Episode 3 of 4 in our series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.
Actions have consequences.
I think one of the most thankless tasks for civil servants must be running public information campaigns on behalf of the Government.
We see the posters and the television adverts; they remind us that actions have consequences. Smoking affects first our lungs and then our whole bodies. Too much of the wrong food, or too much alcohol, puts us at higher risk of certain kinds of disease.
We know this already. And yet we don’t want to change our behaviour, because although we know there could be really bad consequences later, we don’t want to give up those simple pleasures right now.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is giving us a similar kind of warning. He is asked whether only a few people will make it to heaven. He replies: “Many will try to enter and not succeed.” Even if we say, “Lord, did we not eat and drink with you?” – and we are here at Mass today in order to eat his body and drink his blood – that on its own does not get us into heaven. So what more is it, that Jesus is asking for?
The Lord calls the entrance into heaven a “narrow gate”. It’s a bit of a squeeze to get through. We won’t make it with any baggage we are carrying.
Is Jesus telling us that God doesn’t love us, that God wants it to be difficult for us to get into heaven? Not at all! But what does it mean to enter heaven? It means to enter the presence of perfect love, the kind of love which keeps hold of nothing for itself but always puts the needs of others first.
The first piece of baggage we need to set down is the rucksack of selfishness. For some of us, our backs are weighed down by all those things we want to keep for ourselves: the money we don’t give to charity; the time we don’t give to our family members; the skills we do not place at the service of the church or the wider community. We must let go of these things, empty out our selfish rucksacks, and live our lives as servants of our neighbours.
But when we live a truly unselfish life, we might feel overwhelmed. Some among us have decided to live an unselfish life, and now feel the whole weight of the world upon their shoulders! What can we do about global warming, about the imbalance of food distribution in the world, about Britain’s stagnant economy, about wars and conflicts in the Middle East and other troubled parts of the world? We fall into the trap of hearing the command to “love” and taking on the whole hurting world – and it is too much of a burden to bear! We cannot enter heaven by trying to be the Saviour of the World – that job is taken already! To those of us trying to be the next Messiah, Jesus says: “Take the weight of the world off your shoulders, hand it to me, and rest a while!”
There is one more obstacle to passing the narrow gate to heaven. Many of us carry the riot shield of reticence, of reluctance to stand up for our faith. Yes, we are Catholics, but we do not speak willingly about our faith or our values. Perhaps we are embarrassed about some of the public failings of our church. Perhaps we struggle to find the right words to speak about our faith in ways others can understand. Or maybe we have been mocked or ridiculed for our faith and made a quiet, inner decision to protect ourselves by not discussing it in public. On the inside of our shield is written, where only we can see it, “I believe in Jesus!” But on the outside is written “Your religious views will not disturb me.” The world reads this, and moves on with its atheism or incomplete religions unchallenged.
Friends, there is a very special responsibility on us, because we are people who attend Mass regularly and hear the Word of God proclaimed in this church every Sunday. Unlike the majority of the world’s population – who are not even Christians – and unlike the majority of Britain today – we are willing to do something for God. We are willing to come to Mass. We are doing one of the things Jesus asked of us – “Do this in memory of me.” So far so good! Yet how is it possible that Jesus can say “I do not know where you come from?” It is not enough for us to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ – we must also devour his Word and allow that to become flesh within us. When we don’t understand a person, we might say, “I don’t know where you’re coming from.” If we do understand the message of Jesus and take to heart, we will come from a place of understanding his teaching: “I will love God with all my heart. I will love my neighbour as myself. I will go and make disciples of all nations.”
Now for the good news. We are not locked out yet! We’re being warned that an hour will come “when the master of the house has got up and locked the door,” but this has not happened yet. Jesus is merely warning us that if we try to enter heaven clinging to our precious possessions, or bearing too much of the weight of the world, or holding before us a shield which hides our own faith, there will be tragic consequences. But it is not too late to change!
Yes, it is difficult following the teaching of Jesus. Today’s second reading acknowledges that the training God offers us is painful. Yes, those who have never heard the Gospel might get into heaven anyway – the first reading paints a picture of people from foreign lands being gathered into God’s Kingdom. But for us who know more, God expects more. God expects that we will choose to love others and overcome our own selfishness. God expects that we will live lives of prayer and do good not on our own , but in partnership with Jesus Christ. God expects that we will hand over to him the riot shield of reticence; but he will turn it around, reshape it. The shield which fits through the gate of heaven is the shield of faith. On the outside, for the world to see, is written “I believe in Jesus!” On the inside, where only we can see it, is written “Your religious views will not disturb me.”
Will we change? When the Government campaigns, a few people will quit smoking, cut down their drinking, and change their diet. When the word of God is preached, it never returns to God empty-handed. Actions have consequences. The baggage we choose to set down today will free us to enter heaven tomorrow!