Sunday, April 17, 2016

Are You Saved?

4th Sunday of Easter
Cycle C

Who will be saved? Are you saved?

That has always been a confusing topic for me. In some places in scripture, such as in our second reading today, it says that the number of people who are saved are too numerous to count. But then there are so many other places in the gospels where Jesus talks about how difficult it is to get to heaven and how few will make it there. St. Paul is all over the place on the topic. How can we be sure we are saved, and what exactly is salvation?

We Catholics understand salvation and it is part of our sacramental prayers, but for some Christians salvation is the key focus of their faith. It seems that’s all they talk about. Are you saved? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your own personal savior? Once saved, always saved. I think most of us have heard people say these types of things. Is everyone going to be saved? Is it how Revelation says today? Or is it as the Calvinists say, that the number is limited and pre-determined, therefore it doesn’t make a difference what we do here; it’s all set.

If it’s once saved always saved, then it doesn’t matter what you do the rest of your life after you’ve said the magic words. However, if it’s something you earn, then what if you do all the right things for your entire life but at the end you commit a mortal sin and die before confessing it? Will that one act wipe out a lifetime of good works? And who is keeping score?

Will everyone be saved? Universalism, the common belief today that everyone will go to heaven, is actually a heresy. Salvation begins with the assumption that we have the need to be saved from something. But what? Our own individual sinfulness? Original sin? Can we have any say in our own salvation?

There is a difference between redemption and salvation. As we know, from the beginning of humanity we’ve been going against the will of God. We were not created to be separated from God. We were created to know and love Him here on earth and be with him forever in heaven. Somewhere along the way somebody made the choice to sin, and that threw all of creation out of whack. It actually changed human nature and led to suffering and death. The gates of heaven were closed to us because we were not in right relationship with God. Only God could set things right again, and he chose to become a man, to suffer and die so that our relationship could be restored.

Jesus’ death on the cross redeemed the entirety of creation. It set right what was wrong and allowed us to be saved. Jesus paid the ransom for our sins on the cross. As we hear in Acts today, Jesus came to redeem all mankind, but we are all given the choice of salvation. Redemption is an act, salvation is a choice. There always have been and always will be people who reject salvation. The Jews rejected the gospel, and so Paul and Barnabas preached it to the gentiles instead. Just as all humanity had suffered the effects of sin, so too all humanity was redeemed and given the chance at salvation.

What does that mean for you and me as everyday Christians?

There is a relationship between faith and works. We can never earn our way to heaven. Jesus redeemed the entire world and our final salvation is a gift from God. However, Jesus was also pretty clear that we will be judged by how we treat other people, and that the actions we take are also necessary for salvation. We aren’t just to sit back and let Jesus do all the work. We are called to be workers in his vineyard. St. Paul told the Philipians, “With fear and trembling work out your salvation.” We are to actively choose or reject salvation. That is God’s ultimate gift to us. He himself has chosen to give us a choice, and he has laid out for us His plan for us to follow if we choose to be with him. We are in this together; with God and with one another.

Remember the two greatest commandments, the ones from which all the others flow? Love God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself? That’s how it is all connected in God’s plan of salvation. We cannot love God and not love our neighbor. If we truly love God we will be compelled to spread that love throughout the world, just as Jesus did. It will be automatic and that is how Jesus said the world would recognize his disciples – by how they loved one another.

But how do you know that you really love God? I oftentimes have a hard time imaging God. God is spirit, and for me it’s sometimes hard to join the thought of God to the reality of God. I know that I love my wife and family and friends, all to different degrees, because of what I feel in my heart, how I feel when I lose them or I am separated from them. I can see the things they do for me to show me they love me, and vice versa. But how can I feel that way about a supreme being whom I have never seen, in whom I believe exists mainly through faith?

I can see the results of God’s love for the world in the beauty of the world. I can experience God in His creation. I can use my intellect to “prove” the existence of God, as Thomas Aquinas did. I can see miracles, small and large, and attribute them to God. I can actually feel the Holy Spirit within me; I can feel a special sense of peace that I believe comes from the Spirit, but does that all mean I love God?

I expressed these feelings to my wife once and she said something very wise. She said that just as we cannot love God without loving our neighbor, we love God when we love our neighbor. We cannot embrace God, but we can hug our children. We cannot feed Jesus, but we can feed the hungry among us. Whatsoever you do for the least of my children you do for me. So, we may not feel the same connection to God as we do to those we love, but that is how we show we love God, by loving one another. So don’t worry so much about feeling the same type of love for God that we feel for and show to one another. Just love one another and loving God will take care of itself.

