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Sunday Sermon: Jesus Christ is the Church

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When it comes to their faith lives, folks with a deep conviction can be extremely defensive. I’ve even heard some go so far as to claim that those who don’t follow the same belief system and faith practices they do will even end up in hell when they die.

The fact is that neither you nor I, nor anyone else on this planet, has any idea whether any individual human being is going to end up in heaven or hell for eternity. That lack of knowledge holds for everyone from your local rabbi to the Pope. Our ultimate fate is God’s alone to know.

My own faith is rooted in Jesus Christ. I practice and celebrate that faith in the Catholic Church. That is mostly because it is the church in which I was born and raised. I went to Catholic school for 12 years as a child and teen. I even later graduated from a Catholic university as an adult.

While it is my belief that my Catholic Church is the best way to practice the Christian faith, in no way to I believe it is the only way. In the end, it’s not about the Mass or the building or the priest. The Church is none of those things.

The Church is Jesus Christ. He is not only the center, he is everything.

In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus says: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of  all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In the famous verse of John 14:6, Jesus says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Nowhere does Jesus say that in order to get to heaven you must go to church – any church. He says that all authority is his. He says that he is truth and life. He says to follow him and his teachings if you want to be assured of eternity with the Father.

Don’t get me wrong, church is important. That is especially true of the Catholic Church. As I’ve written a number of times in the past, Jesus Christ founded His Church. It was important to him to have authoritative leadership and teaching continue.

In Matthew 16:18 we find this foundation: And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus founded one Church. The word “catholic” itself means universal.

However, in John 14:16-17, Jesus said: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another helper who will be with you forever. That helper is the Spirit of Truth. The world cannot accept him, because it doesn’t see or know him. You know him, because he lives with you and will be in you.”

Here Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will come into the world. He also states that the Spirit will not only live with us, but will live in us.
 
Jesus founded one Church, and that universal Catholic church continues today, more than 2,000 years later. 
 
However, the Holy Spirit did indeed come into the world and into our hearts. The Spirit has worked to inspire men and women in ways that have contradicted that universal Catholic Church over the centuries.
 
It would be dangerous, in fact totally wrong, to say and believe that any and every possible means of practicing a form of Christianity is healthy and appropriate. 
 
Misguided men have formed many harmful practices over time in the name of a church. Any honest assessment of even the Catholic Church history would show that misguided men can do a great deal of harm in the name of faith and church.
 
Many have seen the abuses within various Christian churches and decided to maintain a personal relationship with the Lord. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not preferred, and you are cheating yourself if this is your practice.
 
In Matthew 18:20 we hear Jesus make his famous church and family proclamation: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” He tells us straight out that when we pray and worship him together, he will be present with us.
 
Whatever church you belong to, and even if you choose to maintain a personal or familial relationship with him, you cannot be making a mistake if your true center is Jesus Christ and his own words.
 
The teachings of the prophets in the Old Testament are excellent for education and inspiration. The preaching of the disciples in the Acts of the Apostles, the teaching of Paul, and other New Testament works are outstanding guides to follow.
 
But the fact remains that where his Word is present, there is truth. If you follow that Word, those teachings, then you are likely to end up in the spending eternity in the presence of the Father.
 
In the end, Jesus Christ is the Church. 

What is a Saint, and Who Goes to Heaven?

This past weekend, the Catholic Church enjoyed a rare celebration of the canonization of two of it’s former leaders, John XXIII (pictured) and John Paul II. In the ceremony, both men were recognized and publicly proclaimed as saints.

We understand that sainthood for an individual bestows upon them some special designation and title, but do you really understand what makes someone a saint?

Have you ever considered the question for yourself: could I be a saint? Could someone you know, or have known, in your life be a saint?

The answer to that question leads to an even bigger one, so let’s answer it quickly and get on to that bigger question. Yes, you may be a saint. Yes, you may have known saints during your life, personally and intimately. In fact, I am quite sure that every single human life is touched by saints on a regular basis.

The difference between those formally proclaimed as a “saint” by the Church and the ones that most of us encounter in our daily lives is in the process of formal recognition and proclamation, as well as the degree in which they served God during their lifetime.

Canonization recognizes that a particular individual lived life with an exceptional degree of holiness, and is thus worthy of higher honor, emulation, and veneration.

