Sermon: The Most Important Grace of All
“By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
Over the last few weeks we have been talking about the “last things” – death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. These “last things” are brought to our mind by the upcoming end to the Church’s year, corresponding with the natural cycle around us. The Sacred Scriptures remind us that all this around us will come to an end at the second coming of Christ. The prophet Malachi foretells today, “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the LORD of hosts.” The Church reminds us that not only will the world come to an end but so, on a day equally as unsure, will you.
Last Sunday, we looked at death as a necessary passage to the next life, but also as an evil introduced into the human condition by original sin. Today, the Lord sets before us another important and necessary condition for obtaining the life of the blessed: the grace of final perseverance. Christ tells us today, “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” What is this perseverance of which he speaks that is necessary for securing eternal life?
In order for us to understand the grace of final perseverance that is necessary for our salvation, we need to recall what it means to be in a state of grace. It is the state of grace that determines our salvation at the end of our lives – not whether we were “a good person” or whether at some point we “accepted Jesus” – although both of these can be very important for being in a state of grace in the first place. Recall the beginning of creation: God created Adam and Eve in a state of friendship with Him – in a state of grace – but they lost that grace through sin. That original sin held dominion in the world until the coming of Christ, when by His life, death, and resurrection He brought harmony back to the world. Although the power of sin is now broken, we continue to inherit fallen human nature at our birth, which means that we were born into a state of sin. Through Baptism, we participated for the first time in the saving death and Resurrection of Christ, thus coming into a state of grace. That grace – for all but the holiest of saints – is lost at some point in life through mortal sin, but can be restored by a further participation in the mystery of Christ’s life (in this case, through the Sacrament of Confession).
Our most important goal, then, is to arrive at the end of our life in a state not of sin but of grace, through the forgiveness of our sins (effected, particularly, through the Sacrament of Confession). This is not quite as easy as it sounds, though. Each day we face temptations to sin, temptations that could pull us off the path towards eternal life. This is why we need the grace of final perseverance. Final perseverance is a specific gift from God that helps us to persevere in a state of grace until the very end of our lives, thus assuring us of salvation. As our Lord tells us, “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
No human person has the power to merit this state of final perseverance on his own. This is because the grace of final perseverance assures us of salvation, but none of us have the power to strictly deserve salvation – rather, it is a free gift from God. Interestingly, though, God’s action on His own would also be (according to the wisdom of His providence) insufficient to obtain this grace for us. That seems crazy to say – that God’s work could be insufficient for our salvation – but we need to remember that God gave us free will, and that He desires for us to cooperate in His plan of salvation. Thus, in order to figure out how we can obtain this absolutely essential grace of final perseverance – without which eternal life in Heaven will not be possible – we need to look at its causes on both the human and divine levels.
According to the Council of Trent, “the gift of perseverance can come only from Him who has the power to confirm the standing and to raise the fallen.” That is to say, it is a free gift from God. We know that God is a loving Father, and a loving father wants to give good gifts to his children when they ask for them. He takes delight when his children ask him for things that he knows will promote their ultimate good. Thus, even though we cannot strictly speaking deserve this gift of final perseverance – of remaining in a state of grace until the end of our lives – it is something that God wants to give us when we ask Him for it. Thus, we should pray every day that God give us this singularly important grace.
A good time to do that is at the end of each day before going to bed. One of the most powerful tools for growing in holiness is the daily examination of conscience. This is the best prayer for the end of the day. In the examination of conscience, we ask God to illuminate our minds to know both the good and virtuous actions that we have performed with His help and also the sins that we have committed, giving thanks for the good and asking forgiveness for the bad. After looking over our day and examining your conscience, if you are in a state of grace you could make a prayer for final perseverance like this: “Thank you, God, for preserving me in your grace today. Help me persevere in your grace until the very end of my life. Amen.”
