25 August 2013
Fr. Patrick Allen
“The road to hell,” we have all heard since we were children, “is paved with good intentions.” There is another similar saying one often hears in church circles, attributed widely to various saints running from St. Athanasius back in the 4th century all the way up to Alphonsus Ligouri in the 18th, that “the floor of hell is paved with the bones of erring priests with skulls of bishops as lamp posts. I used to think that was funny, too, before I became a priest.”
Well, and sadly, there is something there that rings true, and that might be so for lots of reasons. C.S. Lewis gets, in his usual incisive manner, at one possible reason in his wonderful book The Great Divorce, a highly imaginative reflection on the Christian understanding of Heaven and Hell. In the book, each day a bus brings some denizens of Hell right up to the outskirts of Heaven, where they can get out and walk around, and they are always given the opportunity of staying. On one of these trips, one of the tourists to get off the bus is, or had been, a bishop of the Church of England, which was Lewis’ own communion. When urged by an old friend, now a saint in light, to repent, believe the Gospel, and enter into the bliss of Heaven to “see the face of God,” the Bishop admits to being intrigues by the idea, but then says,
“Bless my soul, I’d nearly forgotten. Of course I can’t come with you. I have to be back next Friday to read a paper. We have a little Theological Society down there. Oh yes! There is plenty of intellectual life. Not of a very high quality, perhaps.”
Rather than see the face of God and be united to the very life of God, the poor man gets back on the bus for the return journey. He is intrigued by the idea of God – really, by his own ideas of God – but not especially interested in God himself. Instead of actually talking to God, he would prefer to talk about God.
Now to be sure, we need good theologians, and we need clear thinking and accurate teaching, even and especially about Heaven and Hell. But the point of theology, of theologizing, of talking about God, of preaching, ought to be to lead us to the person of God. Honest questions are good, and ought to be asked, and the Church provides room for and welcomes honest questions. But, as G.K. Chesterton said, the object of opening one’s mind, as of opening one’s mouth, is to close it again on something solid. And, as the tragicomic character of Lewis’ bishop suggests, questions, talk, abstractions can sometimes, for some of us (perhaps especially priests and bishops) become a cloak for avoidance, a strategy of evasion.
We see more than a hint of this in our Gospel lesson this morning. Our Lord, with his face set like flint, is passing through towns and villages, teaching as he [goes] and making his way to Jerusalem, and he is asked, Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
Will only a few people be saved? It’s a good and common question, and there are good reasons for asking it, and many fine theologians in the history of the Church have reflected upon it with profound and provocative results. But what I’d like us this morning to notice is that when asked that very interesting quesiton directly, our Lord does not even begin to answer it. He has no interest in having an abstract theological discussion on the possible population of Hell. Instead he looks at his questioner – and at you and me – and cutting through every strategy of evasion and avoidance says, Strive to enter by the narrow gate.
It’s as if Jesus is saying to us, the good question, the first and immediate question, is not, Will only a few be saved, but, “Will you be saved?”
Strive to enter by the narrow gate. “Strive” – that’s a daunting word, isn’t it? And problematic – it seems opposed to grace and the free offer of the Gospel. And there’s a lot, I suppose, to say about what that striving might mean, what it might look like. But when our Lord illustrates his point he goes negative, showing us what it is not, which is presumption based on mere acquaintance: You will say, ‘We ate in your company and you taught in our streets;’ then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from; depart from me all you evildoers!’
This should be a warning specially taken to heart by those of us in the Church, and perhaps even more so by those of us called to Holy Orders. It is perfectly possible to have a very polite, very gentile, very religious, at least in the outward Mass-attending trappings, acquaintanceship with Jesus, but yet not to have known him, not to have been his friend. There is no question of simply being “in the club” – not by virtue of Jewish birth and observance, as in the case of our Lord’s questioner, not by getting one’s card punched in baptism in our own case. Baptism is the necessary beginning that frees us for a life of discipleship.
Indeed, this is why the gate is narrow – no one can fit through while carrying presumption.
Benedict XVI put it this way:
“When we consider it, in effect, the way of reasoning of Jesus’ interlocutors is always with us: the temptation to think of religious practice as a source of privileges and certainties is always waiting in ambush for us. In truth, Christ’s message goes in exactly the opposite direction: Everyone can enter into life, but the gate is “narrow” for everyone. There is no privileged group. The way to eternal life is open to all, but it is ‘narrow’ because it is demanding, it requires commitment, self-denial and [the] mortification of one’s own egoism.”
As opposed to acquaintanceship, the Pope Emeritus went on to say, “true friendship with Christ is expressed in one’s way of life.”
And when we think of it in those terms, as friendship with Christ, this idea of striving begins to make sense. We can see it not in opposition to grace, but as a corollary to love. Acquaintanceship is an accident of timing, but friendship – while it should certainly include affection – is also an act of the will. Actually, of repeated, habitual acts of the will. Friends act, habitually and, necessarily, sacrificially, for the good of one another. Friendship brings obligation. Friends have claims on one another. Friendship is not a status, a privilege – it is a way of life.
And isn’t this the way the grace of the sacrament of marriage works itself out – over time, as a man and a woman learn together what it means to love, habitually and sacrificially to act for the good of the other, and so, in the end, become lovers – as in “people who love”, persons fit for the Kingdom of Heaven because they have been conformed to the image of Christ? Marriage is, we might say, “demanding, it requires commitment, self-denial and [the] mortification of one’s own egoism.” It, love, requires a certain amount of striving.
Strive to enter by the narrow gate. It is a little bit daunting. Jesus is calling us out from behind our abstractions, pushing us beyond merely talking and theorizing about love to the real thing. But of course, when it comes to love, Jesus is the Real Thing; he is the True Lover who pours himself out for his beloved, for you and for me.
And it may be that the most important thing this passage has to say for how we understand entering the Kingdom of God actually comes in what we might be tempted to pass over as just St. Luke’s introductory scene setting: Jesus passed through towns and villages, teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem. We might be tempted to pass it over, but it is programmatic for the whole discussion. He is on his way to Jerusalem, on his way to the cross, for love’s sake.
That word “strive” in our English translation is agonizomai in St. Luke’s Greek – you can hear in its root our word “agony.” Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where, by the agony of his love, his “blessed passion and precious death,” he will open the narrow gate of salvation. Let us strive – let us love – to enter in.
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