Sermon: Heaven and True Love
“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13).
Heaven is all about love. St. Paul tells us, “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” In Heaven there is no faith, because faith is belief in that which we cannot see, and in Heaven we will see God. In Heaven there is no hope, because hope is desire for something that we expect to attain, and in Heaven we will already have attained every good thing that we could possibly expect to attain. So in Heaven, all that remains in love, the fullness of love of which we experience only echoes here in this life.
But what does this have to do with my life here and now? Quite simply, if we desire to have Love for all eternity in Heaven, we need to have love here and now. This is why Christ told His disciples on the night before He died, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” Whether or not we possess God’s love, though, is not merely a subjective measure.
If we took a poll out here on Main Street one afternoon of how someone can go to Heaven, I would bet a lot of money that the most common answer would be, “By being a good person.” You’ve heard me talk about this before, but let me remind you one more time … If you think that being a good person is what gets you into Heaven, then you think that going to Heaven has nothing to do with Jesus.
You don’t have to believe in Jesus to be a good person. There are lots of “good people” in this world who not only do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior of the world, but who forcefully and willfully deny Him. Our Lord, after all, tells us that, “the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Mt 7:13). And yet, everyone except Hitler and Stalin, at the end of their lives, seems to be considered a good person and thus worthy of Heaven.
Furthermore, if you believe that being a good person means that you go to Heaven, then you believe that you can earn the right to go to Heaven. But Christ makes it abundantly clear in the Gospel that Heaven is a free gift generously bestowed by God on those to whom He desires to bestow it. Remember the parable of the laborers (Mt 20), where those who worked only one hour received the same pay as those who worked all day.
What would the second most common answer be? Probably the one offered by our evangelical brothers and sisters, “By accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.” This answer has a big advantage: It says that Heaven has something to do with Jesus. But it falls drastically short as well, because it has nothing to do with charity.
Protestant theology holds that salvation is by faith. Now, they’re on to something. Faith is what justifies us – what makes us holy, what infuses the life of grace in the soul. But faith alone cannot save us, because faith alone would lack love, by which Christ says we are to be identified as His disciples.
The correct answer to the question of “How do you get to go to Heaven?” is this: By possessing supernatural charity. Faith justifies, but it is charity that saves.
What, then, does it mean to possess sanctifying charity? Having God’s charity within us is the same thing that is meant by the traditional Catholic terminology of “the state of grace.” To wit: God created the world in a state of friendship with Him, but man lost that original friendship (that is, love) when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit. The entire human race was then held captive to sin until the coming of Christ. This is what we mean when we say that Christ “saved us from our sins” (a phrase that we likely repeat often without really understanding). Mankind was under the power of sin until the coming of Christ, and no one was able to enter Heaven until His Death and Resurrection – good person or not.
Because of the effects of Adam’s sin, we were born not into God’s charity as Adam was, but rather under the lingering power of sin. Fortunately for us, though, we did not have to wait for thousands of years as did the patriarchs and prophets, but just for our parents to bring us to the saving fount of Baptism, through which God’s charity came to exist in our hearts.
Unfortunately for us, though, even though we were delivered from Adam’s sin, its effects linger in our hearts. We still are afflicted by concupiscence, the tendency to sin. Because of that, we can even fall into grave sins, mortal sins, with which charity – the love of God – is not compatible because they direct us to a different final end rather than heaven (usually, towards something of this earth, which we heard in the second reading is passing away).
When we commit a sin that is incompatible with our final end of God, we lose God’s charity within us. Not having God’s charity is really bad news, because if we don’t remain in His love in this life, we cannot expect to live in it in the next.
Once again, though, there is good news for us poor sinners. Christ instituted another sacrament to restore God’s charity to our hearts – confession. Further good news is that He instituted another sacrament that would increase charity in us in order, if we are in a state of grace, being free from grave sin, to help us resist falling into grave sins in the future.
This is why “accepting Jesus” is not something that should be a part of our Catholic vocabulary. I realize that you have heard it used by your fellow Catholics, and you have probably even have heard it in homilies, but it betrays a “once saved, always saved” theology that is totally foreign to the Spirit-guided teaching of the Church and an authentic interpretation of the Scriptures. We are saved, to put it simply, by God’s love, so long as it continues to dwell in our hearts, not by merely “accepting Jesus.”
Okay, sounds good, right? So long as I have been baptized and confessed any mortal sins I might have committed (which, trust me, is a broader category than you’re probably imagining), then I’m good! Well, not quite.
Christ tells us two important things at the end of today’s Gospel about what it means to love. First, He tells us that we must love others – not just as we would like to be loved, the Old Testament golden rule – but that we must love others as He has loved us. That’s a high standard! Christ tell us, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), and that is precisely how Christ loved us.