In Catholic as well as in Orthodox teaching, any Christian in heaven is actually considered to be a saint. So yes, you indeed can one day be a saint, and many whom you have loved were and are indeed saints.

What we know about those who are canonized is that careful scrutinizing of their lives revealed their holiness, and we are assured that these individuals are indeed in heaven, and thus closer to God. Their prayers on our behalf will surely reach His ears.

And there is the rub. We are now assured that both John XXIII and John Paul II are indeed in heaven, with the Lord. We know this about every other person ever formally canonized as a saint. But do we know this about our loved ones? Are we assured for ourselves that we will indeed one day also be in heaven with the Lord, living in glory as a saint?

Is every Pope who ever served the Church now living as a saint in heaven? That seems hardly likely, given any understanding of history. We know for sure that some are, but some just as likely are not. The same can be said of our own loved ones.

An honest answer to that question by any considerate person has to be “no”, there no such guarantees. Most importantly, an examination of the path to heaven, and thus the path to sainthood, leaves us with a simple but difficult truth to accept: we have no way of truly knowing for sure whether, or which among them, our loved ones actually are in heaven.

Just last May, Pope Francis restated a very emphatic position of the Church, that all people have been redeemed through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, not just Christians. This includes atheists, radical Islamists, Jews, agnostics, cafeteria Catholics, Buddhists. Everyone. Whatever spiritual or religious label you can place upon another person or yourself. Or none. You have been redeemed through the blood of Jesus Christ.

However, as the Pope went on to explain, whomever you are, whatever you personally believe, you must do good. In Francis’ own words: “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us.

Francis was challenged on the issue of atheists, and further responded: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!” Pressed on the atheists, he continued: “Even the atheists. Everyone!” Francis is simply restating an ages old Christian doctrine. As stated by Saint Paul in his ‘First Letter to Timothy’: Jesus gave himself “as a ransom for all.

Our entry into heaven will ultimately be judged upon what we knew and what we did with that knowledge. Those who know of Jesus Christ, but choose to reject Him and live a life filled with sin have a difficult path. Those who know Him, claim to believe and follow Him, but live their lives in a manner frequently inconsistent with those alleged beliefs tred on unstable ground.

The most sure way to heaven is to accept the gift of Jesus Christ, of his sacrifice on your behalf, to believe in Him, and to then do good in your life in that knowledge. Do good as Jesus did good. Simply doing good without such belief is a bit like putting the cart before the horse. It makes your path that much more difficult.

What we must be willing to accept is that we simply do not know, and have no way of knowing while on this earth, what our loved ones did with their own lives before they left us. We do not know what they truly believed in their hearts. We do not know exactly what they did with their lives in action. We do not know what they did with their sin.

Catholic teaching tells us that sin has a life of it’s own, and may have bad effects even after the sinner repents. Such repentance includes not just sorrow at having sinned, and a desire to be free of the spiritual and emotional burdens it has created, but also true repentance includes a desire to repair the damage done by one’s sins. Whether you confessed and repented or not, what have you done to repair the damage done by your sins?

Right now, at this stage of your existence, you can do two things. First, you can change your own life. If you are reading this article, then you are aware of Jesus Christ. Accept his sacrifice on the cross for your sins. Acknowledge his love for you. Embrace your own cross. Confess your sins, do repentance, change your life, do good. Pray for your deceased loved ones, that they may reach heaven, since you do not know their ultimate fate.

We can use the lives of those who have been canonized, those such as Saint John XXIII and John Paul II, as an example of how to live our own lives. They are truly saints, with God in heaven. They not only talked the talk while here on earth, but they walked the walk. It is important that you do both, talk and walk properly in your life. That is the path most likely to lead you to heaven, to achieve your own sainthood. God bless you on your journey.

At what price your soul?

We’re all human. We’re all weak. We all yield to sins of the flesh at one time or another in our lives. We all misplace our priorities from time to time.

Some of us live in a perpetual state of yielding to temptation. There are many among us who willingly commit sins, often the same ones over and over, and who believe that we have time to overcome these. We’ll stop. We’ll make amends. We’ll confess, and do penance, and pray, and convert our lives. Just not yet. Not today. Not this moment. I need one more.

When we willfully and repeatedly engage in the same sin, over and over, in full knowledge that this is exactly what we are doing, then we have given over a portion of our lives to the devil. We may as well have sat down across a table from Satan and shook his hand over the deal.

