A Guarantee of Salvation?

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Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” I think whoever asked the question was not expecting a yes or no answer, nor a detailed accounting of how few are guaranteed actual salvation. Instead, I think many of us are more curious to know something else altogether. “Lord, am I among the few who will be saved?”

Perhaps one of the strangest questions a Catholic will ever be asked is “Are you saved?” If no one has asked you yet, you can count yourself lucky. I am confident you have neighbors, co-workers, and classmates who are genuinely concerned about your eternal salvation. I’m sure you are too. That is why you’re here. That is why you drag people you love along with you to church, because you believe it helps to guarantee that your name will be on the short list of those who will be saved.

And living in the Bible belt, you might encounter the question a few times. It will come by way of those flyers that occasionally grace your mailbox, inviting you to some upcoming revival, or offering you a free book. You might even come face to face with some enthusiastic bible student eager to spend time with you in the comfort of your own living room to show you the error of your ways, that you might forsake darkness and sin forever, and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. It’s just not how we Catholics talk. If we genuinely knew what they meant, we might actually come up with something to say in response.

In the language of evangelical Christianity, a person’s “being saved” is a specific point in time. It is that exact moment of one’s free and deliberate surrender into the loving and forgiving arms of God, and the conscious acceptance of that tremendous gift of salvation, a moment immortalized in the familiar song “Amazing Grace” by the English poet and clergyman John Newton as “the hour I first believed.” That moment often accompanied by powerful emotion, abundant tears and trembling, mind-blowing exhilaration and spine-tingling joy, as powerful and awesome as it often is, is simply when a person awakes to the reality of their salvation in Christ. Waking up to that reality does not actually bring it about. That would put too much responsibility for our own salvation into our hands. 1 + 1 does not miraculously equal 2 at the moment we realize it. It has always been. Our realizing it does not make it happen. Instead, salvation is what God alone does, never what we do. When we realize it, it does not mean we did anything to bring it about. All we do is awake to it, like getting a shock of static when we shuffle across the carpet and accidentally touch a doorknob.

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In reality, we are always trying to figure out what God is up to. We want to put God in a box. We want to demystify the mystery that is God. We want to dispel all doubt and possess absolute certainty about God and the universe. And when we come to realize something of God’s nature or actions we never before even imagined of God, we are blown away, or we get all confused and upset. Take for instance what we come to know about God in today’s scripture readings. The portion of the book of the prophet Isaiah from which we read today is believed to have been written 6 centuries before Christ. So there shouldn’t be anything in it we might consider new. At least for as long as these books have been read and studied, the truths they proclaim have been laid out in the open this whole time. We shouldn’t be too surprised then that through the prophet God spoke of gathering nations of every language to see his glory, or that these same nations he would send to proclaim his glory to all the world, or that he would take from among them some to be priests and Levites. It seems God has always desired his holiness be made known to all the human race, that salvation be extended to all people, that the fullness of his life be experienced by all. And yet throughout human history, we are constantly distinguishing between classes of people, arbitrarily determining some as more deserving, others as less deserving of life’s basic necessities and basic freedoms, of dignity and respect and fair treatment. How can we then, in all honesty, claim that we’re doing just fine the way we proclaim and live our faith, when there are such glaring contradictions between what God wants and what we do?

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus tells us. A parallel passage from the gospel of Matthew adds that the broad gate and the wide path lead to destruction. So it is not enough that we can claim to have eaten and drank in his company, or that he spoke to us that one time, to deserve a place at the wedding banquet. It should take a little more effort on our part, even a bit more inconvenience and sacrifice, to live the call of a true disciple of Jesus Christ. For what lies beyond that narrow gate is what gives us strength and courage to keep doing our best. Sometimes as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, we may perceive life’s trials as God’s discipline. But if we truly believe that God cares for us, we can be certain that he will not desire our harm. What father among us would harm his child to teach a lesson? How can we think God would do that?

We believe that for as long as the struggle of life continues, for as long as we face the challenge of living the life of a disciple here and now, we are on our way to heaven. As far as the certainty of attaining heaven, we can only hope. It is God who grants salvation, the privilege of living with him forever in heaven. No matter how good we try to be (and I will be the first to admit keeping on that road is sometimes a pain), no matter how many scriptural requirements we accomplish, no matter how much better we are than the people around us, there can be no certainty of salvation unless God alone determines it. And unless you or I have possession of a ticket that guarantees admission to heaven, we are on our way to heaven, and we can only do our best. The rest we leave in God’s hands. Salvation is not anything we do. Salvation is what God does. What we need to be more concerned about is whether or not we sincerely desire to be with God. How can we desire to be with God for all eternity if we have no desire to be with him in this life? What other people do or say can sometimes distract from our focus. But we can encourage them. We can share our faith. We can even take them by the hand. Still God alone grants the gift. And no one will be forced to enter heaven against their own will. And if we have others in our care, the task is clear. We share with them what we understand and what we believe. We teach them by word and example. We encourage them along. We teach them to hope. And we trust that the God who calls us to be faithful will fulfill the promises he has made to those who are faithful.

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So, if anyone asks “are you saved?” You can confidently respond, “I’m a work in progress. God is saving me everyday. It is God alone who saves. I’m just working on being worthy of that gift.”

Rolo B. Castillo © 2013