In my last assignment, at St. Raphael in Naperville, there was a huge football program for elementary school kids called St. Raphael Football. It was not just a team, but a league, and lots of surrounding churches had teams in the league. You couldn’t live in Naperville and not have heard of St. Raphael Football. So once in a while, in a social setting, someone would ask me what church I was from, and I’d tell them, St. Raphael. And they would say to me, “Oh yes, we go there, our son is in that football league.” I always wanted to tell them, “How nice. By the way, we also celebrate the Eucharist there.” Maybe I should have. Today’s gospel reading makes me think I should.
We – as a society – have it all wrong. Our priorities are all messed up. I think we’re in real danger, and today’s Liturgy of the Word is a wake-up call for us to get it right. So this homily is probably going to come off sounding kind of harsh to some of you, but if I don’t say what I have to say, I’m not doing my job as your priest. And I know, really I know, most of you get this. So please indulge me; if this doesn’t apply to you, please pray for someone who needs to hear it, because you know someone who does.
When Jesus is asked whether only a few will be saved, he deflects the question. His answer indicates that it’s not the number of those who will be saved – that’s not the issue. The issue is that some people think they will be saved because they call themselves Christian, or religious, or spiritual, or whatever. It’s kind of like the people I talked to who considered themselves practicing Catholics simply because their children played in a football league that was marginally affiliated with us.
Jesus says that’s not how it works. We have to strive to enter the narrow gate. So what does that mean? For Jesus, entering eternity through the narrow gate means not just calling yourself religious; that would be a pretty wide gate. The narrow gate means actually practicing the faith: living the gospel, reaching out to the needy, showing love to your neighbor. It means making one’s faith the first priority, loving God first, worshipping first, loving others first.
And it’s hard to do that. Saint Paul says today that we have to strengthen our drooping hands and weak knees; Jesus says that many will attempt to enter that narrow gate but won’t be strong enough to do it. That narrow gate of love is hard to enter: it takes effort, it takes grace; it takes strength, and we can only get that grace and strength in one place, and that place is the Church. That’s why Jesus gives us the Church: to strengthen us for eternal life.
That’s not the best news, however, because so many people these days settle for simply calling themselves religious, or being “spiritual” – whatever that means. They’ll play football on the team, but won’t make an effort to come to Church to receive the strength they need to live this life and to enter eternal life. It is here, in the Eucharist, freely given by our gracious Lord, that we receive the strength we need to love, the strength necessary to live our faith and be united with our God. But it’s hard to get to Church because Billy has a soccer game, or Sally has a dance recital, or because Mom and Dad just want to sleep in.
But those decisions have eternal consequences. So let me be clear: God is more important than soccer, God is more important than the dance recital, and as for sleeping in on Sunday, well, there’s time to sleep when we’re dead, right? And it’s not like it’s an either/or proposition: people don’t have to choose between soccer and Mass or dance and Mass or even sleeping and Mass. This parish has Mass on Saturday and at least four, sometimes five Masses on Sunday. There’s probably a church within a few driving minutes of every football or soccer field in the western suburbs; I know a lot of families choose to take that option when schedules are hectic.
The point is, we make time for what’s important to us. And eternal life is the only thing that we have of lasting importance. So we have to build up the strength to get through that narrow gate one day. We’ve got to worship God with consistency; we have to live the gospel with consistency.
We’re not going to be able to say one day: “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets and we played football on your team.” We can’t just call ourselves Catholic; we have to live our faith. We have to reach out to the needy, stand up for truth and justice, make a real effort to love even when it’s not convenient to love, or even when the person who faces us is not as loveable as we’d like.
All of this requires commitment and effort and real work from all of us. We have to strive to enter through that narrow gate, because we don’t want to ever hear those bone-chilling words from today’s Gospel, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, you evildoers!” The good news is we don’t ever have to hear those words: all we have to do is nourish our relationship with Jesus that will give us strength to enter the narrow gate. After all, the narrow gate is love, and the love of God in Jesus is more than enough to get us through it.