Strive! – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Luke 13:22-30

 I have been captivated recently by the icons of Maxim Sheshukov, a Russian iconographer who works in a traditional style but whose icons often depict themes or events from Scripture rarely depicted in icons – Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree, or Judas accepting the bag of silver, or the slaying of Abel by Cain, for instance. One icon that has been much fodder for my prayer depicts Christ, his figure almost whimsically tall and slender and slightly bent at the shoulders, standing before an equally tall, dark, and very narrow door. The wooden panel on which the icon is painted is tall and narrow, and is itself highly suggestive of a door. The background is a simple, quiet yellow ochre, the color of sand or wheat. Christ’s right hand – or more precisely, his outstretched, right pointer finger, seems to rest on the face of the door, pointing toward it, perhaps giving it the gentlest tap imaginable. His left hand holds a thin, narrow scroll, its words concealed from view.[i]

“Lord, will only a few be saved?” someone asks Jesus. The nameless questioner could be someone who counts him or herself assuredly among that few – or who is haunted by fears that he or she is not among that few. Jesus doesn’t exactly answer the question, or certainly not on the terms that it is asked. His reply is all phrased in the future tense, with one significant exception: The word “Strive,” in his opening phrase “Strive to enter through the narrow door,” is in the present imperative. Strive! Like a single, slender finger pointing or tapping gently, hard to ignore. The Greek word (agonizomai) means something like “struggle and effort in the face of great opposition.” Jesus’s advice is personal and pertains to everyday practice in the present. It’s as if he says, “Try. Try with your whole being. Seek, suffer when necessary, be painstaking. The open but narrow doors that each moment presents to you are the openings through which God is reaching out to you. Concern yourself with that. And don’t think that you can open and shut the door to God’s house as you like, simply because of where you come from.” The arc of Jesus’ reply bends toward a spacious and inclusive understanding of salvation, a healing and wholeness open to all people that is consistent with Luke’s overall vision. But I suspect that the questioner in this passage carries a fairly entrenched assumption that “where he or she comes from” is a reliable indicator of spiritual health and wholeness, the logic perhaps being that “If I come from the right place, then I’m going to the right place.”  The double repetition of the house owner “I do not know where you come from,” specifically counters that logic.

The passionate and continual striving of Christ to enter the narrow door – his life-long struggle to accept, embrace, and act upon God’s will for him personally – reaches a particularly intense climax in the garden of Gethsemane. There, Luke records, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:43-44). Some early scribes omitted these verses, evidently offended by the graphic intensity of Jesus’ suffering humanity. His anguish – in Greek, his agonia – is his own “striving in the face of great opposition.” Jesus continues his striving to enter his narrow door straight through to his dying breath, and his body passes through the narrow door of a very narrow tomb. The healing and wholeness of God is spacious – as spacious as the Resurrection, the opening of every door, the rolling away of every stone. But I don’t think that means that salvation is a “one size fits all” process. Rather than a great elastic waistband, it is exact and intimate to the measure of each life and the contours of each soul. There is a narrow door – a specific, particular, and personal door – for each disciple who tries to enter.

The door in Sheshukov’s icon – and the door that is Sheshukov’s icon – has evoked every door that inhabits my memory, real or fictional: the door in the ordinary wardrobe which led to Narnia, the door to my grandmother’s attic, the door of my high school locker, the red door of my first apartment, the dented passenger’s side door of my faithful, used Toyota, the door of this monastery, the door of my cell. But it also has me asking myself which inner doors I open or close, which inner doors Christ visits, hoping that one day the gentle tapping of a finger will yield a way in, and which doors I have simply to strive to enter, though the striving may be life-long. From God’s side of the door, that is enough.

[i] Some icons of Maxim Sheshukov, as well as an excellent article about his work, can be found here:

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  1. marta J. engdahl on April 25, 2021 at 08:37

    Dear Brother Keith, This is a very, very beautiful writing, stirring us to continue to knock on that very special door. Thank you for your leading us to the door! I used to receive these meditations daily, but have not received any in a long time. I am very grateful as you have turned my heart and I will continue to turn throughout the day. Thank you!

  2. John G. on April 24, 2021 at 15:25

    Brother Keith, As I read the excerpt on the title page of your sermon, I was comforted by the thought that I had a test before me that was tailored to my strengths and weaknesses. That was a test I could surely pass. But as I read further I realized that the examination I must face is one which I must strive to answer with all that is within me in the way Jesus strove in the garden of Gethsemane. If Jesus trod a narrow way, why should I expect a broad one? The notion that the way lies through our greatest difficulties rings true. To say as much brings sadness for opportunities missed and hope for those I seek to grasp and am presently contending with. I must affirm that I am not striving alone, that God is merciful and strengthens me by his grace even as he sent angels to strengthen Jesus in the garden. So, may it be.

  3. Edward Greene on April 24, 2021 at 10:20

    I really love it when an image — like the narrow door — which has often been interpreted in an exclusivist way is flipped over into an inclusivist image. A whole lot of my lifetime spiritual journey has borne that out.

  4. Dawn Browne on April 24, 2021 at 09:26

    Br. Keith,
    Thank you for this sermon. It is affirmative to hear these words in a time of world wide awakening, as people struggle to understand why they exist.

  5. Kitty Whitman on April 24, 2021 at 08:50

    I am deeply touched by your words that “not one size fits all,” rather, that we “strive to our life’s end” is what matters to God. Peace continue with you and in your words of inclusion and inspiration.
    Kitty W.

  6. Margo on April 24, 2021 at 06:44

    Br. Keith I too an entranced by the icons and foresee days of happy gazing. Thank you for this piece of sharing.
    I think what Merton said is about what it is in most of life: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

  7. Honey Dimitriadis on May 15, 2019 at 22:46

    Yes, I, too, am captivated by his work. The sense of holy while temporal is beautifully conveyed. I am drawn to the simplicity.

  8. Ruth West on October 30, 2016 at 10:20

    Br. Keith, this is a very significant sermon. Thank you very much for giving me food for thought today.
    May God bless you and all your brothers in that place.

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