What is Salvation?

If our idea of salvation isn’t God’s idea, then (spoiler alert!) by extension the Good News that we proclaim and announce isn’t going to be truly Good.

Earlier this year, the Congregation for the Doctrine [aka Teaching] of the Faith, published a letter, Placuit Deo, “on certain aspects of Christian salvation.”

What do people today think about salvation?

Across the world, we see two “drifts,” two different directions that start with something good, but then drift and become disconnected from the greater whole. The first is…

I can achieve it! Just watch me!

An individual-centric worldview “tends to see the human person as a being whose sole fulfillment depends only on his or her own strength” (Placuit Deo, para. 2). If you’re keeping score historically 😉 one could call this a “neo-pelagianism.” Now, there’s something intrinsically good about wanting to grow in strength, and we even find in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus, in his youth, advanced in wisdom (Luke 2:52). However, the problem is when we think we can do it ourselves, that the self-help and self-growth is going to come all from my “self” or maybe just by looking to Jesus as a great moral teacher or inspiring example for me to follow.

The second drift is in the opposite direction, and says…

I’ve got inner peace! I can’t hear you!

In this drift, we see “a merely interior vision of salvation,” “a vision which, marked by a strong personal conviction or feeling of being united to God,” but “does not take into account the need to accept, heal and renew our relationships with others and with the created world” (para 2).  For the history buffs out there, this is akin to a neo-gnosticism. While a Christian most certainly should have a personal experience of God’s love, the problem comes if this is the end state–or if a person turns inward to “protect” themselves from the messiness of the world, separating themselves from the “healing dimension of salvation” and the meaning of Jesus Christ truly being “made a member of the human family” (para. 9, 2).

Proclaiming Today

People aren’t blank slates waiting for us Christians to fill their heads with information. We connect with others more fruitfully, when we recognize and understand what assumptions and drifts they might be living out. Knowing these two major “drifts” reminds us that our announcement of truly Good News must include:

  • the transformative power of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit
    • without this, it’d be depressing news about how bad we are and need to get with the game, buck up, and fix ourselves by being “good”] (para. 2; cf. 2 Cor 5:19; Eph 2:18)
  • the healing, elevating, and participatory dimension of Jesus Christ’s mission (para. 9)
    • without this, why wouldn’t we run for the hills to escape from the rest of humanity? I mean, we human beings can be a unruly bunch!

Placuit Deo sums it up concisely:

“Salvation consists in being incorporated into a communion of persons that participates in the communion of the Trinity.” (para. 12)

Jesus Christ “is at the same time Savior and Salvation.” (para. 11)

“The salvation of men and women will be complete only when, after having conquered the last enemy, death (cf. 1 Cor 15:26), we will participate fully in the glory of the risen Jesus, who will bring to fullness our relationship with God, with our brothers and sisters, and with all of creation.” (para. 15)

That’s the road we’re on, and inviting others to join us in.

Fullness in our relationships:

  • with God
  • with humanity
  • with all of creation

That’s Good news, indeed!

Advertisements

How Do You Feel About Having Your Sins Forgiven?

As today’s First Reading (1 John 1:8-10) reminds us:

If we say, “We are without sin,”
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just
and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.
If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar,
and his word is not in us.

We can intellectually accept Jesus’ forgiveness of one’s sins as true, a fact, a reality. But, how to you really feel about it, personally. That Jesus forgives your sins. 

During his earthly ministry, Jesus posed this question to Simon, a Pharisee, in the midst of a symposium-style dinner discussion:

“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker graciously canceled both debts. Which of the two men will love the banker more?” (Lk 7:41-42*)

What’s the answer? Obviously the man who owed the larger sum of money.

But in Jesus’ 1st century Palestine and our modern American culture, which man would typically be considered the “good” one?

Most of us would have to admit it’s the man with less debt. The one who merely owed 50 silver pieces. He might be able to pay that off. He’s more responsible. More self-reliant. He’s not too bad.

