Monday, August 26, 2013

Will only a few people be saved

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. As he made his way through the various towns and villages on his route, he stopped and taught those who came out to hear him. He was becoming quite a celebrity. Sometimes thousands came out. Yet he knew that most of these folks were merely curious. They were not truly seekers after the truth. In fact, someone along the way asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

My guess is that this was a serious question. Maybe this person assumed that he or she was safely in and asked the question in a somewhat smug, self-righteous way. Or maybe this person asked because he or she was worried about being left out.

Of course, Jesus rarely answered a question directly. Instead, He turns the question back on the questioner. He says, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and not be able to.”

What does Jesus mean by the narrow gate? Does he mean that the number of people who will get into heaven is limited?  This is a frequent topic at the men’s bible studies that I lead.  As an engineer and a logical person, I would like to give a precise answer.  I’d like to say, “yes, 95% will be saved”.  So, each one of us only has to be better than that bottom 5%.  And, salvation then becomes a competition.  But, salvation doesn’t work that way.  We’re not in competition with our fellow man to get to heaven.  In fact, the more of them that we help get to heaven, the better our chances are of making it also. 

We can’t definitively say what Jesus meant when he said that the gate is narrow, but we do know that anything worth having in this world requires work. You want a strong body, you work for it. You want a strong marriage, you work at it. You want a strong company, you work at it. Why should it be any different in our spiritual life?   

A few years ago Karen Phelps, a distance runner, wrote these challenging words, “On this particular day, I didn’t feel like running at all, but I made myself because running is a sport you have to practice every day. I wanted to win races, so I had a set plan for training.  In short, I ran every day, no matter what.”

“One day,” she continues, “as I jogged along on my training run, it came to me that daily training was what my spiritual life needed. Do you know what I’ve learned? Sometimes you may not feel like praying or reading the Bible or going out of your way to help others. But if you’re in training--physical or spiritual--you’ll do it.” Karen Phelps is right on target.

            Today, many seem to have convinced themselves that the Christian life is easy, that it requires only a minimal output of effort. We can turn it over to our priest or deacon and focus on our secular affairs with little or no thought of God.

A recent Gallup Poll found that fewer than ten percent of Christians in this land could be called deeply committed. And most Christians do not know basic Christian teachings and do not act differently because of their Christian experience.

            The narrow gate suggests that Christ loves us whoever we may be and whatever we have done, but Christ expects that we will not stay where we are. Christ expects us to agonize, to strive mightily to live according to the standard he has established for us.  He wants us to discipline us so that we will be fit to share eternity with him as we hear in today’s second reading.

            About twenty years ago, Father Jim Willig came here for a mission talk.  I still remember one thing that he said during that mission.  He said: “The path to heaven is heaven and the path to hell is hell.”  When I heard that, I thought that he had said it backwards.  Everyone knows that partying and having a good time may be great now but it will land us in hell.  Then, I thought about it a little and realized that that when I had followed God’s will for my life I found peace and joy.  But when I did my own thing, in the long run, it brought me sorrow and pain.  So, truly, the path to heaven is heaven and the path to hell is hell. 

            As members of St Francis De Sales parish in Lebanon, Ohio, we have it so easy that we might not have a sense of urgency about entering through the narrow gate. We might believe that we are good enough if we just come to church on Sunday.  We might look at our friends and neighbors and think that we’re doing well spiritually because many of them don’t even go to church.  We might watch the news or reality TV shows and think that we’re are pretty good.  But Jesus tells us: strive, discipline, help others, and some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.

“Lord,” someone asked, “will only a few people be saved?” Jesus answered, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate because many will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Be like Jeremiah and you might get thrown into a cistern

In the first reading today, the princes tell the king that Jeremiah is demoralizing the soldiers and the people.   Jeremiah was a great prophet who often reminded the Israelites of their sinful ways.  He tells them what they need to hear but not what they want to hear.  For this, he was thrown into a cistern.

Archbishop Schnurr wrote an editorial for the Cincinnati Enquirer last Thursday titled: “support marriage, don’t redefine it”.  Like Jeremiah, he is telling us what we need to hear but it isn’t what some want to hear. 

Speaking the truth on controversial issues was difficult for Jeremiah as it is for Archbishop Schnurr and for many of us.  Some would say that it is more compassionate not to bring these types of issues up.  It’s certainly safer to say nothing.  But, we must ask if this is what Jesus would have us do.

The key in addressing issues such as this is compassion.  We must always love our neighbor, even if that neighbor vehemently disagrees with us. 

