Homily, 21st Sunday Ordinary Time, Cycle C Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., St. Joseph's, Dalton, Georgia
Years ago, I was visiting an 80 year old man who had moved to Atlanta from the North over 50 years ago. At the time, he went to work for a bank and quickly made several friends. Well, one Monday morning his friends around the water cooler were discussing the previous day’s sermons at each of their churches (I guess it wasn't football season), and they asked him what church he was going to. When he said “Sacred Heart Catholic Church”, the conversation stopped, total silence. And one of his friends walked up to him, looked at him closely, his head and his back, and then said, “You know, you’re the first Catholic I’ve ever met, and until now, I’ve been taught to believe that Catholics had horns and tails.”
My father grew up in West Georgia as the only Catholic in his high school, and he told me similar stories. But, over the last 50 years things have gotten a little better for Catholics in the South. Now there are many more of us, and our Protestant friends have gotten to know us and seen that we’re reasonably normal. And that’s good, but I do occasionally hear of people who question our Catholic faith and wonder about us. In fact, I imagine that many of you may have been asked by a friend that all too familiar question, “Have you been saved?”
That seems to be an old question, since someone asked Jesus as in today’s Gospel a similar question, “Lord, are they few in number who are saved?” And Jesus then explains that one must “enter by the narrow door.” So, how do we enter this narrow door, how do Catholics answer the question, “Have you been saved?”
First we need to ask the question, “Saved from what?” To answer that, we need to go back to the Garden of Eden. In the garden, Adam and Eve walked and talked with God. They were friends of God and shared in his life. This friendship with God is what the Church has called sanctifying grace.
But, as the Scriptures tell us, they sinned and were expelled from the Garden. They were punished – he to sweat and toil over the earth, she to give birth in pain. But the worse punishment was that they were no longer able to walk and talk with God in the garden. They lost his friendship, and that was perhaps the most painful of all, having exchanged friendship with God for the lies of the devil, they exchanged the garden of paradise for dust.
So if we want to be saved, we must somehow be restored to friendship with God. How was this accomplished? We couldn’t do it on our own. Indeed, the history of salvation tells us that it could only be accomplished in one way: by God’s becoming one of us. Jesus said (John 15:13-15), “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one's friends.” By becoming one of us and laying down his life for us, Jesus showed us the greatest love that one can have for a friend, so in him, we are restored to friendship with God.
So what is our role in this? If we want to share in the salvation won by Christ on his Cross, we must become friends with Jesus. If we do not, then we will hear the dreadful words mentioned in the Gospel, “Away from me, I don’t know you.”
How do we become friends with Jesus? How do we get to know him? Our non-Catholic friends will sometimes say that this is a one-time act, that if you accept Jesus as your savior, then your salvation is assured, no matter what happens. We believe that that first step is essential, but also that salvation is a life-long process. Just as a friendship or relationship grows and deepens over time, so also our relationship with the Lord grows and deepens over time. And this is accomplished in many ways.
First and foremost, through prayer, intimate conversation with him. You get to know someone by talking with them. And a friend is someone you share everything with: your hopes and joys, your sorrows, hardships and disappointments, the big events of life, and the daily routine. And since Jesus is our Lord and God, we can also share with him those most intimate secrets of our hearts, knowing he will forgive our faults when we humbly acknowledge them, and that he will respond to the longings of our hearts if we but trust in him.
A friend is someone who is true to you, so we show our friendship to the Lord by being true to him, and this is done primarily in the keeping of his commandments. Jesus says several times in John’s Gospel (John 15:14), “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 14:15), “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:21), “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.” (John 15:10), “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love.” He’s pretty clear about this one, which is why sin, the breaking of God’s commandments separates us from him and causes us to lose his friendship.
We can keep from sin and deepen our friendship with the Lord by practicing our faith. Because Jesus founded the Church on the apostles who have passed on the faith to us, he gave the Church what we call “the fullness of the means of salvation.” He promised that he would be with the Church till the end of time, that he would send the Holy Spirit to guide it to all truth, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. Because of this, we know that the teaching of the Church is reliable and true. If we follow these teachings, despite pressures from the world to conform to the spirit of the age, then we are indeed friends of Jesus. In the Church, we especially meet our Lord in the Sacraments. In Baptism, we are cleansed of sin and united to his death and resurrection, and in Confession, he renews us continually. In Confirmation, we are given special gifts of the Holy Spirit by which we are to serve him. In Anointing of the Sick, he heals us, comforts us, and gives us strength. In the sacraments of Marriage and Holy Orders, we learn the true meaning of self-giving love in different ways. But most especially, we meet our Lord in the Eucharist, where we gather as a community of his friends to worship and he becomes food for our journey in this life, an intimate companion we receive in his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.
Finally, we become friends of Jesus by becoming friends with his people, especially those who are closest to his heart. (Matthew 25:40), “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” As James says(James 2:23-24), “Abraham … was called the friend of God… a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” So we show our friendship by our works, they are proofs of our love.
This friendship begins now, and continues into the next life. Heaven is Jesus. So Heaven begins now. If you honestly live your faith as a friend of Jesus, then you need have nothing to fear from death, for death will be simply the removing of the veil of faith that has kept us from seeing our Lord face-to-face. St. Paul says (1 Cor. 13:12-13), “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Faith gives way to sight, hope gives way to possession. The essence of friendship is love, so that will remain in heaven.
So, next time you are asked, “Are you saved?” Remember what Jesus said, “I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” Your reply should be, “Yes, indeed, I am a friend of Jesus.”
A collection of various homilies I've preached over the years. These homilies may not be reprinted without permission, however, priests and deacons are welcome to borrow ideas for preaching. I try my best to give credit to my sources when I borrow ideas and themes (we call this "preacher's privilege"), but I'm sure I missed a few. Enjoy!