And that’s what salvation is all about, I think. We’re all in this together. St. Augustine said that one man is no man. We are not saved alone. We are saved in community. When we are in proper relationship with one another we are in proper relationship with God. We are all just beggars helping one another to find bread. It is in our closest relationships that we are honed and polished. It is in our mistakes and pain that we are prepared for heaven. That is where we are slowly perfected.

That’s how we actively participate in our own salvation. Not by sitting back and waiting for it to happen to us, but by living fully human lives in relationship with one another. Let God do the rest. That’s His part – mercy. The missing piece to all this is God’s mercy. We will always screw things up. We will never completely understand or follow His plan for each of us. But that’s ok, because God knows that. That’s how he created us. He wants to be generous. He wants us to experience the absurdity of his generosity. He wants the opportunity to show us the wonder of his mercy. All he asks of us is our acceptance of that mercy.

So, does it matter how many are saved, if the number is large or small, random or pre-determined. Not really. The only number that truly matters is one. You are ultimately responsible for your salvation. Not by what you do but by your acceptance of the gift. Archbishop Niederauer told the story that an evangelical Christian once asked him if he had accepted Jesus Christ as his own personal savior. He thought about it a minute and then said no. Jesus isn’t just mine, he said. Mine is not a personal faith, and yet it is. Ultimately it will be just me and Jesus, face to face, but here on earth it’s got to be both. God and my neighbor, my neighbor and God. I see God’s face in my neighbor’s, I guess.

And the wise Archbishop went on to say that salvation is not a past event. It’s also a present and future thing. We have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. All we can affect right now is the present. I know that salvation is a process, a journey through life here on earth towards eternal life in heaven. I cannot change what I have done in the past and I should not worry about what will happen in the future. I have been given a choice for today, for this moment only. How I choose to live today, in this moment, is all that counts. If I get that right, if I do what I can as a disciple and have faith in Jesus’ promise, then I think my future salvation will take care of itself. I choose to not live in false confidence or fearful anticipation but in joyful hope.



Saturday, March 12, 2016

Mob Mentality

5th Sunday of Lent
Cycle C

That was some mob that day. They had her dead to rights and the bloodlust was rising. I imagine there were three types of people in that mob that day. There were the self-righteous Pharisees all puffed up with moral indignation, trying to trap Jesus. There were the law-and-order types who felt it was their duty to uphold the law, especially when the case was cut-and-dried. And there were the majority who heard the commotion and got caught up in the moment. They joined the mob for the same reasons people join in looting and rioting everywhere. Because in a mob you can get away with anything, even murder.

It’s easy to hide in a mob. You can be anonymous in a crowd. It’s exciting to feel the rush of emotion in the shouting and shoving. It’s exciting to feel you’re part of something important, something big. Mobs and riots make for great stories afterwards, don’t they?

In any case, nobody in the mob really cared about the woman. She was just the catalyst, the tool, the excuse. It could have been anyone, any reason, any excuse. She was just the one who got caught. She didn’t matter to anyone…except Jesus.

Sadly, we have been experiencing mobs a lot lately, haven’t we? Just this week there has been a lot of pushing and shoving at campaign events. Racial protest groups interrupt gatherings and hold demonstrations in the streets. Student groups protest all sorts of things on college campuses these days. We haven’t seen protests like this since the 1960’s.

We are dragging people out into the public square for judgment a lot these days. But the mobs are not just in the streets, are they? And the violence is not all physical, is it? Today, if we disagree with someone’s politics or religion or even their Pinterest choices, we can easily let them, and the world, know about it. We have become social detractors. We no longer simply disagree with a person’s positions, we have to attack them personally. We have to drag them out into the open, throw them down into the dirt, and pick up our stones.

We detract from people all the time, don’t we? The mob today is often not in the streets but on social media. We can hide in the mob online. We can post whatever we want; we can comment on things we know little about, going along with the crowd. We hold up the person caught up in a moral failing, no matter how small, to derision and mockery. But just as often the person holding to a moral principle is also dragged out into the public square and mocked for being so out of touch. Things have been turned upside down. The person espousing high moral values is often shouted down, called a bigot and a fool, while the person living an openly scandalous life is held in esteem, someone to be admired and emulated.

