We recently asked our college Sunday school class where they think they would go if they died today and why. All of them, 100%, said they would go to hell because they're not worthy of heaven.
There's something very wrong here that made me want to fire myself from any kind of church teaching that I've done in the past 10 years. I shared a discussion of this incident in a post on my blog. Thousands of views later, it seems clear that there's a real issue here.
It’s been said that half-truths are more dangerous than lies...and we've been victims of a terrible half-truth, "We are not worthy of salvation." But there’s gotta be more to the story.
Fr. Tadros Malaty – an inspirational, once-in-a-generation priest of the Coptic Orthodox church – once said that “we must think of heaven like going home.” In his usual joyful brilliance, he broke down many barriers that we often put between us and heaven in our heads.
Take a second before you continue and think about this question: WHERE WOULD YOU END UP IF YOU DIED TODAY? Heaven or hell? Don't let yourself off the hook with a "I don't know, I'm hoping for the best" answer. It’s either heaven, or it’s hell – those are the only two options.
And more importantly, WHY DO YOU THINK YOU’LL END UP THERE? The final decision is in God's hands, but we should think about the process and not invent our own criteria.
Answer #1: "Probably heaven. I mean, I'm a good person. I didn't kill anybody. I pay my taxes. And I've been to church a bunch of times. That's gotta count!"
That's nice. All our cute little efforts at righteousness are like spraying cologne on a corpse. It's like trying to get into Harvard because we passed a math test once.
Heaven is spotless. It's like those secure rooms you see in Sci-fi movies that you wear a protective suit to enter. God's standard for heaven isn't just "good person"/gold star/help old lady across the street. It's UTTER PERFECTION!
When Pope Francis, Ghandi and your favorite Coptic saint stand before God, their most righteous acts will be like a filthy (menstruation) rag. Forgive the graphic imagery there but that’s the original Hebrew word used to describe our own righteousness in Isaiah 64:6:
“But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6)
That's how God describes our best human effort apart from Him. On our own, we're hopeless here. No chance. Depressing, huh? Don't worry, there's good news…
Answer #2: “No. I'm not worthy. Heaven is for the saints, the martyrs and the holy people. I have no shot... I barely feel comfortable walking into a church. Heaven would just get awkward."
If you believe that you're not worthy of heaven, you're right. Absolutely positively 100% right. Good answer.
But let me tell you what else you're not worthy of. You’re not worthy of BAPTISM – being united with Jesus in His death so that you might be united with Him in His resurrection as well! (see Romans 6:1-9)
You’re not worthy of receiving the gift of the ANOINTING OF THE HOLY SPIRIT - the Lord, the Life Giver, the Comforter, the Spirit of God Himself.
And you’re certainly not worthy of partaking of the EUCHARIST - the true Body and precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which has been given for the remission of sins and eternal life to those who partake of Him.
Yet despite not being worthy of any of those things, God has given them all to you hasn’t He? He’s made them all 100% freely available to all who come to Him, no matter how unworthy they might be.
Unless you think you were baptized and given the gift of the Holy Spirit in Chrismation because you were an awesome baby with a special smile? Or do you think you deserve the Eucharist because you pray a mean "Kyrie Eleyson" and have your own custom church head covering?
No way! Not even close! The only reason we have these gifts is because the Holy Spirit makes us worthy and God freely gives us of Himself. That's grace as we Orthodox understand it, not just forgiveness but God giving us His very Self.
When we ask God "to make us worthy of the partaking of these holy and blessed mysteries,” He does just that! We can't make ourselves holy. It is His work to give us the life of Christ. He is the one who gives us by Grace, what Christ is by nature. We believe that He is doing His job. If you don't think so, take it up with Management :)
While we prepare ourselves to receive these holy and precious gifts, we always remember that they're just that- Gifts. They're not rewards given based on our behavior. They're gifts, given freely, to create and enable that behavior in us.
They're medicines given to us BECAUSE we're sick. Yet some feel like they're too diseased for the hospital (the church) or too sick to see Dr. Jesus. We sometimes want to get well on our own first, then come to Him. But healing is His job. Our job is to come, take our healing medicines and listen to the Doctor's orders.
There's a deception that has somehow crept into our Sunday school rooms and pulpits. That idea is one of salvation in the “last moment only.” The Church & Scriptures have always taught us that a) we WERE SAVED (Ephesians 2:8, baptism & Chrismation), b) we are BEING SAVED daily (Acts 2:47, Eucharist, repentance & confession) and c) we WILL BE SAVED in the last day (Matthew 24:13).
All three are essential! Our salvation is culminated in the last day, but it doesn't start there. When the priest says to me "Given for the remission of sins and eternal life to those who shall partake of Him"(as I receive the Eucharist) my only acceptable response is "Amen."
We must not change our Orthodox understanding because we're afraid to sound like another denomination or religion. Out of fear that people will abuse God's forgiveness, we sometime make Him look like a merciless slave master. And out of fear that people will be offended or turned off, we sometimes make it seem like He's soft and approves of sin. Neither is the case.
God is LOVE. That love has HIGH STANDARDS and also has HIGH MERCY. And that is why we "look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the coming age."
In other words...we look for home.
p.s. Today is my birthday (happy birthday to me) and on this day there are people who are getting me gifts, just for being born. God is doing the same. Giving gifts freely for our birth and rebirth.