This reflection is for the 4th Sunday of Lent, Cycle B, 3/11/18.
I once had a Catholic High school student who, while smiling fromar to ear, told me that she finally understood how our life on earth corresponded to our future in heaven. She had just returned from the college counselor with exactly which courses must be taken in high school to get her into the college of her dreams.
She said, “Mr. Valgos, I finally get it! While on earth we’re supposed to do all the right things: receive our Sacraments, go to Church, go to a retreat or two, says our prayers, go to confession, and help out at the homeless shelter, and by doing all of those things–just like taking all my necessary classes for college–we get into heaven when our time on earth is over!”
I said, “Congratulations, Haley! You’ve got it exactly right with regard to college, and exactly backwards with regard to heaven! I went on to tell her and the rest of the class that salvation isn’t something earned and owed to us by God for all the work we do here on earth. I told Haley, that that kind of attitude would attempt to place a claim on God. God would OWE us! The Creator would be a debtor to the creature!
No, salvation is not something owed to us by God (as though we could ever do enough to earn it!) but is instead pure gift from a loving, generous, and merciful God. God is crazy about us, but because of sin, we owe a debt that simply cannot be paid. The debt we owe is indeed paid–though not by us–but rather by God himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Our only rule: to accept God’s offer, repent, and believe in this good news!
Today’s Gospel tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (JN 3:16-17)
I told Haley that in order to better understand salvation she might consider how amazing it would be if the college of her dreams contacted her during her 8th grade summer to give her not just acceptance into the school, but also free tuition, free books, and even free parking! The only stipulation is that she be willing to accept this amazing offer and then share with others how amazing this college is and how happy she is to be going there. That’s salvation!
We call the generous action of God “grace.” A priest friend of mine once explained to my 8th-graders that grace is “friendship with God.” We didn’t do anything to deserve it, but God freely offers it anyway. And our response to that offer of friendship is faith. St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians stands as a witness to these truths taught by the Church. Paul teaches, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” (2:8-9)
Faith is the relationship we have with the invisible God. Like any relationship, faith can be nourished through spending quality time, reading stories about that person, getting to know others who know him, serving him, and communicating with him. The relationship of faith, like a mustard seed, may start out so totally small, but in time we discover that it is has grown so much that it provides comfort and peace not only to ourselves but to those around us as well.
I asked Haley about what she thinks she might do, in our scenario, with the time she was given between her having been accepted into the college of her dreams and her actually first starting the school four years later. She said she would work her butt off making sure she was ready when the day came to leave! She would show her appreciation for the generous gift by learning everything she could in the short time she had. She wouldn’t want to squander a moment that she had left. Exactly. And neither should we.
God gives us an amazing gift of salvation based only on his generosity and love–not based on anything we have done or could ever do. That’s amazing grace! We respond in faith by believing, repenting, and loving him and our neighbor. Love lived out toward God and neighbor is hard work! Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, obedience, and sacrifice is the work of salvation. Not the work that earns salvation, but the work we do because of the gift of salvation through Christ Jesus, our Lord.
St. Paul, in the very next verse in Ephesians 2 says this, “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” (2:10)
God has called us into his light by grace, through faith, to do good works. And therein lies salvation and the response. What an amazing gift. Sadly, however, as the Gospel clearly shows in its final verses of today’s reading, “this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil…But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God. (JN 3:19, 21)
So, it’s not a matter of works or no works, but what type of work will we do. We’ve been saved. Do good work. Don’t wait. You may be leaving for the college of your dreams soon. No time to lose.
God bless, Stephen