There are many who call themselves Christians who on this very day are living a life of sin. They are carrying on an extra-marital affair, either cheating on their own spouse, or engaging in a relationship with someone who is married, or both. They are stealing from a business, social organization, charity, maybe even a church. They are selling drugs, or taking illicit drugs.

I don’t think that I am over-stating things at all if I make the unverifiable claim that there are literally millions of alleged “Christians” across the globe committing these sins, and many others, on a regular basis. Maybe you have been in the past, maybe you are right at this moment, one of them.

If we do indeed truly believe that Jesus Christ is our personal savior, that he willingly gave up his life on a cross for the very sins that we are committing, then how long can we keep doing so without our conscience overwhelming us and giving us pause?

At some point or another, if we are lucky, every one of us is going to be forced to answer a simple question: how much is our soul worth, exactly? I say “if we are lucky” because, unfortunately, some won’t ever get to answer the question. They will die in that state of perpetual sin, without having made those amends, without having received that gift of forgiveness.

Maybe they will die in a sudden auto accident. Maybe they will be overwhelmed with a sudden serious medical condition. Perhaps they will be suddenly murdered. Trip down a flight of stairs, hit by a bus while riding a bike, struck by lightening. Won’t happen to you? Sure it will. These things happen to real human beings every single day. Something, some day, is going to take your life. Do you know exactly when, where, and how that will happen?

Satan let you have the man you desired. He gave you access to the money you wanted. He is happy to stand in witness to the drug deal in which you are taking part. He will gladly stand watch for you while you swipe the money from the company safe.

He’ll be happy to help you, and be non-judgmental, even encouraging, in doing so. He’ll tell you that you deserve it, that you have it coming to you, that you are worth it all. It’s what Lucifer does. He whispers into our ears every beautiful lie that we ever wanted to hear.

And there are many who simply don’t believe any of it, in the devil or even in God for that matter. They’re the dark one’s favorites. The old saying remains true, that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people that he didn’t exist.

You are human, so it is very likely that you are sinning regularly in your life. What are you doing, or not doing? What is your sin? Coveting your neighbor’s goods? Perhaps his wife, maybe even to the point of committing adultery? Bringing dishonor to your parents? Not keeping the Sabbath holy by attending church services? Do you place work, or school, or some club ahead of your relationship with God? Have you lied? Have you killed, including participating in the death of an unborn child?

In any of these circumstances, you have broken one of the Ten Commandments, the most basic laws for man as handed down by God. Beyond that, have you shown love for your neighbor, or turned your back when you had an opportunity to help someone in need? Have you loved God as best as you possibly could? These were the commandments that Jesus added to us: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.

We all need to recognize that there is a price to pay for our sins. Jesus willingly gave up his life for us, he paid the price for our sins already. That is a truth. However, it doesn’t mean that we can now just do whatever we please. Hey, I’m going to go out and drink, do drugs, curse, fight, swear, and fornicate. And thank you, Jesus! I won’t have to pay with my soul!

No, that’s not how it works. You have to believe in Him. Jesus also said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes to the Father except through me.” When you sin willfully, you are turning your back on Christ’s gift. You are telling him that you don’t care – you are going to do what you want any way. You are choosing to sin and choosing to be separate from him and his grace.

What price is worth you giving up your soul? What moment of physical gratification, what amount of money, what time in the public spotlight, what adulation from humans, what excess of revelry and debauchery is enough? You will indeed die one day. We all do. You might get 15 years, or 50 years, or 100 years, but your time will come. How much for your place in eternity?

Stop every once in awhile to think about that concept: eternity. We generally live to about 80 years of age, if we are lucky. What is 80 years compared to 800? What would 800 be compared to 8,000. What are those 8,000 years against 8 million? You think existing for 8 million years would be long? Well, that doesn’t even measure as a speck of dust compared with all eternity.

You need to stop sinning now. Free yourself from whatever deal you made with the devil. He does not have ultimate power over you. There is no such thing as an unbreakable deal for your soul, as long as you are alive still. Renounce him, and embrace the truth of Jesus Christ and the price he paid already for you. Give up the person, or the action, or the things of your sin.

