Sunday, June 29, 2008

How do You Get to Heaven?

If I were to ask the question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” many of you might say, “Practice! Practice! Practice!” If you’re not into music but you read science fiction instead, and I asked, “What is the meaning of life?” you might say, “42!” and you would be correct if I were talking about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We ask a lot of questions as human beings to find our way either to Carnegie Hall or just around town. I’m still asking questions about how to find different places here in Florence. We ask so many questions in life, that after “no” and “mommy” I think “why” is the most common word we use as infants trying to learn our way around this new life of ours.

My life has been very blessed these past two weeks to have had many dialogues with so many of you. I have heard about the great early years of our parish and I have heard of the great plans for the future. My favorite dialogues have been about your personal stories. All of us have stories about our childhood years; how we met our spouse; how we got our first jobs. I have also heard some really exciting conversion stories about how some of you came to know Jesus Christ or how you discovered the Orthodox Church.

I’m still learning about our Parish here in Florence, but I do know this….of all the things I’ve learned in the past two weeks, one thing we all have in common is our need for Christ. We all need Christ in different ways, but we all need Him and we all should want to know more about Him. Maybe that is why it seems so comforting to hear Christ ask the Apostles, “Who do people say that I am?” (Matthew 16.13) We want to know the same thing but we just don’t know how to have a dialogue with Him. Life is a constant dialogue and this morning’s Gospel begins a very important dialogue for the future of the Church and the answer to our questions about Christ.

As we commemorate the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul the Church has placed this particular dialogue in this morning’s Gospel to help us answer our questions about Jesus, “What is the meaning of life?” and “How do you get to heaven?” We’re not reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy this morning and we’re not trying to get to Carnegie Hall. We’re reading the Bible and trying to get to Heaven, and the answer is the same for both questions, “Repent! Repent! Repent!” as many times as it takes to get it right and Saints Peter and Paul are two people who realized the same thing.

The Church has given us these two great saints to study this morning as a way of helping us get to heaven. Both have very much in common and both suffered for the Faith. Both denied Christ at one point in their life and both were later realized to be among the greatest saints of the Church leading thousands of people to Christ. Just as each of us has a story, these two great Saints have stories. Reflect with me for a moment on the stories of these two great Saints.

First we have Peter who is the main character in this morning’s Gospel. Peter was a fisherman when Christ called him to ministry. We know from the Gospel (Matthew 4.18) that he and his brother Andrew left their nets aside to follow Christ with no debate. In this morning’s Gospel, Christ says “On this rock [the rock of Peter’s Faith] I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16.18) Peter was a great believer in Christ, but when Christ was suffering, where was Peter? He denied even knowing Him. Peter had seen the uncreated Light of Christ at the Transfiguration and he still denied Him. BUT after dialoguing with the Resurrected Lord, Peter repented and became the Chief of the Apostles. Repentance saved Peter.

How about Paul? Paul was a Pharisee who led a great persecution on the Christian Church. We know from the Book of Acts that Paul took his dedication to killing Christians so seriously that he would travel to other cities just to find Christians to bring back to Jerusalem to be killed. It was on one of these journeys to Damascus that Paul had a revelation (Acts 9) and after a dialogue with Christ, he repented and became the greatest missionary the Church has ever known. Repentance saved Paul.

It was repentance that allowed both Peter and Paul to really know who Jesus was. It was repentance that led them to confess Christ to the world and become the great Saints we celebrate today. It is repentance that will allow us to know who Jesus Christ is. Repentance is nothing more than changing direction. When John the Baptist said, “Repent, For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3.2) he wasn’t just saying change your morals; he was saying “Hey you’re headed right for trouble if you don’t change direction. That’s the wrong street. It is a dead end…” All this talk of repentance and changing direction, no wonder the early Christians referred to our Faith the “The Way” since it is the way to heaven.

So how do we get to heaven? Our life is a journey and like any journey it starts, weaves in and out of a variety of side trips and eventually come to an end. The longer the journey the more detours life seems to have and these side trips and detours waste gas. We just hope that we get to our destination before the car runs out of gas. And sometimes we get plain old lost and have to change directions; we have to repent, to get back on track.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, today we celebrate two great stories of men who denied Christ but also repented and got to heaven. They should be an inspiration to us that we too can repent. It doesn’t matter what we have done in our lives. There is nothing from which we cannot repent. There is nothing we have done that cannot be forgiven by God. Paul was killing Christians and Peter denied even knowing Christ and they were forgiven by God when they repented. Surely whatever we have done can be forgiven by God when we repent.

Let’s take to heart the message of this morning’s Gospel and engage in a dialogue with Jesus and repent. This week let’s commit to engaging Christ in a dialogue. Let’s all do one simple thing….every morning this week let’s all commit to saying the following prayer before our feet even touch the ground…

“Lord God, how do I get to heaven?” and then listen and watch for the answer.
So….what is the meaning of life? To get to heaven. And how do you get to heaven? Repent! Repent! Repent!

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