How Well We Have Loved – Dcn. John Stanley

Dcn. John Stanley’s Homily August 25, 2019

It seems that we rarely speak of Hell these days yet throughout the Gospels Jesus was not shy about preaching about Hell.  He describes the face of the damned in various metaphors: everlasting fire, outer darkness, tormenting thirst, a gnawing worm and wailing and gnashing of teeth so it’s not surprising that one of his followers stops and ask him, ‘Lord, will only a few people be saved?’  It’s Natural Curiosity. What is the population of Hell? But Jesus did not come down from Heaven to satisfy our curiosity. Rather, he came down from Heaven to Earth to save us, so he wasn’t going to give us a number, so he responded not by answering how many are saved, but rather how we are to be saved.  Jesus turns to them and tells them and us that we are to strive and that word in Greek is the root word for agony.  We are to agonize to enter through the narrow gate and Jesus goes on and says, ‘Many of you will not be strong enough.’  You won’t be strong enough because you will not fit through that narrow gate because of all of the things you are carrying, all of your attachments and we will knock and call out, ‘widen the door!’ but the master of the house will say, ‘I don’t know where you are from.’  And we will say, ‘We ate and we drank with you, Jesus, hey we went to Mass! We put money in the basket. Here’s my baptism certificate.’ And he will say, ‘I don’t know where you are from. Depart from me you evil-doer.’ Jesus is looking for not an external relationship with us.  He cares nothing for our memberships or our titles. Jesus wants a personal relationship with us. It’s not our association it is our transformation that Jesus cares about.

So, what is the context for this Gospel?  Well, Jesus we are told is traveling on his way to Jerusalem where he would suffer an agonizing death on the cross.  He’s telling us that we too are to take up our cross and follow him and that’s going to involve suffering, even agony and depending on our love of Jesus, suffering will either make us bitter or better.  For it’s hard, it’s humanly impossible for anyone in their own strength to enter through that narrow gate, but it is made possible through the blood of the lamb. Jesus Christ shed his blood on the cross for us and by it he opens up the gates of heaven for it is through his grace and Mercy freely given to us that we can do all things.  The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus is not an automatic ticket to Heaven. If it were, Jesus would not have told us to strive, to agonize to go through the narrow door and if it did, Paul who agonized until the end and famously said, ‘I have fought the good fight and I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.’ And he would not have written to the people of Philippi and admonished them ‘to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.’  If it were simply a matter of our willpower without the grace of God, there would be reason to despair, but St. Paul tells us that God responds, even when we are weak, God responds to our weakness for he sends the Holy Spirit to pray as we ought. The Holy Spirit helps us to pray not by putting words on our lips, but by changing who we are as we pray that we may be beloved sons and daughters of God crying out, ‘Abba Father!’

So, going back to the question of ‘Lord will only a few be saved?’  I think it’s good that we don’t know the population of Hell for if we knew that virtually everyone would be damned we would despair and if we knew that nearly all people would be saved we might become presumptuous and if we knew that there was a fixed percent, say 50% would be saved then we would be caught up in some sort of holy rivalry for like Jesus in the Gospel, we too are on the path to the new Jerusalem, to Heaven and through his passion and death he has conquered sin.  He has opened the gates of Heaven. We are created in the image and the likeness of God.

Thanks be to God he has given us free will and the capacity to love him and it is our destination to return to God in Heaven for our life is a participation in God’s love and as such our journey is always going to involve the cross.  Jesus tells us that we are to strive to enter the narrow gate, but what is the criteria for our ultimate judgement? For a devout Jew and perhaps this Jew that asked the question, they tried their best to obey all of the commandments and decrees and there were some 600 at the time, but Jesus tells us that we don’t have to cram for the finals for there are two commandments, two commandments that sum up all of the law and the prophets.  We are to love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our strength and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and in the parable of the last judgement, you remember that one chapter 25 of Matthew, the parable of the separation of the sheep and goats, Jesus tells us that those two commandments of love are actually reduced down to one for whatsoever we do for the least of our brother or sister we do for Jesus. So? Striving for the narrow gate boils down to how well have we loved.  After our journey here on Earth as we approach that narrow gate in the twilight of our lives won’t we want to hear those consoling words, ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.”