracing and saving love of Jesus? Why do I have to do anything? Good question – why does Love demand a response? “I love you.” “Why, thank you – let me receive your love.” A fair response to that may well be “I do not know where you are from.”
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” It’s so hard for us to understand this mystery of salvation. Yes, salvation is a gift that can not be earned. Yet we are to strive, we are to run the race, we are to endure until the end. Maybe it is like greyhounds used in hunting. Traditionally they are deployed in a pack. And maybe only one or two of the hounds will catch site of the rabbit, but once the first one takes off in pursuit, the whole pack follows. Into the fields, the forest, the brambles, the briars – where the thorns begin to nick the flesh, where things become tougher, dodging and weaving, twisting and turning. One by the one hounds begin to drop off the chase. But not the ones who spotted the rabbit. They will run until they can no longer run – they will endure until the end.
Salvation comes when we encounter Jesus Christ in our lives and start to follow him – here in church at Mass and communion. Follow him when we leave this church, when we decide how we’ll use our free time and spend our money, when we make decisions, when we pray, when we transact business in our offices, when we study in our classrooms, and when we are going about every other activity that makes up our daily lives. Into the fields, the forest, the brambles, the briars – where the thorns begin to nick the flesh, where things become tougher, dodging and weaving, twisting and turning.
Yet, when everything we do, every word we utter, every thought we hold, every feeling we experience proclaims to the world that we love Christ – when Love has consequences in our lives – then maybe the mystery is a more clear. When that fusion of love and doing meld together. When we are so in love that, like the greyhound, we will not take our eyes off of Jesus – briars, brambles, narrow gates will not deter us. Such is the power of love.
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” As many as love Jesus, as many as love in this world, even if imperfectly like Mrs. Turpin or you and me – as many as do not take their eyes off of Jesus. They will be saved. Such is the power of love.