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The death of a priest friend from way back—the true Gospel recounted

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He had been a Roman Catholic priest for almost 30 years. He and two other priests had married me and my wife. It had been more than 20 years since I had seen or talked to him. Now he was dead—suddenly and unexpectedly—found dead in his rectory. Only in his mid-50s. Who could have known? Who could have predicted?

I was a college student when I knew him and he considered me a good candidate for the priesthood. I could tell that he intended to love me right into it.  I remember him as someone who was always a joy to be around—no matter whether he was a little “up” or a little “down” on any particular day—he was always a joy to be around.

We used to spend good time in prayer together. He was the first real “prayer partner” I ever had.

His sermons or “homilies” were all very heart-felt and stuck more closely to the scriptures than many of his fellow priests. He really wanted to make the gospel and the other readings for any particular Sunday come alive for those who attended Mass. He used to tell me how much he detested the “canned” sermons another priest often used.

What was there about this man that anyone could reject? Nothing that I could see and how I long to embrace him to this very day.

I had always meant to “look him up” to go and see him sometime but I was concerned he might reject me. No, that wasn’t his way but that was my concern—and so I have no good excuse for not looking him up. I waited too long. I regret that I did not “take the risk” that he himself often talked about.

Some years ago, I “broke” with the faith that he and I had shared those many years earlier. That break had been very painful—it cost me my wife—and now I have been preaching a Gospel that was “foreign” to the faith I had grown up in. It was “foreign” to the faith I had shared with my priest friend and “foreign” to the faith I had shared with my wife. But was it truly “faith” that any of us had ever shared? The best I can say for it now is that it was a human attempt at faith, one that was doomed to failure, largely because of our willingness to ignore large chunks of God's word, the Bible.

I had never shared the Gospel that I now believe with my priest friend and I wondered—had he somehow come to know it? Had he somehow preached it, despite his church’s teachings to the contrary? The answer came as I shuffled through some of his most recent homilies that I found at his parish web site.

According to the date listed on this particular homily, he had preached it just a few months before his sudden and unexpected death. I knew I had found the “right” sermon because he started it with the following questions:

“Do you ever worry about not being saved?”

“Do you ever worry about not going to heaven?”

“‘Hey Lord—will only a few people be saved?—Will all your followers be saved?—And what about the Jews, will they be saved? After all, they are the chosen people. And what about us? –We have been with you from the beginning—Will we be saved?’”

“Again—as we have seen in our gospel readings in the past—Jesus doesn’t answer their question, but He changes the focus: “‘Strive to enter through the narrow gate—for many I tell you will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.’”

“Instead of answering their question—he answers a more important question---

What is required for entrance into the heavenly banquet?”

“What is required?”  

  • Standing up and caring for the poor.
  • Standing up for the truth.
  • Taking the risk to be a Samaritan to reach out to others.
  • Choosing the better portion.
  • Following His ways not the ways of the society we live in…

Wow. This priest friend of mine had even taken some time to “bullet point” some of the “requirements” he supposed that Christ had given us to necessitate our entry into His heavenly kingdom! But sadly, very sadly—my friend was very wrong. Very sincere, but very wrong.

Christ gave but one requirement—and our ability to meet that requirement was totally in the hands of Christ himself. Christ put that requirement very clearly when he said:

“He who believes in me has everlasting life.”

No, Jesus didn’t say he who cares for the poor, stands up for the truth, reaches out to others, chooses the better portion or rejects the ways of this world—is the one who has everlasting life, did he? Certainly, all these things are very important acts of kindness for professing Christians to do but none of them, not even one of them can assure our entry to Christ’s heavenly kingdom. Can they?

There is One who saves. There is One who has done the work required. Sadly, this friend of mine, apparently, never completely knew that One. And I am left all the more frustrated that I never took the time to even “try” to tell him.

Oh yes, my friend had the proper humility, the sense of unworthiness and the desire to do good things in the name of Christ. What my friend did not have was the Gospel, the message from Christ and about Christ…for all who believe.

He had been raised in the Roman Catholic Church, studied in its parochial schools, and graduated from its minor and major seminaries. Yet, he had apparently never heard the Gospel. Instead, he had heard and was taught what many are taught—both Catholics and Protestants alike—that it is your decisions, it is your actions, it is your ability to persevere in this life that matters in the next life. Couple that with some “help” from the Holy Spirit and you are in!