The honest answer is that there is no price whatsoever that is worth your eternal soul. You should be ashamed that you are sinning at all, if you just remember the ridicule, torture, agony, and ultimate horrifying death that Christ suffered for you. He did it because God loves you. Still, in your sin, God loves you.

Turn away, and turn back to God. The price of sin is not worth an eternity in the soulless agony of hell that is the miserable separation from your Creator. The joy, peace, and love found in God’s embrace now and ultimately for an eternity in heaven will dwarf anything found in your sin.

The Fall

Here on earth, it’s the “Fall” season, and last night we were reminded of that fact with the now-annual modern rite of the “Fall Back” act of turning clocks back one hour in a return to standard time from daylight savings time.

But those are not what we’re going to talk about here in reference to the Fall. We’re going to take a look back at mankind’s fall from grace, and even further back, to the fall from heaven which led to that one in Eden.

Most people are aware of the name “Lucifer”, and in Christian tradition the name has been assigned to the principal angel with glory as bright as the morning star who led a revolt in heaven against God.

The term Lucifer should not, however, be understood to be a proper name of “the Devil” or “Satan”, merely a reference to that state from which he has fallen, that place in the glory of heaven itself.

The devil is but one of what were originally angelic creatures created by God as spiritual beings in a state of innocence. They ultimately became evil as a result of their own willful act, and when this act saw them cast out in the first ‘Fall from Heaven’, they turned their gaze towards God’s human creation, leading us to sin and to our own separation, or the ‘Fall of Man’ from paradise.

That first fall of the angels came when, as Isaiah told in reference to the King of Babylon in his own day, and as is applied originally to Lucifer “Thou said in thy heart: I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God, I will sit in the mountain of the covenant, in the sides of the north, I will ascend above the height of the clouds, I will be like the most High.

The angel known as Lucifer led a rebellion of angels in heaven, seeking a place above God. The result was a war like none ever seen here on earth. As described in “Revelation” or the “Apocalypse“: “there was a great battle in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon (Lucifer), and the dragon fought and his angels, and they prevailed not…”

The result of this rebellion, and the victory by Michael and the angels of heaven, was the ‘Fall from Heaven’ referred to earlier: “..neither was their place found anymore in heaven. And that great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, who seduces the whole world; and he was cast unto the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.”

Lucifer/Satan had ultimately committed the first sin of “pride”, or the excessive love of one’s own excellence. Through the love of his own worth, he attempted to withdraw himself from subjection to Almighty God. He was able to get the angels opposed to the Divine Incarnation to follow him.

These angels were jealous at the very thought of a lesser being, a human, being raised above them. That is how they saw Jesus, a man who would be raised above them.

So cast out of heaven, and free to roam the earth, full of hate and anger, Satan looked around at the beauty of God’s creation. This earth was a place of natural beauty and wonder, and to populate it the Lord had created mankind in his own image and likeness, a creature of perfect innocence and integrity.

Satan immediately saw the weakness in this creation: man was in the image and likeness of God, but was, of course, not God. Man was made of flesh, and in that flesh lay the very weakness that Satan would exploit. His goal? To separate man from God forever. Why? To hurt God, of course. A victory in heaven denied, Satan would now seek victory on and dominion over the earth.

When God created man, who we know as ‘Adam’, he did not intend for us to have dominion over the entire earth. That right was reserved to God alone. But man was given great freedom and responsibility to care for the earth, the ‘Garden of Eden’ where that first man Adam was set, and he was permitted to eat of all the fruit of the garden, with the exception that man was specifically told to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A helpmate was created in ‘Eve’, or woman, and they continued as innocent creatures until Satan realized and hatched his great plan. He sidled up to the woman one day while she was alone, and the great deceiver whispered into her ear that first great lie. He told Eve that of course God didn’t want man to eat from a tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because then man would know everything and be like God.

Eve speaks this lie to Adam, they both fall for the devil’s deception, eat of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and immediately have their eyes open to their disobedience. They wanted to know good and evil? Now they know it, and they know that they have committed that evil. They have disobeyed God. They try to hide from Him, willfully separating themselves from God. Of course their sin is found out, and they are banished from paradise.

The consequence of that sin by our first parents seems to be a victory for the devil. Satan has separated man from God by sin. Man has fallen from grace, and the ‘Fall of Man’ signals a sinister joy for Satan. This evil habit of sin now spreads down through history. Cain murders Abel, and the depths of sin are revealed. Man, originally created to be free from corruption, or death, is no longer immortal.

