Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Gift of Salvation

A colleague at work is actively involved with his parish. We. at times, trade news of our ministries. He recently gave me a copy of an article he wrote and I finally had a chance to read it last night. I found it to be quite good. So I thought I would share it.

The Gift of Salvation
In 1989, a devastating earthquake struck the region of the former Soviet Union known as Armenia. Thirty thousand people were killed within minutes. However, a remarkable story of courage and love came out of this tragic event. Amidst the panic and chaos, a distraught father ran to the school that his son attended. He thought about how he had promised his son, "No matter what happens, Armand, I'll always be there!" When he reached the site where the school had been he saw only a pile of rubble. He stood there briefly in dismay, but then climbed through the debris toward the corner where he knew his son's classroom had been. With his bare hands, he began to dig, desperately pulling up bricks and pieces of wall plaster. A few bewildered onlookers told him that there was no hope, but he replied, "You can grumble or you can help me lift these bricks." A few pitched in, but most of them soon gave up as their muscles began to ache. Nevertheless, the man persisted. Thirty-eight hours later, he heard a muffled groan from under a piece of wallboard. He pulled the board back and shouted, "Armand!" A faint voice responded, "Papa!?" Other weak voices began calling out and much to the shock and delight of the few remaining onlookers, fourteen of the thirty-three children were rescued alive. Later, Armand told his friends, "See, I told you my father wouldn't forget us." An incredible story of a father's love, yet only a shadow of the love that our heavenly Father has for each of us: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish, but have eternal life". (John 3: 16)
The topics of God's love, which Joanne spoke about last week, and salvation are very closely related. They aren't necessarily complicated topics. In fact, sometimes what we really need most is the heart of a child to accept God's love and plan of salvation at face value. We get caught up with a whole range of questions and issues in the Church today and while I wouldn't say that they're not important, we can't afford to lose sight of the person of Jesus, Who Scripture calls "the author and perfecter of our faith". (Hebrews 12:2) I love to relate the story told by Father Rick Simon about a famous theologian who came to the prestigious University of Chicago to give a lecture. Afterward, he opened the floor for questions. An eager student asked the first question, "Professor, in all your years of study, what do you consider to be the greatest theological truth that you have come to know and believe in?" Without the slightest hesitation, the sophisticated and learned scholar responded, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so". And so it is within the context of God's incredible love for us that we'll look at the gift of salvation.
As I'll soon elaborate upon, both the Cross and the Resurrection are essential to understand God's gift of salvation. However, before going any further, let's go back to the Gospel of John for a moment and allow Jesus' very own words to set the tone. In John 14, Jesus had promised His disciples that He would prepare a place for them in His Father's house where there are many dwelling places. Then Thomas asked, "Lord, we do not know where you are going, how do we know the way?" Jesus responded, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father, but though Me".
Jesus' words only make sense in light of the Cross. The Cross points to our absolute need for a savior, but many people fail to recognize that need. The cares of the world, technology, entertainment, and a host of other things can blind us to the deeper needs of the human heart and soul. Sobering realities such as war and famine in many countries, the widespread acceptance of legalized abortion even among Catholics, devastating diseases like AIDS, or the threat of terrorism distract and discourage us. Meanwhile, even some Christian leaders seem reluctant to talk about our need for Jesus for fear of 'offending' others. It's little wonder that John Paul II has referred to much of what we see in contemporary society as a "culture of death". There certainly is sin in the world and whether we're talking about our own personal sin or the sins of others, we are all greatly affected by it. Nevertheless, our fundamental attitude of rebellion toward God and His ways causes many to look elsewhere rather than to God for answers. That's pretty heavy. It sounds awfully negative, but as a friend once told me, God would actually love us less if He didn't allow us to realize what we're up against.
But the Good News, the best news that has ever been given and that you and I have been privileged to hear is that Jesus died on the Cross so that all of this could be overcome. I'm probably not telling you anything new, but maybe we need to get in touch with the depth of God's sacrificial love and mercy for us. We need these words of St. Paul to remind us: "For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves His love for us in that while were still sinners, Christ died for us". (Romans 5:6-8)
Perhaps we even needed Mel Gibson's movie to remind us. So let's not buy into the world's way of thinking that there are many equally valid ways to God, that it doesn't really matter whether you believe in Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Krishna, mind power, or some other New Age philosophy ... as long as you're sincere about it. I'm not here to belittle non-Christian religions, but Jesus Himself said in Matthew 7: 13-14 that the road that leads destruction is broad and wide and many choose to travel that way while the road to life is narrow and those who find it are few. Sometimes, we even hear it said that since Vatican II, the Catholic Church believes that most people will be saved. From what I understand, that is not a completely accurate interpretation of Vatican II. True, we do not believe as some Christians do, that a person must explicitly accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior to have any hope of being saved. Instead while clearly affirming that Jesus is the only Savior, Vatican II states that God desires to save everyone and that people who are ignorant of the Gospel through no fault of their own, but who follow God to the best of their understanding and ability may possibly be saved. Only God truly knows whether many people or just a few fit into that criteria. In any case, as Catholics we do not believe that all paths to God are really the same. So let's not deceive ourselves. Jesus is more than just an acceptable alternative or even a preferential option. He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. Is it conceivable that He would have undergone such an excruciating and torturous death if it wasn't necessary to do so for our sake? Shortly after Pentecost, Peter preached these words, "He is the stone which the builders rejected which has become the very cornerstone and there is no salvation in anyone else for there is no other name under heaven which has been given to men by which we can be saved". (Acts 4:12)