So why is he the example of being “wrong” in the story?

Jesus’ point must not be about personal finances, but about love and gratitude in our relationship with Him. Let’s enter back into the story of the banker and the two men in debt. Imagine you’re the man who owed 500 silver coins–and had it forgiven. How would you feel?

What’s the immediate human reaction to that kind of free, gracious generosity?

It’s a mix of emotions: “Wow.” “You didn’t have to!” Feeling unworthy of such a gift. Maybe even feeling worse that you could never repay this person. Maybe feeling ashamed that it came to this point.

And it’s the same way with Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness of our own sins. There’s no way we could “earn” our way out of the wrong we do as human beings. We can’t pay it off.

The question is, how do we relate to Jesus who gives us an enormous (worth more than any earthly sum of money!) free gift of forgiveness? Is our response that joyful, grateful love for someone who gives us an incomprehensible, amazing gift?

Or, is our response something else–thinking we owe Jesus back, imagining that Jesus dislikes us for having gotten into debt in the first place, assuming we can do it ourselves and pull ourselves up by our own “bootstraps” of personal piety, wondering if this forgiveness is “for real” and “for keeps,” or if there are hidden strings attached.

We’re not saved by our own good works. We are saved for good works. Those good works flow from the love and gratitude we feel toward Jesus in our relationship with Him. We joyfully desire to extend that love to every person around us. Not because we think we “have” to in order to make up that debt or prevent Jesus from having to be like the banker in the story and forgive our debts to begin with, but because it overflows–we can’t contain that joyful love.

And this is precisely the context in which Jesus gave this example. There was someone who couldn’t contain the love she knew because Jesus had freely forgiven her. This someone was a woman, a poor woman from the city whom everyone knew was a sinner, someone who certainly didn’t have any of the external acts of religious piety. She hadn’t been someone known for “good” behavior.

Yet at some point before this dinner, she encountered Jesus and received forgiveness from her sins (i.e. Lk 5:30-32). She is living in a state of forgiveness that overflows into love and gratitude that simply looks ridiculous to those who haven’t experienced it. Just imagine…a poor woman entering a banquet dinner-panel discussion of men of the religious elite. Instead of staying on the side, like she was supposed to, she starts to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears, anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment, and even kisses his feet. This is overflowing, joyful love and gratitude! (to say the least!)

As Christians, we’re like that man with a debt of 500 silver coins. We’re like this woman bathing Jesus’ feet. We’ve received a forgiveness we could never earn and are now living in that forgiveness, that salvation that is and continues to bring peace (Lk 7:50).

But what if that’s not you? If you feel a bit awkward about it. Like a man who owed only 50 silver coins and maybe didn’t really need that banker to forgive his debt. Consider what’s holding you back. What’s the barrier?

It’s okay to be honest with Jesus. Open your heart to him. And when we think about this woman who loved so extravagantly, it might have taken some time. Her forgiveness could have come days, weeks, or even months before this dinner. What’s most important is that her open, free, honest love does come, and brings her closer to–not farther away–from Jesus.

 

Wipe our Debt
Image: Flickr “Image Money” CC SA 2.0

 

translation: The Message + my own translation edits

a version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

“An Invitation” on Christmas

Utilizing all means of communication matters. Back in 2006, I lived in southeastern North Carolina–not a place with a large Catholic population, universities, or obvious resources to grow more in one’s faith. But, I started searching online for podcasts of good Catholic preaching, and I stumbled upon the podcast of homilies given by Msgr. Charles Pope of Holy Comforter St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. His preaching was perfect for an independent Baptist formed, Catholic believer, and has remained a fixture in my podcast feed ever since.

For years, I’ve wanted to attend Mass at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian and this Christmas, we happened to be near Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian for the Vigil Mass, hooray!