Detraction, like its counterpart gossip, is actually a sin. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses it.

“Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.”

That last phrase is the key. “So that he may be saved”. The job of the Christian is not to detract or to condemn. The mission of the Church is to save souls, and we approach each and every person from the standpoint that they have inherent dignity and worth. We are not to automatically think the worst of people but the best. We are to give each person the benefit of the doubt and not jump to conclusions or question their motives. Because we love them. We are called to strive to understand their intentions. Because we love them. We are called to gently correct them when we see that their beliefs and actions may jeopardize their salvation. Because we love them.

That’s what we do with our children, isn’t it? If we see that their behavior will cause them harm, we correct them. Not because we have the power to do so but because we want what’s best for them. Jesus treated the woman with mercy. His condemnation would have cost her her life. All the mob was waiting for was a signal from him. He had power over her very life, and he showed her mercy.

His simple statement, “he who has no sin throw the first stone”, showed mercy not only towards the woman but to the mob as well. He taught them a very important lesson when he shifted the focus back on them. They were shamed by his comment, and because of that were saved from committing an even bigger sin.

Mercy is holding power over someone and not exercising it. Mercy is not punishing someone even when it would seem like justice to do so. Mercy is compassion. Mercy is treating someone with dignity just because they are another human being. We often think of mercy in terms of crime and punishment. Spare someone their life when they are helpless. Not treating them as they deserve to be treated.

But most times it’s the small mercies that make the most difference.

Mercy is when you keep your sarcastic comments to yourself, even though you think they’re really clever. Mercy is letting it slide when someone says something that offends you, because your relationship with them is more important than having the last word. Mercy is giving them a hug and forgiving them when they apologize. Mercy is not posting that comment on Facebook or Twitter, just to make yourself feel superior. Oftentimes mercy is not what you do but what you don’t do. Sometimes it’s showing restraint.

Mercy is letting go of your stone.

Mercy is a gift we give to one another. Mercy doesn’t always require the sinner to make the first step, but there must always be repentance. The woman never asked for forgiveness. She never asked for mercy. She seemed resigned to her fate. Jesus never addressed her particular sin. He wasn’t concerned with her past, only her future. He was concerned with her salvation, and that required her to change her behavior.

Many people have used this passage to say, “See, Jesus didn’t condemn her adultery. Jesus isn’t about sin, he’s all about love,” and they use it to rationalize all sorts of bad behavior. Because to them, love means accepting people, no matter what they do. But Jesus did acknowledge that what she had done was sinful. He said, “Go and sin no more”. But he wasn’t talking just about her adultery. He didn’t say, “Don’t do it again”, but a more general “Do not sin anymore.” He was requiring a lot more than the avoidance of this particular vice. He didn’t want her to sin in any way anymore. He was calling her to repentance and conversion. He wanted her to change her life. He was accepting of her as a person, but he wasn’t accepting of her life choices. Jesus is all about love, and love is oftentimes telling people that what they are doing is jeopardizing their chance for salvation.

We can show mercy to ourselves as well. And we should. Mercy is moving on and not dwelling on the past. As we heard in our first reading today, “Remember not the things of the past. See, I am doing something new!”

And from St. Paul,
“forgetting what lies behind 
but straining forward to what lies ahead, 
I continue my pursuit toward the goal, 
the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”

Showing mercy to yourself means you don’t hang onto your mistakes. Just as we shouldn’t hold grudges against others, we shouldn’t cling to our guilt. We must forgive ourselves and always look forward.

Experiencing Jesus Christ in our lives, especially when we feel the lowest and most worthless, is an uplifting thing. He never condemns us, but he knows how we feel when we sin. He knows our shame. He more than anyone else knows the reality of sin and how deadly it can be. He gently corrects us and sees beyond our behavior, because that’s what you do when you love somebody.

He takes our face in his hands and lifts it up to his. He looks into our eyes and shows us the depths of his love. Think of how that woman must have felt that day. Think of how Jesus’ mercy must have not only have saved her life but transformed it. Think about that the next time you are given the opportunity to show mercy to someone. Will you be Jesus to them?

Think about that the next time you require mercy. Will you be willing to change?


Burning Bush

3rd Sunday of Lent

Cycle C

How did you first encounter God?

