Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “I am certain that there will be three surprises in heaven. First of all, I will see some people there whom I never expected to see. Second, there will be a number whom I expect to be there who will not be there. And, even relying on His mercy, the biggest surprise of all may be that I will be there.” I find that as our generation ages, we start to concern ourselves with things beyond this life. I have people ask me what I think will happen after death. I have people ask me how long I think this world will last. I have people ask me what I think the lives of our children and grandchildren will be like. And I have people ask me if there will be a church in the future.
Yes, I believe that there will be life after the life after death. That is to say that I believe that there will be a resurrection and that following the resurrection the will be judgment. And after the judgment, there will be a new life in the new heaven and the new earth. I believe that this is made possible by the life of Jesus Christ who came down to us, bled, suffered and died for us, and now lives to sustain us into the new life. Like Bishop Sheen I will be surprised at not only who is there in the new heaven and the new earth but I will be more surprised at who is not. And I will be most surprised, that through the tender mercy of God, I might find myself there too. But how do I get there? Will I get there by being a good parish priest and pastor? Will being a good husband and father make possible for me to enjoy the new life? I believe that the new life is offered to me through Christ because of what Christ has done for me. It is not about who I am, what I have done or if I am worthy. All that God asks of me is that I live into all that he offers. So how does one do that?
At the risk of making a “to-do” list or worse a “ta-da” list (you know… the kind of list that allows you to try wowing someone by telling them how great you are list), the path seems to begin with not just being a religious person. It seems to begin with being a humble person. Is it possible that the truly religious person is a humble person? There is no doubt that a humble person is thankful to God because they acknowledge before God who they really are: a mortified sinner and a beloved child. The humble person will acknowledge freely that they have received the grace and mercy of God when they could have been overwhelmed by whatever circumstances they found themselves in. In short, the person who wants to live with God will aim at living towards God every single day.
The clarion call of the gospel is not to be religious by yourself. We are called by God through the Gospel into the community of the Son to live out all of life in the midst of that community so that we might learn the humility that will be needed in the new life of the new creation. If we aren’t willing to live such a life out now, to learn the humbleness we need before God now, why would we be satisfied to do it later? Does this not tell us something about what God expects of us and about our own nature as human beings? Like the Pharisee, we cannot depend on being religious or spiritual and think that this makes God happy. And at the same time, we need to do more that simply stand back, thump our chests and cry out mea culpa, mea culpa (my fault, my fault). This is as true for us as community as it is for us as individuals.
We need to consider that God does not just judge the clothes, the lips or even the words of our prayers. God looks past all that and judges the heart. The Pharisee in the parable is absolutely right: he is not like other men. He is not only religious; he is in his own way, righteous. And yet it is the tax collector that goes way having found mercy and forgiveness. And if this has meant anything to him there is going to have to be room for change. Does this mean that he will go out and admit to everything he has done? We are not told that he did. But perhaps the life of this particular tax collector has been changed so that he will begin to change his ways and thus transform the lives of those around him. Perhaps in time he will make restitution to those he has harmed. Maybe he will work to make things better for those around him. Perhaps he will be more honest in what he does in the name of Rome. Only time will tell. What is certain is that the heart that is open to God at least has the possibility of new life in the new earth while the heart that is full of pride for itself only needs the sound of its own voice.
Perhaps this is a moment when we can stop and consider how we pray and what we pray as individuals and as a parish. How do we build ourselves up in prayer and how do we plead for mercy both for others and for ourselves. Then let us take the opportunity to go and find out what this means: “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” If we can seek mercy and grace of God with some humbleness and humility, then new creation, new life and the life of the Church will be in better focus for all of us.