Football and the Narrow Gate

Twenty-First Sunday of the Year. Is 66:18-21; Ps 117:1-2; Heb 12:5-7, 11-13; Lk 13:22-30

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Today’s words of Jesus Christ are a warning about our own salvation. The basic elements are straightforward: first, there is only one Gate, which is Christ, by which we can reach heaven; second, it is difficult to pass through the Gate: many will not be strong enough to enter and the Gate is “narrow”; third, the Gate will not remain open forever. Jesus warns us that the time will come when the door will be locked. Life is short, and when we die the door is locked: no further choices are possible. We must strive to enter heaven while we have time.

So there is only one way to salvation, it is hard and time is short. This alone would, I think, make an important enough message to take home today. But how, then, can this message benefit us? If we have understood the warning, how can we benefit from it? How do we enter through the Gate to reach heaven?

To answer this question, we have to try to understand the difference between those who succeed and those who fail. Although Jesus does not mention them explicitly, it is probable that there are two groups who fail to enter the Gate. The first group fail simply because they never even try. We see in our own age, as in every age, many people who do not seem to care about salvation at all, who are content to try to make their permanent home here, in this passing world. Now the very fact of being in church this morning suggests that we are not in this group, since we are at least sacrificing some time to God by being here. However, Jesus warns us that there is this second group who fail, those who try to enter but are not strong enough, those who eat and drink with the Lord but to whom the Lord says, “I do not know where you are from.” These people associate themselves with Jesus in the Church, as we do, but they fail to enter heaven. How can we avoid being in this group?

A clue to an answer comes from the fact that Jesus describes those succeed and those who fail using slightly different language. Those who fail do, indeed, attempt to enter but those who succeed strive to enter. The word ‘strive’ is much stronger than the word ‘attempt’. The Greek word for ‘to strive’ also means ‘to contend for a prize’ or ‘to struggle’ or ‘to fight’. St Paul uses the same word to Timothy when he says, “Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (1 Tim 6:12). The word conveys the sense of a contest in which one is putting everything one has into attaining the goal. So when he says ‘strive’, Jesus is using the same kind of word that the Greeks would use of an athletic contest, or that we would use today of a sport like football. Now I know that there are many football players here today, and there are many more football fans. In any game like football, whether it is the American or English version, one thing in common is that anyone playing needs to have a single-minded purpose, needs to strive for victory. On the football field, the players have to want to win, and to want to win more than anything else. Incidentally, in the light of today’s gospel, it is noticeable how so many of these sports also involve some kind of small target, like propelling the ball through the goal posts or uprights in football. Football also involves striving to enter through a “narrow gate”, and these games have not developed by accident. Clearly, as well as being enjoyable in themselves, such sports help train us in those virtues for life without which little of great and lasting value can be achieved. However, in today’s gospel, Jesus is saying is that the same kind of spirit, the same kind of will for victory, is involved in the successful Christian life. We cannot just approach our Faith as one more activity, let alone a marginal activity, amid our efforts to build a more comfortable life in this world. One cannot play a game of football as if scoring were simply a marginal activity in the course of the game. Everything in the game of football is ordered towards winning, and, in the Christian life, we have to have a similar, single-minded purpose. We must want to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, we must make that the central and overriding goal of our lives.

Now there is a slight danger that this message could be misunderstood, and so I must add one final comment. Striving for salvation does not mean that we earn our salvation, as if a certain number of good works are enough to enter heaven. It is Jesus Christ who has earned our salvation and he is the Gate to heaven. But we do have to pass through the Gate and we have to want to pass through more than anything else. In concrete terms this means, above all, staying close to God by establishing a pattern of regular prayer, avoiding sin and making use of the sacraments. These are simple, humble things: the door of the Confessional is a narrow gate, yet passing through that gate and receiving sacramental absolution restores life to the soul and opens the way to heaven. The Communion host is a small, narrow and humble thing to look at, yet when we receive Communion we receive Jesus Christ himself, making it possible for us to enter heaven and see God face to face. By such small and humble means God wants us all to be saved. Let us pray that we too will desire this above all other things.

Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 26th August 2007

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