For the angels cast out of heaven, and of course for Satan himself, there can be no redemption. They are spiritual beings, and once cast from heaven they are out for good, relegated to the hell marked by being separated from God and paradise forever. For man, death without redemption from our sins is the same. Death in sin is isolation in that hell marked by permanent separation from God, separated from paradise forever.

This apparent, at least to himself, victory for Satan was not to be, as we now know. What Satan never saw coming, what he could not conceive, was just how far God was willing to go in order to provide an ultimate victory in salvation from sin. God became man in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, and allowed himself to be persecuted, tortured, and crucified for our sins.

Satan never saw this level of love and commitment, could never conceive of such love in his own selfish nature. God allowed His Son to suffer death and lie in the tomb. Then, on the third day following that crucifixion and death, He rose in victory. Satan was defeated again, this time by Christ. There would be no ultimate victory for evil over good.

For their original ‘Fall from Heaven’, Satan and his fellow demons, the fallen angels, are left separated forever from God and the paradise of heaven. They are left with just one outlet for their ongoing hatred: separate as many human souls as possible from God. How do they accomplish these small victories? Tempt men to sin, keep them in sin, and have them die in that sin.

In the ‘Fall of Man’ we were cast out of what was meant to be the perpetual, eternal paradise of Eden. But we were so beloved by God that He gave us a path back to the glory of heaven. It takes only one thing on our parts: embrace the gift of salvation that we received on the cross from Jesus Christ.

All men need to do is recognize and accept that Jesus Christ did indeed suffer and die for our sins, each of us individually. God wants one thing from us, to give up that willfulness of sin, to recognize and acknowledge Him as our creator, as our Father. He demands that one thing from us, as in the beginning: know and acknowledge that He is God, and that we were created by Him for His purposes.

Give up your selfishness. Swallow your pride. Overcome your fear and embarrassment. Turn from your sin. No, you are not worthy. None of us are, but that is not the point, what we think of ourselves. What is important is that God thinks you are worthy. He feels that you are worthy enough that he was mocked, whipped, and nailed to a cross for you. Accept this love, and rise from the Fall!

THIS IS THE continuation of the “Sunday Sermon” series, all article of which can be reached by simply clicking on that ‘Label’ below.

The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed

In the final moments of one of television’s greatest dramatic series of all-time, “Lost”, the character of Ben Linus finds himself in a situation that sums up our understanding of purgatory very well.

He is just not ready to join the rest and move on into the light. Ben is left on the outside of the group, outside the church and the joyous gathering going on inside.

Most people know that this coming Thursday is Halloween, and many are aware that the following day is celebrated as “All Saint’s Day”, the feast which commemorates all those who have obtained the beatific vision in heaven, and which is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church.

But you may not be aware that it is followed immediately by another very important remembrance day, “All Soul’s Day”, which is set aside specifically for the cause of the entire Church praying for those souls of the faithful who departed this life, but who were not first cleansed of their venial sins and/or separated from their attachment to mortal sins.

These faithful have not been abandoned by God permanently. They have not been damned to the hell of the lonely desolation that will be the eternal separation from His glory, which is the fate awaiting those who have willfully died as non-believers.

These faithful in purgatory may still be helped on to the eternal glory of heaven by our prayers, especially through the sacrifice of Mass, in which numbers of believers join together.

Personal prayer is always beneficial, always powerful. But when our prayers are joined with others, that power multiplies many-fold. This is the importance of attending formal religious church services, to join with others in a prayer community.

On All Soul’s Day later this week, pray for the faithful departed. It is very likely that among them are people who you have known in your lifetime. Family members, friends, work associates, school classmates, neighbors, teammates. People who believed in God, believed that Jesus Christ died for their sins, prayed on their own, attended church services, lived generally good lives. But who, for whatever reasons, continued to live in sin to the moment of their death, and never made that final peaceful act of contrition.

Like Ben at the end of “Lost”, they sit outside the church, separated from the joy inside, incapable of joining their saved loved ones, of moving into the light and on to the happiness in the eternal presence of the Lord. But their cause, like his, is not lost forever.

Your loving memories of them and the positive presence and beauty they brought into your own life, coupled with your sincere intercessory prayers on their behalf, may make all the difference in the ultimate saving of their immortal souls.