A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH
Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 1, 2016
Fr. Charlie Fox, Spiritual Director, St. Paul Street Evangelization (www.streetevangelization.com)
St. Paul tells us something critically important in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, something that will help us to think about the meaning of life and our ultimate destiny:
“Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, of course, you fail the test.” (13:5).
“Examine yourselves”—that’s exactly what I’m asking you to do today. It is something I try to do every night before I go to bed, so I’m not asking you to do anything I need to do myself. Each one of us needs to examine herself or himself regularly, to take an honest look in the proverbial mirror and see where we stand with God, or perhaps have made the tragic choice to stand against Him.
The Easter Season we’re celebrating is about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And it’s about the promise of eternal life for all those who believe in Christ and live according to that belief. The readings for today’s Mass give us a rich picture of what this promise of salvation means.
Today’s Second Reading from the Book of Revelation gives us a glorious image of the Heavenly Jerusalem. This image of a city of mind-boggling beauty and size and grandeur shows us what the Church in heaven will be like. We should not pass over this scripture lightly. Rather, each of us should fix the image of this great heavenly city in our minds and hearts right now. This is the city we truly belong to, the city where our true citizenship lies. Baptism has made us citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem, and it’s our job here on Earth to head towards our true home.
“Test yourselves”—St. Paul wants to make sure you don’t take it for granted that you’re heading home to heaven. Going to heaven is not automatic, and death is not its only requirement. For that matter, being what the world calls “a good person” is not the only requirement.
To “head” for a place implies both decision and action on our part. So think for a moment: Where are you headed right now? What is the trajectory of your life at this moment?
Think of this journey like a road trip. Your destination is heaven. Your destination was entered into your spiritual “GPS” at your Baptism. The road is your life here on Earth. Are you moving towards your destination, or is there a voice, your conscience, telling you you’re off course, the way a GPS calls out, “Recalculating”? Every person in the world, at any given moment, is either heading towards or away from heaven. Which way are you headed?
Let’s consider another image. Easter is all about life, eternal life. As humans, we are both body and spirit. That means our bodies can be alive or dead, and we can be spiritually alive or dead. We know that when our bodies die, our souls live on. Even pre-Christian philosophers figured that out. But it is also true that while our bodies are alive, we can become spiritually dead. We receive our first outpouring of spiritual life (“sanctifying grace”) at Baptism, and the Eucharist and the other sacraments help us to grow, heal us, and empower us to offer ourselves to God and others in loving service, and all the while become more and more alive in the Holy Spirit.
Yet just as God’s grace causes life to grow within us, sin can cause us to die spiritually, to lose sanctifying grace. This is what our Catholic tradition calls “mortal” (“deadly”) sin. For a sin to be deadly, three conditions must be met, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: grave matter (the sin is a serious one), full knowledge, and deliberate consent. Some common examples of mortal sins today are skipping Mass on Sunday or a holy day of obligation without a sufficiently serious reason, pornography, cruelty towards other people in ways that do them serious harm, sex outside of marriage, contraception, and getting drunk … just to name a few.
Now, God is not playing games with us or trying to trick us. We cannot accidentally commit a mortal sin. But we also can’t pretend we don’t know what we really do know, or become lazy about learning about God’s commandments (the Catechism is a great place to learn them), or delude ourselves about our ability to make good choices.
Going back to the images of life and health, consider how our bodies function. I could be very healthy in certain ways—at a high level of physical fitness, eating well, and with no problems in my bones or joints. Yet if I have a heart attack, my life is threatened. If I have a more serious form of cancer, I might die, despite being healthy in so many other respects. This is what mortal sin does to the soul. We might be “good people” in lots of ways, but one mortal sin is enough to cause spiritual death.
Even though it already seems like I’m being kind of grim, I want to press this point even further. When someone is in this state of spiritual death, it is possible to remain in that state, to refuse God’s forgiveness, to choose separation from Him again and again. If a person, tragically, stays on this course away from heaven to the end of his or her life, God will not force Himself or heaven on that person. This is where the possibility of hell—eternal separation from God—comes into the picture. God tells us clearly in Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church that there are two possible final destinies for all of us: heaven or hell.
But why talk about sin and hell at all? Isn’t all of this kind of old fashioned? Can’t we just stick to the positive side of salvation and forget the rest? Not at all. The truth about human life is that when we talk about Jesus saving us, we mean that He saves us from sin, death, and hell. And in order to receive the gift of salvation Christ offers us, we need to say “yes” to Him, with our words and our lives. And if we fail to say “yes”, or if we say an outright “no”, we place our lives in mortal danger. Forgetting about this “dark side” of life doesn’t make it go away, any more than ignoring cancer would stop it from destroying our bodies.
So what do we do about all of this? The kind of self-examination St. Paul challenges us to undergo is a great start. There are lots of good examinations of conscience available in our churches and online, and God will help us to use them prayerfully and well. He will help us to know whether we are spiritually alive or dead, whether we are headed towards heaven or hell at this moment in our lives.
The next step is to reject our sins, great or small, and return to God. If you don’t remember anything else of what I’m saying here, remember this: GOD LOVES YOU AND WANTS TO FORGIVE YOU SO THAT YOU CAN LIVE WITH HIM FOREVER!
There is no sin, and no number of sins, that can keep you away from God. Only your stubbornness can do that. So let’s not be stubborn! Let’s go to confession and tell God honestly and completely what we’ve done and that we are truly sorry and resolved not to sin again. As often as we fall, God calls us to get up and follow Christ again. The sacraments of Reconciliation (confession) and especially the Eucharist are the keys to following Jesus faithfully all the days of our lives. The sacraments will bring us to heaven, if we let them!
As we are healed and strengthened by the sacraments, we need to follow the “game plan” we see in today’s Gospel and First Reading. In the Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” We must keep the word of Jesus, which means we need to know and to follow Scripture and the teachings of the Catholic Church. This is the way we say “yes” to Christ’s gift of salvation. Again, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a great place to learn these teachings and how to live by them. It’s even available for free online.
Today’s First Reading confirms that the apostles—who are the shepherds of the Church—have God-given authority to guide us toward heaven, and warn us against what will steer us away from heaven and cause us spiritual death. Today, the Pope and all the bishops in union with him share this authority to teach and guide us to our home in heaven. There are a lot of people out there who want to have Jesus without the Church, but Jesus comes to us in and through the Church, and He tells us that the Church is His bride and our mother and teacher.
Christ also tells us that there is nothing more important for you and me to do than to choose Him, to love Him, and to follow Him as members of His Church, so that we can join Him in heaven and live there in joy and peace forever. That is the glorious destiny to which He calls us. The invitation is made. The road lies open before us. Let’s not hesitate to get on the road and head directly for home.
[Pictured: The Last Judgment, Fra Angelico, c. 1425-30]