4th Sunday of EasterCycle 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.