In addition to the Cross, the Resurrection is also essential to a full understanding of God's gift of salvation. It is the Resurrection that reminds us that Jesus is alive and in our midst, that the kingdom of God is at hand, that salvation is not only a hope and promise yet to be fulfilled, but it's also something that God desires to unfold in our lives today. Five or six years ago I heard Ralph Martin, a well-known layperson in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, share his experience of being in Rome on Pentecost Sunday for an audience with the Pope. Thousands of Catholics from all over the world, representing a variety of groups and movements within the Church, were also there. Martin shared these words that John Paul II addressed to this gathering: "The church's self-awareness is based on the certainty that Jesus is alive, is working in the present, changing lives".
In other words, our identity as Christians, the very basis of our faith and hope is that Jesus is risen. Yet even today, many people deny the certainty of Jesus' Resurrection. Don't fall for such arguments! Since Jesus is alive today, everyone of us can have a personal relationship with Him through prayer. We don't have to be worthy. We can't earn it. It's a pure gift. When I was in grade school, I recall reading and re-reading a children's book about different saints that I had received as a First Communion gift. Their closeness to Jesus impressed me even more than their remarkable deeds. At times, I felt very close to Jesus as a child. Even as a teenager, I remember being deeply moved by what was shared at a retreat while attending Immaculate Conception High School in Elmhurst. And so when two guys came to my dorm room during my freshman year of college and shared about their personal relationship with Jesus, it rang true to me even though some of the lingo they used such as being "born-again" wasn't familiar to me then. They helped me to rediscover the closeness to Jesus that I had felt at a younger age. Time and time again, my experiences have reinforced that to speak of a personal relationship with Jesus is thoroughly Catholic. All that we do and believe as Catholics is intended to help strengthen that relationship. God's plan of salvation in each of our lives began at Baptism (when He chose us first), but it doesn't really begin to blossom until we accept the gift, until we make that individual choice to invite Jesus into our heart and life more fully, when we open wide the doors of our hearts to Him in response to His initiative in loving us.
It's important to realize that the Catholic Church has reaffirmed the need for a personal response to Jesus throughout the ages. Little known saints, more famous ones like St. Teresa and St. Francis, and even various Popes have witnessed to this reality. For example, the writings of Pope St. Leo the Great which have been preserved from the fifth century include this statement: "Unless a man believes in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, and accepts Him as his own savior, the salvation that is offered to the whole of mankind will be of no avail to him".
Or consider the words of John Paul II shortly after becoming Pope: "Note it well. Does not Jesus say in the Gospel that He is 'the way, the truth, and the life'? He defines Himself as the Way, that is the highway, the route that is at once obligatory and sage for those who wish to go the Father and thus reach salvation. It is certainly an image similar to the one that presents Jesus as Light or as the Door. These images are based on a substantially identical teaching: it is necessary to walk following the way marked out by Jesus, illuminated by Jesus, or more simply it is necessary to follow Jesus".
Each of us comes to the point of recognizing our need for Jesus with our own unique past and circumstances. Whether that requires a dramatic conversion experience or not isn't what matters, but what does matter is that we come to Him as we are and draw closer to Him through prayer. Then, we will begin to discover more and more of the Risen Christ, alive, working in the present, and changing our lives.
Jesus gave us a good idea of how wide-reaching His. saving power was intended to be at the very beginning of His public ministry. In His first hometown sermon in Nazareth, He quoted these words of the prophet Isaiah:
"The spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim the liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord". (Isaiah 61 :1-3) Then He said to the crowd, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing".
Many of our brothers and sisters in the church (and perhaps some us as well) are poor (spiritually or emotionally, if not materially), or captive (particularly to sinful habits that we just can't seem to shake), or blind (whether it be to the love of God or to the love of others). Therefore, we need to know that because Jesus is risen and alive today, the words of the prophet Isaiah are still being fulfilled in our sight and in our hearing. Through the Cross, he offered us the forgiveness of our sins, but because He is risen and alive today, He also frees us from the effects of sin, even the sins of others that have damaged us. Furthermore, He desires to free us from a weakened will, from disoriented emotions, and even from physical sickness. In short, Jesus wants to remove anything that destroys or degrades the human personality (those negative consequences that we've traditionally called original sin).
We'll never fully grasp the depth and richness of God's mercy towards us. The author of the Old Testament book of Lamentations expressed it this way: "The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, His mercies are not spent; they are renewed each morning, so great is His faithfulness. My portion is the Lord, says my soul, therefore will I hope in Him". (Lamentations 3:22-24)
I'd like to close with a story that will hopefully encourage each of you to respond more fully to Jesus today:
There's a famous painting at Oxford University which is entitled, 'The Light of the World'. You may have seen a replica of it in a Christian bookstore. Jesus is standing before a great oak door dressed in flowing white robes, holding a lantern in His left hand and knocking at the door with His right. His head is tilted as if waiting for an answer. So perfect was the artist's technique that the critics raved, "Touching! Magnificent!". However, they suggested the artist would have to correct one detail. He had actually forgotten to put a handle on the door! But the artist responded: "I did not forget. No handle will ever go on that door. This picture represents Christ knocking at the door of the human heart. And the human heart only opens from the inside".
So as this Life in the Spirit Seminar continues, I want to encourage you to open your heart and say "Yes" to Jesus.
BT, May 4, 2004 

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