The worship aid/program for Mass included this excellent example of a kerygma-filled invitation:

On this feast of Christmas, we celebrate the fact that the eternal Son of God came forth in greatest love to save his people from their sins.

Our Lord Jesus Christ came not only to live among us, teach us, and to die on the cross but also to gather unto himself a people, who would love, support, and encourage one another in the ways of holiness.

He then sent his apostles forth to gather his people into the community of the Church by baptism and the proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel. This work continues today as it has down through the centuries.

Kerygma without the Church can be a problem–but this example incorporates that fullness in plain language, without context-less theological jargon.

The invitation goes on to address individuals–showing that it’s not simply that “we” have “stuff to teach you,” but that we are meant to be a bigger we in God’s plan.

At Christmas, many people find their way to church who are not otherwise very connected to church. There are many reasons for this. Some have simply drifted away, others have experienced some hurt or disagreement related to the Church or her members. Still others have never been formally related to any church. Whatever the reason may be, know that you are wanted and needed in this community of faith. We need your experience, support, encouragement, and love. You also need these same things from the Church. We need each other. The doors of this church are open if you seek a spiritual home…We are grateful for your interest in our parish and are here to serve you in whatever way we can. May you have a blessed Christmas and joyous New Year.

IMG_3456
Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church 

Driving the Good News

A few weeks ago I pondered some images for what some of the distortions of the Good News look like for many adult Catholics–including those who are the special love of the New Evangelization, those who have lost a living sense of the faith.

For some, practicing religion is like pushing a sub-compact car around–yes, you can do it, but it’s all about your work, no help from the car. For others, it’s like driving a hideously ugly car around–it runs, but there’s nothing good about it to share with anyone. And for still others, being Catholic is like comfortably riding around in a sedan–it’s the best car around, but still not much to say about it–other than it’s a car, and if you like nondescript reliable cars, it’s a good one to ride in.

So if all of these images represent a distortion of the Christian faith, then what should the Good News of following Jesus be like for believers?

First off, the Gospel is a game-changer. The old game is over. Ended. The score’s been forgotten. A new reality with new parameters and a new destination has begun. Even if a person doesn’t acknowledge this new game, it’s still happened.

Our celebration of Christmas is a unique reminder of this. The chant of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ before Vigil masses emphasizes that God took on human flesh at a precise moment in history. It happened. It’s a different world–a new “game,” to use a common image.

800px-luminos_main_pictureAs followers of Jesus Christ, we’re not even driving combustion-engine automobiles as we know them. We’re not stuck with some car while we wait for the good and different things of heaven. God has already begun sharing with us a new way, a vehicle that’s radically different (think of the ubiquitous pop-culture futuristic vision of a flying car–that different). And this vehicle is transformative. Jesus is the first fruit of this transformation, and we in the car are transformed by Him.

But that’s not all, the reality of this new, radically different car moving about transforms the world around it. The future becomes now as we experience God’s power. Because we get to cooperate with God in this amazing car, we experience a sliver of God’s love, longings, and yearnings for the world–and we too start to yearn for the fullness of creation–when this amazing new car is no longer a sign, but normal.

This is what God gives us in the life of faith. Not a car we have to throw all of our own weight behind to push around, not an ugly whale of a car that turns people away, and not even the best reliable sedan on the road–but something utterly different. Something groundbreaking. Something that defies every one of our essentially (in our humanness) limited notions of what love and goodness are–by going further, by being Love.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. 

In these words of faith, we see the Good News: past, present, and future.

The Good News has happened. The Word, the Divine reason of all Creation, became human. The universe is different, as we now live in the power of the Risen Christ, being transformed and transforming. And, we know that we’re tasting the future. We sense the future enough to yearn for it. We’re not just riding around in a car hoping for the salvation of our own soul that removes us from God’s good creation, but instead cooperating with God, confident that in his Final Coming at the end of all human time, perfect justice and perfect grace meet–just as they did on the Cross (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 42, 44).

