Bottom line: Heaven is not a reward for doing good things; heaven is a relationship with the Father in Christ - a relationship that makes one new creation.
A few years ago the Archdiocese of Seattle purchased a retreat house. The building had served well for many decades - and the archdiocese faced a choice: Either touch it up a bit and open it again in a few weeks - or completely renovate it. The archdiocese took the second course. They gutted the building, creating completely new spaces with new plumbing, heating and other utilities. For those of us who had used the old retreat house, the renovation seemed like a miracle.
God wants to do something similar for you and me. St. Paul says, "Whoever is in Christ is a new creation!" God doesn't want to just make a few cosmetic changes; he wants to renovate us inside and out.
Many people (especially in our American culture) have the idea that you get to heaven by doing good deeds.* That was the attitude of the older son in today's parable. He thought he could demand his father's love: "Look at all the things I have done. How hard I worked! And I never got anything it return. I expect some credit."
But the older son had it wrong. No one can demand love. Nor can we earn love. In the same way, no one can "earn" heaven. People today tend to look at heaven as one more entitlement program - like Social Security. You pay something into it and when you retire, you get the benefits.** Heaven does not work that way.
The younger son, he understood what heaven means. He said, "Father I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called you son." That boy knew he could not demand his father's love. He could only receive it as a free gift.
Let's listen to St. Paul again: "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them." When we accept that gift, says St. Paul, we become a new creation.
The new creation involves much more than touching up the exterior and sweeping out a few rooms. No, it is a complete renovation - a whole new interior. Heaven, after all, is a relationship with God - through Christ - in the Communion of Saints. It requires a humbled heart - like that younger son had, after he repented.
During these final weeks of Lent, I want to help you have a new heart, a new spirit - to become a new creation in Christ. I also want to become a new creation. One of the best ways of doing that is by making a good confession.
When we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we recognize that we have in some way wandered from the Father's House. We have sought happiness apart from God. But the things we thought would bring happiness, they let us down. Like the younger son, we wound up lonely, hungry. At that moment we face a choice: We can crawl into a hole or we can swallow our pride - and return to the Father's house.
When we make a good confession, we say, "Father, I have sinned against heaven- against the Communion of Saints - and against you." We admit our sins. It doesn't require a long list. What matters is to stand up and get on the road.
As a priest, I try represent the Father. I want to receive anyone who comes. Sometimes Jewish and other non-baptized people come for confession. I listen and pray with them. Sometimes people come, who - for example, because of their marriage situation - cannot receive Communion. I listen and pray with them. The greatest joy as a priest: to welcome someone back to the Father's house - in the name of Christ.
This week (on Friday evening) we will have our Lenten Penance Service. I hope many of you will take advantage of this opportunity. If you cannot come on Friday evening, the Archdiocese is offering the Sacrament of Reconciliation all day Saturday at St. James Cathedral.
Now is the moment. In just two weeks, we celebrate Palm Sunday - the beginning of the greatest week of the year, Holy Week. We celebrate what St. Paul tells us this Sunday: "God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ." In him God offers us this free gift - a filial relationship with God, as part of the Communion of Saints. Heaven is not a reward for doing good things; heaven is a relationship with the Father in Christ - a relationship that makes one new creation. If we allow God, he will renovate us inside and out. He wants us to become a new creation.
*This Pelagian view often becomes the concluding paragraph of funeral eulogies: "And so - in spite of our sadness - we can be happy Joe is in heaven..." (See The Usual Homily)
**Which naturally leads to a quiet cynicism: Given the likelihood of benefits actually being there, who can blame a young person for hedging his bets?
Intercessions for Fourth Sunday of Lent (from Priests for Life)
From Archives (Year C homilies for Fourth Sunday of Lent):
Confession of Sins and New Creation (2007)
The Reproach of Egypt (2004)
Return of the Prodigal Son (2001)
Who is The Prodigal Son? (1998)
Homilies for Year A Readings for RCIA Scrutinies:
Small Gesture with Enormous Promise (2008)
Seeing and Knowing (2005)
Men Who Went Blind (2002)
Fatal Blindness (1999)
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
My bulletin column
St. Mary of the Valley Album
Books, tapes, CD's & videos for parish lending library
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