In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that families will be divided.  He says: “Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

What was true in Jesus time still is true today.  Some of Jesus teachings will divide us.  There will be some who agree with Jesus and His Church and some who disagree.  Two issues which divide many in our nation today are abortion and same sex marriage.  In both cases, some have taken the position that the teachings of Jesus and His Church are wrong.  In fact, some go so far to call those who proclaim these teachings to be uncompassionate or bigoted. 

I would encourage everyone to learn why the Church teaches what it does on both of these issues.  We know that the early Church opposed both abortion and homosexual acts and that this opposition has continued for the past two thousand years.  Why does our Church oppose this when it might be easier for it to just keep silent, as some others have done?  If you have questions about this teaching and don’t believe that you can fully embrace it, I would encourage you to talk to Father Bernie or me about it.  Or you could visit a good Catholic web site, like to better understand this issue. 

And finally, I’d like to ask all of you to pray.  Pray for those women who are carrying a child that they don’t want.  Pray that they will have the courage to carry it to term even if they would, at birth, give the child up for adoption.  Pray for those with same sex attraction.  They certainly have a large cross to bear.   And pray for our families and our nation that we can heal the wounds that divide us.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The red bicycle

Michael had spotted a shiny, red bicycle in the store window.  Then, he prayed to Jesus every day that he would get that bicycle for Christmas.  So, Christmas came and Michael ran downstairs to see the gifts under the tree.  But, there was no bicycle.  So, Michael took his wagon and headed down the street to church.  He sneaked into church and picked up the statue of Mary from the nativity.  He put it into his wagon, took it home, and stashed it under his bed.  Then, he prayed:  “Jesus, I have your mother.  When I get my bicycle, you can have her back.”
Michael was certainly persistent in his prayers.  Today’s first reading and the Gospel are both about persistence in our prayers.  In the first reading, Abraham negotiates with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  He negotiates God down from saving the cities if fifty good people are found to saving them with only ten good people. 

In the Gospel, Jesus tells the story about the man who goes at midnight to get three loaves of bread from his friend.  Jesus tells us:  “he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.”

When our lives get difficult, whether it’s running out of bread when hospitality is called for, or running low on faith at critical moments, we are tempted to think that the Holy One is asleep behind a closed door. We feel very much on the outside, like Michael who didn’t get his bicycle. At these times it’s important to hear the keyword in the parable – the man went to the door of a “Friend.”

The parable presumes a favorable response. In need the petitioner went to a friend, not an uncaring, aloof stranger, but a friend. It was a setting where hospitality and generosity were expected.

Jesus shows us God’s hospitality. He provides the best bread for the hunger we face on our sometimes arduous journey.  We all know that it’s tiring to keep trying to do what is right and fair. It’s discouraging to love those who are less than loving. It’s overwhelming to address issues of poverty, education or racism. It’s scary to face serious illness or the physical and emotional hardships of old-age. It’s difficult to protect our children in this carefree and sometimes evil world.  The journey is hard, if not now, there will be moments.

The parable implies a question: if a friend would give us the bread we need at an inconvenient time, how much more will God give to those who turn to him in hunger?  This is not the testing, distant God some of us grew up with; but a friend, ready to give us the nourishment we need, and must have, so that we can feed the hungers of others we meet on the journey.

I always thought asking, seeking, knocking were kinds of guarantees. If I prayed the right prayer hard enough and long enough, what I asked for, I would get. When I sought, I would find. When I knocked, I would get quick and easy entry.  Today, I hear Jesus clearly say to us, “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?”

The Holy Spirit.  Not riches, power, fame, or health.  But the Holy Spirit.

How often do we ask Jesus for the Holy Spirit?   I suspect that we don’t often ask for the Holy Spirit.  Instead, we are probably asking for a red bicycle or maybe a red Ferrari.

Jesus gives us what we need to help us get to heaven.    Jesus told his apostles that he would send the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, when he left.  Jesus knew what they needed.  And he did send the Holy Spirit when they were gathered in the upper room at Pentecost.  This Holy Spirit changed eleven frightened men into great leaders who were willing to die to spread Christ’s message.   This was the beginning of the Church that still today is guided by the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus says God will give us the Holy Spirit. St Paul tells us the God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness.  He breathes new life into difficult situations and gives us hope when we are ready to throw in the towel.  Anytime we feel a need for the Spirit -- ask, seek, knock.  As we pray for that gift, we are knocking at the door and inside is a Friend ready to give us the good bread we need.

The next time you pray the Our Father,ask for the only gift that you need, the Holy Spirit.  And the next time you receive the bread, the Eucharist, in Holy Communion, give thanks for the Holy Spirit and for the Friend who gives you exactly what you need.