Many years ago I had a conversation with a man whose wife had just been buried. He had led a rather dysfunctional life and perpetrated much abuse on his spouse and children. He asked me what I thought of his chances of going to heaven. This was not a great question, since our salvation is not a matter of odds, but rather the assurance of faith in Jesus Christ who has already won this for us. Obviously, salvation is not a lock, as if our cooperation with God’s saving grace is not necessary. It is! But odds are not part of the picture.
I decided to base my reply on some sense of how he conceived of the situation. “Have you reformed your moral life?” His response was, “Well, you know…. I guess that’s a hard one. I still have some anger issues and now and then some alcohol concerns.” I asked him, “Are you engaged in the church?”
His response: “No. Apart from the funeral, I haven’t been to church in 30 years [that is, since the late 1950s]. I can’t stand all these changes.” “But you left the church before they came in,” I said. “I know! This sure as hell isn’t the church I left 30 years ago.” (True conversation, I swear.)
I kept going: “Do you at least pray?” He pondered: “Not so much like I suppose I should.”
I encouraged him to go to confession and tell all. I gently urged him to make the rest of his life one of amends. I suggested to him how important it was to return to the church and to start a prayer life. But inside my head I was wondering: “Why do you even want to go to heaven if you’re not interested in God? Heaven is all God all the time!”
In the second reading we hear, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” This will be heaven: being like God. Peter frames the fulfillment of God’s promises by saying that we “may come to share in the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). The church has called this theosis, or divinization, which refers to living God’s life by grace as God lives it, particularly loving as God loves.
If this seems a bit too heavy or a bit too abstract, we would do well to consider the Gospel. Jesus tells his listeners that he is the good shepherd. Unlike uncaring shepherds, who leave the sheep in time of danger, this good shepherd will protect us even with his very life. The theme of shepherding is much used throughout the Old Testament. Ezekiel 34 is the classic passage in which the prophet excoriates the bad shepherds (leaders) who exploit their sheep (the people of Israel) without care. Ezekiel prophesies that God himself will personally pasture the sheep as well as place before them a new David, who “shall feed them and be their shepherd” (34:15, 23). Jesus most assuredly fulfills this prophecy on both scores.
Jesus has come to feed us, to protect us, to guide us and to love us. What is particularly touching is that twice Jesus assures his listeners that he and his disciples (shepherd and sheep) have an intimate relationship: “I know mine and mine know me,” and “they will hear my voice.” There is great tenderness in Jesus’ image. In coming to know him and letting him know us, we come to develop a deep bond.
When I was in college, I was given a pamphlet that began by asking me what I would say at the gates of heaven when asked why I should be admitted. The definitive answer was, “Because Jesus died for my sins” (you cannot go wrong with that). Today’s Gospel answer would be, “Because I belong there.” So maybe I should have asked that cantankerous old man who wanted to know his odds of going to heaven: “Do you belong there?”