NOTEworthy August 30

O Salutaris Hostia – Erik Esenvalds

O saving Victim,
Who expandest the door of heaven,
Hostile armies press in,
Give strength; bear aid.
To the One and Triune Lord,
May there be everlasting glory;
who gives us life without end
in the homeland.

From a Eucharistic Hymn by Thomas Aquinas

One of the most divisive theological squabbles that I have experienced in the church has to do with a simple question:

How wide is the door to heaven?

If you’re looking for a definitive answer to this question, I am afraid I am not the person to ask – shockingly, going to a Christian College and working in the church still does not give you all the answers. Moreover, I am of the mind that on just about all issues of theology, there isn’t really a right person to ask. Or not a right living person anyways.

However, a look back at our own church history tells us that this is a question that has always been on our minds. In the time of Christ, we see the Pharisees essentially “gatekeeping” the way of salvation, adhering to every Jewish law, and adding some of their own: essentially creating a maze of rules between us and the gate of heaven. As Jesus himself said, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” – Matthew 23:13-14

Going back to about 50CE, only about 20 years after Jesus’ death, Christians were debating how to handle these Gentiles that were newly converted to faith in the Council of Jerusalem. Do they conform to Mosaic law or not? The decision of that council was that Gentiles were not obligated to keep most of the Law of Moses, but were to retain four primary prohibitions: 1) do not eat blood 2) do not eat the meat of animals that were strangled and not drained of blood, 3) fornication and 4) participating in any form idolatry (including eating meat sacrificed to idols).

It’s strange to me that the first century answer to this question deals so much with meat and blood practices – things that I have rarely equated to my spiritual well-being. It’s perhaps stranger to think about how little most of these listed prohibitions are a central part of our faith today – never have I looked at blood sausage as a spiritual stumbling block.

I don’t want to debate the importance of which rules from which era, or how Levitical law should really be broken into civil law, ceremonial law, and moral law, or why the laws that I follow are the most important ones, because I think all of that misses the point. If we are honest, I think that the laws we prioritize often align most closely with the laws we follow best.

I think the point is that if we are living in love, and in relationship with Jesus Christ, those laws of omission become secondary. Think of it like a marriage. In a loving marriage there are certain behavioural expectations. In a marriage, both parties are called to be faithful, kind, and to cherish one another. Said another way: No extramarital affairs, avoid excess insults, steer clear of physical violence.

Framed that way, it sounds ridiculous, though, doesn’t it? Love, said as a set of rules sounds absurd. More to the point, rules do a terrible job of demonstrating what love truly is! Love is not a list of omissions but a commission.

So why do we insist on framing the love of Christ as a set of rules?

Just as abstaining from physical violence, extramarital affairs, and excess insults do not a loving marriage make, sin-avoidance does not paint a full or accurate picture of a lover of Christ.

When asked by a Pharisee to give the greatest commandment of all, Jesus did not list a set of rules, but instead gave a commission:

Jesus declared, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22:37-40

Like I promised, I didn’t figure out how wide the door to Heaven was. But hopefully this has reminded you that the path is not quite as complicated as we sometimes want to make it. It can be summed up in a word:


Andy Eaton
Director of Music
First Presbyterian Church