Furthermore, He tells us that, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Even though we can’t earn our way into Heaven by being a good person, people will rightly judge whether or not we are Christ’s disciples by how we outwardly manifest God’s charity which, hopefully, is dwelling within us. That is true both of each one of us and of the Church as a whole.
A lot of people object to Christianity or Catholicism because, they claim, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference in the lives of those who practice it. Catholics, they correctly point out, are still grumpy, mean, and unkind to others. One of my professors in college liked to rebut this argument by saying, “Yes, but imagine what an even more terrible person I might be if I weren’t a Catholic!” (That is, if he didn’t have the graces of the sacraments to assist him in growing in virtue.)
That point, of course, is entirely valid, but I’m not sure it’s terribly convincing. Rather, Christ tell us, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Instead of having to justify ourselves, why don’t we stop giving others excuses? Instead of giving scandal and driving people away from the Church by our lack of charity, why don’t we show that we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another?
As you’ve heard me say before, it worthwhile for us to consider how we are living the Gospel message both as individual followers of Christ, and also as a parish that is seeking to be Christ’s disciples. So how do people see St. John’s love for one another?
They see it when we intentionally welcome other people to be a part of our community. They see it when we go out of our way to greet them after Mass instead of just talking to the same people we always talk to (or perhaps more likely, taking off straight for our cars). They see it when we sit in the middle of the pew instead of on the ends so that there is room for newcomers. They see it when we leave the pews near the cry room open for the young families who valiantly try to survive Mass with their screaming and seething little ones. They see it when we smile at those families and tell them how adorable their children are instead of giving them the evil eye that makes it clear that we wish they would just go away and we could have our peace and quiet.
They also see our love in our impact on the community. They see it when our parishioners serve the homeless through the Interfaith Hospitality Network. They see it when we support pro-life apostolates. They see it every Advent when people bring generous gifts for the needy.
While all of these outreaches are great, I think there is an important way that we’re coming up short. I was told recently, “If you want to identify what’s really important to your parish, look at your budget.” Now, within our parish, many people are generous to the poor, and the context of our parish is critical to the fact that we are able to come together and do great things for our community. But there’s a rather embarrassing secret that I think it’s time to let you in on: Exactly zero percent of our parish budget is dedicated to helping the poor and needy. I think it’s time for that to change.
Yes, there are “Project Care” envelopes and the poor boxes by the doors, and we use the funds from those to help people who need assistance. But that is outside the actual parish budget – it’s just money in and money out. Furthermore, we’ve also been using those contributions for other kinds of social outreach beyond just direct aid to those in need, and in the future, those Project Care contributions will be limited to direct assistance. Dedicating money from our actual parish budget for outreach to our community will guarantee the stability and purposefulness of that outreach.
I understand that there is a logical criticism to be made of this proposal: You can see every week in the bulletin that we are not bringing in the amount of money we would like to see. But if you try to get to that ideal financial place before starting to be generous, I think we all know that you will never get there. I have also sought the input and support of both our Finance Council and our Parish Pastoral Council about this initiative and appreciate their support.
Committing ourselves financially to helping the poor and needy in our community is also critical for engaging younger people. Millennials – that much-maligned generational cohort that now controls more of the country’s spending power than any other generation – are extremely socially conscious. They chose to buy shoes, glasses, jackets, and coffee from companies that make a big deal of giving a portion of their profits to causes that they care about. Many of our parishioners who have been here their entire lives have a deep sense of investment in the physical structure of our parish and are happy to see money spent on its maintenance.
Obviously that’s important, and we are always going to take care of the investments we’ve made in our buildings. But you have to admit that that isn’t the sort of thing that inspires people to care about a place they’re just getting to know. We desperately need to engage this younger generation in the future of St. John’s and the future of the Catholic Church, and they won’t take us seriously if they don’t see us living the Gospel by our generosity as an institution to those in need.
Furthermore, I don’t know how I can in good conscience stand up here and ask you to give ten percent of your income to the Church and to the poor when our parish doesn’t do the same. We can’t do that right away – we’re going to start with one percent in the next year’s budget. It’s also important to me that parishioners get the chance to nominate worthy causes that you think should be recipients of our generosity (preferably, causes in which our parishioners are already volunteering or that are serving our own parishioners).
Charity is what we hope to experience for all eternity. It is the means by which God elevates our nature to be like His and thus to share in His Heavenly glory. It is also the means by which Christ wants us to be known here and now as His disciples. By living charity both as individual Christians and together as a parish, we proclaim to the world that we are Jesus’s disciples.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
IV Sunday after Easter, A.D. MMXIX