Heaven is not a place to vacation

Tom Bartolomeo
13th Sunday Ordinary C 2013
Kings 19: 16b, 19-21; Psalm 16;
Galatians 5: 1, 13-18; Luke 9: 51-62
Reproduced with Permission

Many well meaning people consider heaven a worthy destination like some place to vacation with brochure in hand and not really understanding how radically those who enter heaven must first change while here, a transformation which must begin here like immigrants who put behind themselves their homeland to become citizens of another country and society. When Moses led the people of God out of captivity in Egypt they left with no intention of ever returning after the angel of death had taken the lives of all the firstborn in the land and happily passed over God's chosen people. Most of them began their journey with good intentions but over the course of forty years wandering in the desert they could or rather would not endure the hardship of a journey seemingly without end and often hungry and disillusioned. God had promised them a "land of milk and honey" but not 'a bed of roses' just as Jesus himself has promised us eternal life by bearing a cross as he did.

His greatest advice then and today, our means for finding everlasting happiness, are largely ignored, The Beatitudes. Blessed or happy is the man or woman who detaches himself from this passing world: poor in spirit, meek, pure, just, merciful, peaceful and accepting sorrow and persecution. "Rejoice and be glad for yours is the kingdom of heaven", he said. (Matthew 5, 3-12). Neither was God a bystander. He, too, made the journey in the worst of circumstances. But he was always contemplating his return to his Father and our Father as well. When we read in the Gospel of Luke, "When the days for Jesus' being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem", and nothing would deter him. (Luke 9 ff). Jesus never unpacked his bags on his arrival, so to speak, nor was he sidetracked by the ordinary affairs of life here. Once he had to tell a perspective disciple, "Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head". Are you ready for such a life? Neither would Christ excuse a disciple from the journey in order to bury his father or to say goodbye to his family. "Let the dead bury the dead" and "set your hand to the plow" [and] don't look back, he said. You may plow into rocks, ruin your gear or lose your way. Only with determination can anyone reach heaven. We must make our own arrangements. No travel agent can help us. Many other Bible figures knew this and would endure many difficulties on their journey. The prophet Elijah who had vanquished a powerful king and 400 of his false prophets would not interrupt his journey even for his replacement, Elisha. Elisha just had to catch up with the determined prophet if he was going to take his place as God willed. Sometimes God may intervene in our lives in ways we do not expect as he did with the Apostle Paul, a former enemy of the Church. When God struck Paul blind in his "murderous" pursuit of Christians God questioned him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you kicking against the goad," doesn't it? Blind and enfeebled Paul was freed from his sins and became the relentless Apostle to the Gentiles traveling to the ends of the world seeking converts. (cf Acts 8-9 ).

Even in ordinary human circumstances this is not that extraordinary. I remember working with an immigrant from Russia, Tatiana, who spent more than ten years finding here way to America, first by taking up residence in Israel and then convincing the American consulate there to provide her a provisional work visa into our county. She was a highly trained opera signer in Russia and hoped she could find work and a new life in the United States. She and her Russian husband had planned this move, first she would come here and then her husband and daughter would follow. Finally she had the opportunity to audition for the Los Angeles Opera Company and was cast in the role of Musetta in the opera, La Boheme, conducted by Placido Domingo. I met her after she had moved to New York where she was still working and waiting for her husband and daughter to arrive. She never complained about her difficult journey. When I asked what she thought about us native Americans she spoke in Russian a word equivalent in our language, "wimpish".

It is no easy journey following Christ's admonition, "We can not serve two masters", God and the world, and expect to gain heaven. (Matthew 6, 19-33 ). Saint Paul explained these opposing principles in his Letter to the Galatians, the world of the spirit an the world of the flesh. He spoke about freeing our spirits from the selfish and brutish cravings of the flesh,"biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another". (Galatians 5, 13-26). The spirit can be enslaved by the flesh like a yoke on an animal's neck led by its bodily passions and appetites whose only interest is personal satisfaction and pleasure. The human spirit, on the other hand, has a life of its own but can be so constrained, mesmerized and dominated by pleasure, pride and vanity that it may as well be dead. Conscience, guilt and regret wane and may eventually die. Right and wrong, good and evil, become irrelevant self-justifying opinions only. Which way we may lean is not that difficult to identify. It rests on the principle of love where we either love ourselves and those who love us alone, or we love everyone including our enemies as Jesus taught.

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself," has no restrictions as Saint Paul repeated the command that he was taught by the Lord which corresponds with the greatest commandment he taught, "Love God with your whole heart. . . mind . . . and strength". (Luke 10, 27). Love fills and fulfills itself only in God, the source of "all that is good", the final words said at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass before the distribution of Holy Communion. No would argue, however, that everything in this world is good. Evil exists but many do not agree what is good or evil. "All that is good", for the true journeyman, however, is only achievable in God in the kingdom of heaven. Our attainment of heaven begins here in this world and requires our reconciliation with God and with everyone else here as Jesus taught "Our Father, who are in heaven . . . forgive us our transgressions as we [as we . . . as we . . . ] forgive those who transgress against us and lead us not into temptation." Transgressions include not only sins but the unintentional mistakes and accidents of others which may offend or injure us. We can, however, achieve some of the peace of heaven in this world even in persecution as we consciously and continuously move heavenward where the fullness of peace and "all that is good" resides forever. "My peace I give you" were the first words Jesus spoke to his disciples after his resurrection and before returning to heaven. Such peace begins here little by little. Such peace, goodness and reconciliation begins here, in part at least, when we arduously seek what Jesus taught, "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" as his children should be.

Peace requires confession and reconciliation with everyone, God and all others. It is the sum and substance of our prayer to "Our Father who are in heaven. . . Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". The love of God requires the love of all others who are his children, too. It is God's decision, not ours. Love and goodness do not exclude anyone and are always relational and conditional - you and I, God and us. In both commandments, 'how we ought to pray', "Our Father who are in heaven" and 'how we ought to love' pivot on the word "as". "Forgive us our transgressions as we forgive" and "love our neighbor as [we love] ourselves." It is all God's will "on earth as it is in heaven." This is the radical change required of all of us in this world as immigrants and pilgrims seeking the Kingdom of God.