Some of us may remember a year or so ago Pope Francis, in preaching at one of his weekday Masses, which he says in the small chapel in the house where he lives, for the people of the area, he was reflecting on the Gospel and he said, "Even atheists are in heaven." I'm sure there was a shock in the crowd even with probably some of us, "What? Atheists in heaven?" Francis said, "Yes, even atheists are in heaven." He was trying to show the people that God ultimately loves so much and is such a merciful God that everyone is drawn into God's love forever.
We may wonder about that because we have the idea of a judgment -- some on the right, some on the left, some to be condemned. That image was used by Jesus, certainly, but was not the whole truth about why Jesus came. In fact, if we listen carefully to the first lesson today, we discover that as far back as 600 years before Christ, Isaiah was saying that everyone is coming back when the reign of God happens, not just the chosen people, but the Gentiles, too.
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah even makes a point that some of them will be Levites and priests in the temple service, just like the chosen people. We've always had this idea that our God is a God of judgment and that we have to earn our way into heaven. Remember the story of the young man who runs up to Jesus, "What do I have to do to be saved?" he asks. Jesus says, "Keep the commandments." He said, "I've done all that. What more?" "Come follow me."
Jesus is telling us that it isn't just about our personal salvation; it's about all of us becoming part of God's family, following him, and sharing in everlasting life. We have focused on saving ourselves, and yet really, did you notice in the Gospel when the person asked, "How many are going to be saved?" Jesus ignores the question, really. He doesn't say, "Well, let's see, there will be this many or that many." No, he doesn't think in those terms because Jesus has come for another purpose, not just to save me or you or all of us.
Jesus came, as he announced at the beginning of his public life, to bring about the reign of God. He says, "The reign of God is at hand." That means a time when there will be fullness of life for everyone. God's love will be poured forth in a way that embraces all of the world, all of the universe. Then Jesus does say, "Change your lives." We have to work to change our lives, but not so that we can earn a place in heaven. That's a gift from God; we can't earn it.
No, Jesus says to change your lives so that you're ready to help transform the world, make the world into what God wants it to be when each one of us begins to change our lives. He told that young man who wanted to know how to be saved, he said not worry about that, but just come and follow me. That's the same message Jesus is giving to us now, today -- come and follow him. Change our lives, yes, but not to earn a place in heaven.
That's a gift and it will always be available to us. Sometimes we'll have to go through (as the letter to the Hebrews reminded us today), some afflictions, some suffering as we try to be healed of our defects -- spiritual, moral, physical even. God's purpose in creating us was set forth, I think it was by St. Irenaeus when he said, "The glory of God is a human person fully alive." What makes God's glory break forth is when every one of us continues to grow and develop into the full person God wants us to be.
That will only happen when we begin to follow Jesus faithfully and totally and follow his way of love. "Love one another as I have loved you." God is love. Where there is love there is God, but not that we love God first, no, God first loves us. That's the gift. God is bringing it to fullness within each of us and within our whole world, in fact, the whole universe—the transformation of our world into the reign of God. God calls us to participate in that activity.
God calls us to change, to become the full person we can be so that we will enter into the fullness of life with God in heaven. This may seem challenging and it is because we're being asked to change ourselves dramatically to follow Jesus. As he says in the Gospel, when we get to heaven we'll be surprised. Some we thought were last are going to be first. They followed Jesus more faithfully. Some who were first and looked good in this world will be further back. They didn't follow Jesus faithfully.
But if all of us follow Jesus as faithfully as we can, as the letter to the Hebrews said just before our passage today, "Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus." That's what we have to do so that we change and we help to bring about change in our world, we transform our world so it becomes the reign or God. All people of all time -- all of the universe will be transformed. The fullness of life will be made present for every one of us, and we will enter into that fullness of life joyfully and thankfully because God has brought it about in each one of us.
I think when we leave today, the main thing to try to remember is to keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, ready to make the changes that you see in him, and then we will be doing the work we need to do to transform our world into the reign of God and God's purpose in creation will be fulfilled. All of us, all of our world, all of the universe will be filled with the love, the goodness, the life of God forever.
[Homily given at St. Philomena, Detroit, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]