Why does this matter? Isn’t good enough for us Christians to just say, “believe and live like us so that we can escape from this world and be with God in heaven!” or “come drive this best, most reliable car with me!” I think no. It’s a start, but it’s still a distortion from the fullness of Revelation in Christ Jesus. And in a world where pre-evangelization matters, it keeps “religion” in a box. “Religion” ends up being about me, God, and the afterlife–period. We know that the world longs for something different. God has written on the hearts of humans a desire for both love and justice. Many today look around and know that something is wrong (and that’s always been the case!). The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God’s taken care of that something, and we can start experiencing God’s radical new, transformed and transforming, reality, right now.

 

 

Because We Know: A Christmas Kergyma

Because we know what has happened, definitively in history, we can start to act.

Start to bear fruit.

Between The Shadows… Your Singing Light…!!! :)))

Second, third, and fourth fruits…of the Firstfruit, Christ our Lord.

Blossom as signs of He who was born to restore our nature.

Why think less of ourselves?

Humility and blessedness go hand-in-hand. [Just ask Mary, cf. Lk 1:48]

As Peter Chrysologus explained:

The earth was adorned with flowers, groves and fruit; and the constant marvelous variety of lovely living things was created in the air, the fields, and the seas for you, lest sad solitude destroy the joy of God’s new creation.

And the Creator still works to devise things that can add to your glory.

He has made you in his image that you might in your person make the invisible Creator present on earth.

He has made you his legate, so that the vast empire of the world might have the Lord’s representative.

Let us to go to Him, from Him, in Him.

For He comes to us.

Today.

 

Image Credit: Denis Collette (via Flickr), CC BY-ND-ND 2.0

 

Abundant Life as Sheep

The comfort God gives to us by giving us Jesus his Son as our Shepherd isn’t just some poetic, feel-good pasture scene that goes over well in Vacation Bible School or children’s catechesis. No–it’s a reality with hard-hitting promises and assurances.

John the Evangelist gives us the most detailed look at the relationship between Jesus the Good Shepherd and His sheep in Chapter 10 of his Gospel. The setting and build-up to this moment is intense. The first half of John’s Gospel is devoted to revealing the signs of Jesus, and examining how specific people respond. And it’s been a mixed bag, for sure! Early on, some respond to Jesus with belief–or at least genuine curiosity.

But then, hostility grows to a near-breaking point between Jesus and those who do not believe, those who oppose Jesus and those who profess belief in Him! This comes to a head as Jesus comes to the Temple at Jerusalem for the Feasts of Tabernacles (aka Booths or Sukkot) and Dedication (aka Feast of Maccabees or Hanukkah) and makes clear through symbolic declarations that Jesus is Divine, he is the Son of God, he is with God the Father in the most profound, eternal sense.

What to think?

As many Christian apologists have noted, when someone stands in a public place, on a great religious feast, and declares that he is God, we’ve really only got three logical responses, the person is either a pathological liar, a lunatic, or correct–truly the Lord God.

If you believe that Jesus is indeed the Lord God, well then what?

As today’s Psalm 100 answers:

“We belong to him, we are his people, the flock he shepherds” (vs. 3)

Being a sheep has serious consequences:

Sheep1. Jesus knows our name and calls us by name. We cannot remain anonymous to God. We cannot use our own sinfulness, anxiety, low self-esteem, or secret doubts about ourselves as an excuse as to why we are not “good enough” to be in relationship with God. It’s not about our goodness–we can know Jesus personally because he already knows our name and calls us by name (John 10:3-4).

2. “Whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9). If we remain in God through Jesus, “one can be confident of one’s present salvation” and “by looking at the course of one’s life in grace and the resolution of one’s heart to keep following God, one can also have an assurance of future salvation” (Catholic Answers). Do you have this confidence in your present and future salvation? What doubts are holding you back?

3. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Now, you might be thinking, “that sounds a bit like some ‘once saved, always saved’ falsehood.” And, the idea that a person’s salvation is guaranteed regardless of anything a person does, regardless of their free will in the future is indeed counter to Christian teaching (and even the most secular understanding of free well). Here’s the difference, though, in our Catholic teachings, confidence in God’s promises and acknowledgement of each individual’s free will coexist, as apologist Tim Staples writes, “our eternal life is contingent upon our choosing to abide in God.” No earthly powers, no other person, no harsh words or judgement from another can cause us to perish–only our free choice to leave Jesus’ flock. As the Church teaches:

There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss. (Catechism of the Catholic Church para 1864)

The only unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit…and what does this mean? As Pope Saint John Paul the Great explained, “it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross” (Dominum et Vivifcantem, para. 46). So that’s it–only our free, knowing, and intentional will to reject the power of God’s forgiveness and mercy is what can remove us from God’s hand of love.

4. “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Does being a sheep bring you a deep joy and comfort? As one apologist noted:

Sometimes Fundamentalists portray Catholics as if they must every moment be in terror of losing their salvation since Catholics recognize that it is possible to lose salvation through mortal sin…But this portrayal is in error. Catholics do not live lives of mortal terror concerning salvation. True, salvation can be lost through mortal sin, but such sins are by nature grave ones, and not the kind that a person living the Christian life is going to slip into committing on the spur of the moment, without deliberate thought and consent. Neither does the Catholic Church teach that one cannot have an assurance of salvation. This is true both of present and future salvation.

And the beauty and fullness of joy is that this salvation is both present and future. We have eternal life that starts now, and stretches into eternity. And this life? It’s more abundantly “life” than anything a life without God’s friendship and Lordship offers.

We are God’s flock. You are (or can be) His Beloved Sheep full of joy and confidence in God’s eternal love and mercy. What’s holding you back? Wherever your heart is, pour it out to God, and ask Him for the blessing of knowing what it means to be a Sheep.

Image Credit: CC BY 2.0 via Flickr user Katriona McCarthy

a version of this post also appears at newevangelizers.com

Turn Until You Know Jesus: The Feast of Mary Magdalene

From Lorraine Cuddeback via I Have Seen the Lord | Daily Theology, a Gospel message for today:

“Mary’s hopelessness is almost palatable.

The angels that appear — those who so helpfully explain the meaning of the empty tomb in Mark, Matthew, and Luke — cannot draw Mary’s attention in this narrative.

Her weeping overwhelms her sight, her senses, and she offers no reaction to the two men suddenly sitting where the head and feet of Jesus should have been. Instead, she only reiterates the problem: “I don’t know where they laid him.” Mary is lost in her grief until Jesus himself calls her name:

She turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher. (Jn 20:14-16)

Read the passage carefully, and you’ll see that she turns twice — she turns towards Jesus when she first sees him, but does not know him. Then, despite supposedly looking at him to ask her question, she turns again when he calls her name.”

Turning.

Turning evokes another mightily important New Testament word, metanoia.

Though sometimes translated to English as “repentance,” metanoia is much more–it’s a full turning, conversion. And, conversion of one’s whole self. Heart. Mind. Soul. Body. Everything conversion.

This is why I love that Mary the Magdalene turns twice. Many of us raised in Christian settings “saw” Jesus from a young age. We learned of Him and objectively experienced Him in sacraments (even if our dispositions were lacking faith…). But, we may not have known Him. Personally. Sometimes it’s the second (or third! or fourth! etc.) turning that’s true metanoia, the conversion that allows us to exclaim from the depths of our hearts and souls, like Mary, Rabbouni–a personal term of relationship with Jesus.

Turn once. Turn twice. Turn thrice. The important thing, is to turn as metanoia. Experience, as Pope Emeritus Benedict encouraged, “the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, para. 1). Turn.

Turn

Image: CC 2.0 via Ivan (Flickr)