Everyone at some time or another experiences the presence of God in their lives. Even atheists do; they just don’t recognize or acknowledge it. Sometimes it is a strong, life-changing experience, like Moses experienced in today’s first reading. God does reveal himself to us boldly and miraculously. Moses saw God face-to-face, and it caused him to turn away in fear and awe.

For Moses, this encounter with God for the first time changed the direction of his life forever. No more would he be a simple shepherd in the desert, worried only about his family and surviving day-to-day in the desert. God called Moses to a very important task. He was to change the course not only of Hebrew history, but ours as well. Moses was called and he could have said no. But his yes to that call has had repercussions for thousands of years.

These types of experiences are actually not that uncommon. We read all the time about people who allow God to change the course of their lives. St. Francis of Assisi’s vision in the chapel of San Damiano. St. Juan Diego’s encounter with the Blessed Virgin. The election of Pope Saint John XXIII. There are thousands of stories of people who have literally been forced to see the face of God, and all are given a choice at that point. Do they answer that call or go on with their lives as before.

We remember those who have answered yes because they go on to change the world. There are probably many, many more who turned away from God’s call and we may never know the consequences of their refusal for their or our lives. I believe that each and every human being will encounter God is some meaningful way in their lives, and all of us will be given the choice of what to do with our lives afterwards.

I just saw the movie, Risen. I highly recommend it. It is a story of miraculous encounters with the risen Christ. Each of the characters, from the apostles to Pontius Pilate to the Roman tribune are touched by the reality that the Nazarene has been raised. And it is life changing for each of them in different ways.

You see, once you experience the reality of the risen Christ your life will never be the same. Even if you reject him you will feel the effects of that rejection. One path leads to joy and peace, and sacrifice and usually suffering. The other leads also to sacrifice and suffering, but without the joy and peace.

For over 25 years I have had the privilege of walking alongside over 150 adults who have answered the call to become Catholic. Each of them has a unique story of their call. Some are dramatic. Some have gone through some horrific experiences. Some have battled some pretty strong demons. But all have one thing in common: they all were looking for that personal encounter with God. Something had called them to the Church, but it wasn’t until they experienced the touch of Jesus that they felt they had made the right decision. It wasn’t until then that they felt at home.

We may call these encounters conversion experiences, and they are, but for most of us our conversions are much more subtle. We encounter God in the stuff or our everyday lives, many, many times, and each encounter requires a response from us to God’s outreach.

Most of us experience God in the simple things all around us. A newborn child, a lover’s kiss, the awesome beauty of a landscape, a sunrise or sunset. Most of us don’t have life shattering encounters with our God. Most of us encounter Him in countless little ways throughout the days of our lives. I think actually those encounters are the most lasting and the strongest. Because they build upon one another.

You know what we call these daily encounters with God? Grace. Grace is simply God touching our lives in some way. Sometimes His grace is strong and obvious, like on your wedding day or when you held your firstborn for the first time. Sometimes it hits you over the head like a rock. We can be shaken, like Moses was, when we encounter God for the first time. It can be life-changing and can re-direct our lives in ways we never imagined.

Has that ever happened to you? Has something soul-shaking ever happened to you? I often see it in families who have suffered the sudden loss of a loved one, or who have sickness thrust upon them. Times like that force us to focus on the fact that we are ultimately not in control of our lives, no matter how much we want to believe that. But what usually happens is that when we finally release our grip God takes over. We each have or own burning bush. We each have that one encounter that changes everything. The call of God burns like that bush, but while it may consume us, it never destroys us.

Grace builds upon grace. It never diminishes, it only gets stronger. Just like the road to perdition is built upon many, many small rejections of God’s grace. Most of us are never given a single opportunity to accept or reject God. We are given thousands.

Lent is the perfect time to encounter the risen Christ. How have you been preparing for that encounter? Have you taken the time to pray, fast and give alms this Lenten season? Have you taken advantage of the most awesome example of God’s grace, to see the Lord face-to-face in the confessional? You see, the most obvious result of saying yes to God’s call is to change your life. We are all called to repentance, each and every day. Conversion requires repentance. We must first see ourselves for who we truly are, coldly and honestly, before we can accept the burning fire of God’s love in our lives.

And while that conversion experience is a very personal one, it will also affect those around you. Like Moses and all the saints, once they said yes they changed. They changed their view of themselves, they changed their view of God, and they then went out and changed the world. Will you do the same?