Saturday, November 19, 2011

Heaven anyone?

One day, three men arrived at the Pearly Gates in Heaven. St. Peter was there to greet them and asked the first man, “What is your religion?” He replied, “I’m Episcopalian.” St. Peter looked on his list, found the man’s name and said, “Go to room 24. But be very quiet as you pass by room 8.” He asked the same question of the second man, “Sir, what is your religion.” The second man replied, “I’m a Methodist.” Again, St. Peter checked the list and found the man’s name and said, “Please, go to room 14. But be very quiet as you pass by room 8.” Finally the third man steps up and is asked the same question, to which he replies, “I’m a Baptist.” St. Peter said. “Go to room 21. But be very quiet as you pass by room 8.” The third man’s curiosity got the better of him so he asked, “St. Peter, I’m more than a bit curious. You told each of us to be quiet as we pass by room 8. What’s going on in room 8?” St. Peter responded, “Well the Catholics are in room 8, and they think they're the only ones up here.”

Can I ask by a show of hands, how many of you want to get to Heaven? I hope that every hand in this church would be raised in answer to that important question. Of course, we all want to get to Heaven. Heaven is our goal; our destination; our final reward. But how many of us have actually thought about what it takes to get there? What constitutes living a life worthy of Heaven? Does it simply mean being a Roman Catholic as our joke suggests? Does it mean going to Mass every Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation? Does Heaven come when we’ve gone to Confession regularly or prayed our Rosary daily or fulfilled certain devotional practices? Are these the things that will help us to merit the reward of Heaven?

Well, on this last day of our Church year, as we celebrate this Solemnity of Jesus Christ our King, our Gospel passage puts before us the answer to this very question. In this passage from Matthew, Jesus is sitting on His Throne, judging all of creation. Our King is deciding who will be welcomed into the glory of Heaven and who will not. He gives us this image of the King separating people into two categories – sheep and goats. And guess what we want to be? We want to be sheep! The sheep are welcomed into “the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world.” The goats are sent off to eternal punishment. And Jesus is not mysterious about what makes someone a sheep as opposed to a goat.

In this passage, Jesus essentially gives to us the criteria for gaining Heaven. So, for all of you who raised your hands today hoping for the glory of Heaven, here are the criteria: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me…whatever you did for one of the least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The criteria for entrance into Heaven will be the kind of life that we lived and the ways in which we strove to reach out to those most in need around us – those who are hungry or thirsty or strangers and alone or naked or sick or in prison.

The question for salvation is essentially this? Do we have hearts that have been converted, transformed, and changed to love as Jesus loves – to love always, to see everyone with hearts moved to compassion, to reach out even and especially to those that the rest of society has deemed unimportant or worse disposable. Do we have categories in our hearts where we have decided that some people are unworthy of our love and concern?

So what happened to going to Mass and going to Confession and praying our Rosary and saying our devotions? Why aren’t those in the criteria? Does this mean that these things are not important? Of course not. But what it means is that we need to understand them properly in this economy of salvation. An improper understanding of the spiritual life of the follower of Christ is to view these things as the goal or as an end in and of themselves. They are not the goal, they are the means to the goal. So, we do these things not as the culmination of our spiritual life, but we do these things as the way to cultivate our heart so that we can love like Christ our King.

It isn’t easy to love the way Christ loves. In fact, on our own accord, it is probably impossible. For whatever reason, we are born with an ingrained selfishness; a primary concern for our own welfare before that of others. The more we allow Christ to transform us, the more He changes the direction of our love – away from ourselves and always towards others. And that’s why He gave us all of these things to serve us on this journey to Heaven – He gave us the Sacraments, the Gospels; He gave us one another – the Church – all so that we can receive everything we need to get to Heaven. And so we should treasure and nurture these things as the essential elements that make us into the Christians we are called to be.

St. Augustine famously said of the Eucharist, “We become what we receive.” And so as Jesus satisfies our spiritual hunger and thirst through the great gift of His Body and Blood, He also teaches us to be like Him; to become what we receive. As we are nourished by Him, He asks us to go out from this place and offer nourishment to the hungry and thirsty around us – not because we deem them worthy or unworthy of our charity, but for no other reason than they are loved by God and so by us. We come to Church as spiritually naked people, but as St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians, “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” As He covers our nakedness with Himself, we are called to go out and cloth those who are naked, to cover up those who have no home.

As Jesus has offered us freedom from the sin that kept us in chains and in bondage, He invites us to visit those in prison and speak to them about the true freedom they too can find in Christ.

You know, we call what we gather here to do each Sunday the Mass. Did you know this word comes from the Latin verb mittere, which means “to send.” In other words, by the very title of what we are here to do, it tells us something. This Mass must be in direct relationship to what happens outside of these doors, outside of this church. We come here and are filled with God’s Holy Word and receive the Sacred Body and Blood of His Son for one reason – to be sent! We are sent into the world as the very presence of Christ to transform it. We are sent into the world to literally love it to holiness; love it to Heaven. And in the process we get ourselves there too! It is no coincidence that the very last words that the priest says at the end of every Mass are “Go!” Go in the peace of Christ! Go in peace to love and serve the Lord! Or my favorite change in the new translation of the Mass that we will begin to pray next week, “Go and glorify the Lord by your life!”

So, who wants to get to Heaven? It starts here. Let Jesus lift the sins that bind you. Let the Lord fill you and satisfy you with His Holy Word. Let the Lord transform you into Himself through the grace of His Body and Blood that we receive and then go and feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned – LOVE as Jesus loves without restriction; without limit because “whatever you did for one of the least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Do this and Heaven will surely be yours!

May the Lord give you peace.

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