There is no argument that Christ commanded us to do good works, surely he did. He even told us there would be a reward in heaven for those who did. But he did not tell us that heaven was the reward. Instead, even before he separates the sheep from the goats at the end of time, he starts by telling us:

“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34)

Christ is talking to his followers, his sheep, and he tells them they have been blessed by his Father with an inheritance, an inheritance that had been given them since the creation of the world, an inheritance that is his very kingdom.  You do not work for an inheritance, especially one that was designated for you before you ever did even one work—an inheritance that was given you at the very creation of the world. You don’t “lose” an inheritance either. An inheritance is something due to you, whether you believe you deserve it or not.

How often have we heard someone talk about someone else who was “born with a golden spoon in their mouth.” The indication is that this individual was born into a wealthy family. It is a way for us to say that that person will probably never really “have to” work a day in their life—if they don’t want to. In other words, in terms of money and income, they are “fixed” for this life.

Well, we’re talking here about those who are “fixed” for the next life. They are the “chosen” or the “elect.” They have been “chosen” to receive an inheritance—an eternal inheritance. And unlike an inheritance in this life that can be squandered and lost—this inheritance comes with an iron-clad promise from the only One who can absolutely keep that promise—Christ himself—who says: “He who believes in me has everlasting life.” (John 6:47)

Like all things that Christ offers those who believe, this inheritance cannot be earned or bought—it is a gift—an eternal gift. Christ then tells what signs he expects to see among those who have this gift—those he has chosen for everlasting life. They may feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit those in prison…just examples of the many ways we can follow his command to: “love one another, as I have loved you.” 

So what’s the difference? I say we are saved by grace through faith alone and those who are saved through belief in Christ will love others. My priest friend says that in order to be saved you must have faith and works of love. Aren’t he and I saying the same thing? No. We’re not.

He’s saying that in order to get to heaven you must have faith and works of love. That’s not what Christ told us. He told us we who have the faith, will have eternal life with him—because we were the ones he chose to die for. That’s a promise that stands on its own. It’s a promise that Christ alone assured by his death on the cross for those who come to believe in him as Lord and Savior. However, as true believers, we seek to glorify him in all we say and do, we seek to thank him for the eternal life he has won for us—so we do those things with the gifts he has given us that will glorify him—maybe visit someone in prison or just show someone we care. We do not do what we do to attain heaven—heaven has already been attained for us. It was secured by the only one who can attain heaven for anybody—the Christ—the Son of the living God!

In other words, the biggest problem that the many professed Christians of today have is that they fail to give Christ proper credit for what he did for them. If they truly believe in him, they will come to know that he and he alone has won their salvation and they can’t do a thing to “help” him do what he has already done for them.

We must reject this false gospel that tells us that “what we do counts toward our salvation.” It does not. And that’s not why we do the good that we do.  This false gospel seeks to rob Christ of the completed work he did to secure our salvation. It refuses to give him the proper credit he so richly deserves. 

Christ puts our works in perspective for us. First, he tells us “Without me, you can do nothing.” (John 15:15) and then he tells us how we are to react to the good works he allows us to do: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants, we have only done our duty.’” (Luke 17:10)

Christ is telling us here that it is not for us to expect even a “thank you” for obeying his commands. Why? Because he has given us much more than a thank you, long before we first obeyed him. He has given us everlasting life with him—so much more than we will ever deserve or merit!

That is why the apostle Paul was absolutely adamant: “By grace you are saved through faith and this is not from you, it is a gift of God. It is not from works, so no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

  And when we are tempted to include even the slightest of our works as a “stepping stone” to heaven, adding even that the Holy Spirit aided us, the apostle roars ever louder: 

“And if by grace; then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:6)

Therefore, let us not look for this “narrow way” that Christ mentioned in our own works—but in his own words: He who believes in me has everlasting life.

May the dead rest in peace. God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. And may those who have been silent for too long, turn to the Holy Spirit to find their tongue—no matter the persecution or personal cost that lies ahead. Amen. --Bro. Jim

 

 

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