Today the Church celebrates the "Chair of St. Peter" - Jesus' establishment of the Papacy. (If you would like to read more, you can click here, here, or here.) What I want to focus on today is the question Jesus asked Peter, because it's the question he asks you and me - "But you, who do you say that I am?"
Just last week the Holy Spirit gave me opportunity to repeat that question to someone. A friend had emailed to ask if she could run a couple of religious questions by me. When we sat down I expected a couple of factual questions about what Catholics believe or why we do this or that, but my friend dove straight into the deep end: "I haven't been to church in a long time; but I believe that Jesus is God, and I believe that everything the Bible says is true. But I also have a very open mind, so on a matter like gay 'marriage,' I think that so long as two people love each other and it makes them happy, they should be able to go ahead and get married. I am like that on other matters too. Am I going to go to Hell for that? I think I try to be the best person I can; could I still go to Hell for thinking differently?"
Alright, first thing I did was to ask to back up from the question of going to hell for a moment and start with what she had told me about her faith. I reflected back, "You told me that you believe Jesus is God, believe in the Bible; but then you also want to say that certain actions, that you know directly contradict Jesus and the Bible, are alright - so long as they make a person happy. Seems to me that you are trying to hold two contradictory statements in your mind at the same time." She smiled and shook her head, acknowledging that she understood that was exactly what she was doing.
I continued, "When you say that you believe Jesus is God, you are saying that you believe He created this world we live in and that He understands what will and will not ultimately lead to our happiness. Our emotional reactions to something are not the real measure of what is good or bad. A twelve year old boy might tell you that sniffing model airplane glue makes him feel happy; but you, with a wider knowledge base, understand that it can also damage his brain. If we believe that Jesus is God and that He understands - objectively, perfectly understands - what leads human beings to happiness; then to say that He is wrong on some point doesn't make any sense. You can't have it both ways."
"So far as who is going to heaven and hell, no one but God can tell you that. What I can say is that He has told us - again, objectively speaking - which actions are compatible with the lives of his children and which are not. But what factors lessen or increase a person's culpability for those actions ... only God knows a person's history - how much of the truth they have been exposed to, their thought processes, the movements of their hearts. I don't despair for anyone's salvation; I pray for God's grace to be at work in them, just as I pray for it to be at work in me. Heaven is the culmination of a relationship with God. And like all relationships, a relationship with God is dependent on our response. If you had never responded to your boyfriend's dinner invitations, you wouldn't have much of a relationship today. God invites us to get to know Him in many ways: meeting Him at church on Sunday, receiving the sacraments, reading that Bible that He went to so much trouble to bring to us. Do we live our lives in the way He has asked us; or do we tell him that we know better and go our own way? At the moment of death, when this life ends and everything around us melts away; will we find ourselves next to God or at a distance? If at a distance then we will experience loneliness, and that loneliness will not end. That is Hell. But it was us who moved away from God, not the other way around."
"Jesus asked the apostles and He is asking you, 'Who do you say that I am?' You answered, 'God.' Alright. Now what are you going to do about it?"
My friend has a good head on her shoulders and love in her heart. I am excited to see what this next year holds for her.