Sunday, May 04, 2008

"This is Eternal Life..."

(7th Sunday of Easter-Year A; This homily was given on 3 & 4 May, 2008 at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; See John 17:1-11)

If you had the opportunity to go to heaven, today…if God offered you that invitation, now…would you say, “Yes”? Of course you would! That is the reason why we are here. It is the goal of life: to enter into eternal life with God.

But what if you were told that in order to go, you would have to change your opinion about something; or see things differently; or change the way you look at God, or heaven, or the Church, or people in your life? Would you make that change in order to go to heaven?

Again, it sounds like a silly question. Of course you would! There is a fiction novel written by the great Christian author C.S. Lewis, called The Great Divorce, which hovers around those very questions.

Despite the unfortunate title, The Great Divorce is not about marriage and divorce; instead, it is about the divorce or separation between heaven and hell. As the book begins the characters are in hell and they do not even realize it. The land they are dwelling in is dreary, rainy and it is perpetually twilight. The people are all miserable and isolated.

As the book continues, several of them get onto a bus and soon find themselves in a strange new country. They step off the bus, into a land that is bright, beautiful, and frightening (it is completely different than the place they have been).

What they do not know is that the place itself is an ante-chamber of sorts for heaven, the very entrance way. Suddenly people from heaven come towards them, people that they have known: friends, relatives, acquaintances; people that perhaps they liked while on earth, and in some cases people they did not like!

These are the ones who have made it to heaven, and now they come to speak to these visitors and to try to convince them to let go of whatever they are holding onto, whatever it is that has kept them from heaven to begin with. They essentially come with the intention of convincing them to go to heaven.

Shockingly, almost all of them refuse! They are determined to hold onto whatever opinions, ideas or ways of life that have kept them from eternal life. To the question I asked at the beginning of this homily—Would you be willing to change?—they answer, definitely, “No!”

There is one character, a big and rather gruff man, who has worked very hard all his life. In fact, he is convinced that he is entitled to a sort of universal recognition of this very fact. Over and over he insists: “I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.”

The person sent to him is an old acquaintance, a man who lived a much worse life. But apparently he had been forgiven and by the grace of God had entered heaven. Now he is trying to convince his friend that heaven is not something you have a “right” to, but a gift that needs to be received, even asked for.

The Big Man is hearing none of it. He is offended even by the very act of kindness and assistance. I should be the one in heaven, he tells him, not you! Then comes the tragic conclusion. He turns to the heavenly visitor and defiantly says:

“I’d rather be damned then go along with you.”

Almost all the characters have something similar that they are holding onto. There is another character, called the Grumbler. She grumbles and complains continuously. The person sent to help her cannot even get a word in edgewise. It is as if the Grumbler realizes if she gets to heaven, there will be nothing to grumble about! She goes on grumbling until she actually ceases to be a person in the strict sense, and to the amazement of the narrator, she becomes a grumble!

At times it is a very humorous book but also very sad, because we are able to notice a little bit of ourselves in many of those characters. That is the reason why C.S. Lewis wrote the book. His intention, as he explains in the preface, is to help us realize that not all roads lead to heaven! Not every choice here, not every opinion, not all of our words and actions, will lead us to eternal life with God. In fact, some will actually prohibit us from reaching that end! Some things are able to keep us out of heaven, forever.

That is why it is so important for us to understand what God means by heaven and eternal life. It is why I asked:

“What if you were told that in order to go to heaven, you would have to change your opinion about something; or see things differently…Would you make that change in order to go to heaven?”

In our gospel this weekend, Christ is praying to His Father, asking for eternal life for all of us! And in that prayer, He defines eternal life. He tells us what He thinks it is (and since He is the one who made heaven, we do well to listen). He prays:

Now this is eternal life, that they should know you [Father], the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.
—John 17:3

Heaven and eternal life, then, is not some vague happiness or a place of tranquility or merely the absence of pain. It is more than an eternity doing the things I enjoy doing. Eternal life is a living and growing relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ.

Eternal life means living in a relationship with the God who loves us, who came here to suffer and die on the cross to offer us His forgiveness and to be with us forever. It means trying to understand what pleases Him, and to do those things; or to know the things that displease Him, and to avoid them. This is eternal life: a deep and intimate, personal relationship with the living God.

It should seem rather obvious by now that this is not the definition generally accepted in our culture. Just a few weeks ago, when Pope Benedict XVI came to our country, the bishops of the United States asked him about the secular culture we live in. In that gathering in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception they asked him what he thought of the difficulties the Church faces in confronting a secular world with the message of Jesus Christ. He replied

“At this point in her history, [the Church in America] is faced with the challenge of recapturing the Catholic vision of reality and presenting it, in an engaging and imaginative way, to a society which markets any number of recipes for human fulfillment.”

To recapture the Catholic vision of reality. In other words, in many ways we have lost that vision. So many people today do not have a vision of reality that places God at the center. They do not understand themselves and the world we live in as ultimately created and redeemed by God. Or if they do, they often do not build their lives on that premise. It is up to us, says our Holy Father, to recapture that vision and present it “to a society which markets any number of recipes for human fulfillment.”

Our society has many ideas of what it means to be happy and fulfilled:
Success, power, wealth, etc.

We have a wide range of options for what it means to be fulfilled forever in heaven:

Heaven for me is eternity on the golf course.

Heaven is me and my dog, sitting by the pool, forever.

Heaven is eternal happiness with my spouse, my family, my friends, my car, my iPod shuffle…

But none of those things, in and of themselves, is heaven. In fact, if that is all we understand about heaven, then we’ll probably never get there, because heaven is a personal relationship with God. It is an invitation and an extension of mercy and forgiveness and a life united to the God who created us, loves us and redeems us.

Which brings us back to the original question:

If God was inviting you to heaven today, would you say, “Yes”? Would you be willing to change your perspective, your way of looking at the world around you, or God, to get there?

Because God is inviting us, now, to experience a foretaste of eternal life and heaven in the Eucharist. Here at the altar of God we are given a taste of heaven in the person of Jesus Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity. But before we do that, do we first need to look at Him, or heaven, or the people around us differently?

How is God challenging us all to see things more clearly the way He sees them?

How are we called to recognize now, more than ever, that:

This is eternal life, that they should know you [Father], the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.
—John 17:3