In addition to the divine cause of final perseverance, we also need to look at its human cause – ourselves. At the end of our lives, we will be given a choice between eternity with God in Heaven and eternity without Him in Hell. It might seem ridiculous that anyone would choose the latter choice – eternal separation and punishment. However, this choice at the end of our lives will be conditioned by the habituation of our will in this life. That is, if we make a habit of choosing for God in this life, at the moment of final decision, we will easily make the right choice for Him in eternity (which is what final perseverance is all about). However, if we make a habit of choosing things other than God in this life – placing creatures above their creator – our wills will not choose eternity with God because they already have a deeply ingrained habit of choosing things other than Him.
There are many ways that we can habituate ourselves to choosing for God rather than against Him. These are what we call the virtues. A virtue is a firmly rooted disposition of the will – a habit, more or less – by which we choose the good. There are many different virtues that can assist us in training our wills to choose God over temporal goods, but I would like to draw your attention to one that might surprise you: Cheerfulness. Yes, the virtue of cheerfulness can be a great aid in forming ourselves to be ready to receive God’s gift of final perseverance.
Our Lord’s words in the Gospel of Luke today remind us of another time when he foretold difficulties to come to the Apostles. On the night before He died, St. John records Christ’s beautiful farewell discourse to the Apostles. After describing many trials and tribulations through which they will have to pass, He tells them, “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
Why is cheerfulness so conducive to salvation? First, cheerfulness is attractive. People want to be around other people who are cheerful and pleasant, not those who are grouchy, bitter, and complaining. Cheerfulness is the beginning of spiritual fruitfulness because bringing others to Christ is one of the surest signs that we ourselves are growing in holiness. Personal holiness and apostolic zeal (that is, the desire to bring others to Christ) are meant to go hand in hand. We will hit a road block in our own growth in holiness and in our relationship with Christ if we are not bringing others to encounter Him as well. Cheerfulness is an essential trait to doing that.
Cheerfulness is also related to the virtue of fortitude, or courage. The kind of perseverance that Christ speaks of today is definitely one that requires courage. He talks about giving testimony to Him before kings and governors, being handed over by relatives and friends, and even being put to death. Cheerfulness too, in a smaller and quieter way, gives us the chance to practice this kind of courage. Sometimes, after a long day, after getting disappointing news, or just not having things go our way, it is easy just to be grouchy and irritable. But this is to give in to cowardice and despair. When we refuse to put failure and frustration behind us in order to be cheerful towards others, we give in to the vice of despair, assuming that things are not going to get better and cowardice, which refuses to confront the difficulties in our lives. Despairing about the little things of life – the TV remote that never works, the car window that’s always broke, or the drain that’s always plugged – might not seem like a big deal, but despair about the little things builds up a habit of despair that could lead us to reject God because we lack the virtue of hope. Cheerfulness, on the other hand, even in the face of the seemingly insignificant challenges of everyday life, creates a habit of hope within us. When we are cheerful, we more readily overcome cowardice and hope in God’s promise of eternal life, and thus prepare ourselves to receive that critical grace of final perseverance.
Many people might object to this insistence on the importance of cheerfulness. They would say that it ignores the serious problems we face in our world. “I’m not a pessimist,” says the person with this attitude, “I’m just a realist!” However, this is a caricature of cheerfulness. True cheerfulness is not the attitude of the golden retriever puppy that always seems to wear a goofy grin. Cheerfulness addresses the gravity of evil, but with the hope inspired by our Lord’s words: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world!” Cheerfulness helps us to recognize that you are not the savior of the world. Everything does not depend on you! So be of good cheer: Christ has already overcome the world by dying on the Cross and rising from the dead for your salvation!
Cheerfulness is not the end of the story, the only thing necessary for the world’s salvation, but it is an important step along the way to preparing our hearts for the grace of final perseverance. Every day, we should renew our hope in Christ’s salvation that He offers us, asking for the grace to place our confidence more fully in Him, and to reflect more perfectly the peace that comes from that confidence through cheerfulness towards others. With hearts slowly perfected by progress in virtue, we can have a firm hope that the Lord will grant us the singularly important grace of final perseverance – remaining in a state of grace until the very end of our days, and thus spending eternity with Him forever in Heaven.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXXIII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXIX
Image: Angels at the Second Coming by Gustave Dore