Brief Synopsis of the Readings: Continuing with the Acts of the Apostles we find the Christian community growing. Hellenists (ie, Christians who came without being Jews first) complained that their widows’ needs were being overlooked. The Twelve then met and decided to select seven members who would ensure their needs were being met. In John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of there being “many rooms in my Father’s house” and how he would prepare a place for them. Thomas asked how they could find the way to this place. Jesus responded that he is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me.”
So how big is Heaven? Is there room for everyone? On September 11, 2001 many of us found ourselves thinking of the strangest things. As I drove to work that Tuesday morning I began to wonder about all those people who thought nothing of boarding airplanes or going to work in the World Trade Centers or the Pentagon. They suddenly found themselves at the Gates of Heaven and I wondered if they would have to open up more check in lanes. I’m not sure why but I thought that whoever was in charge of intake (perhaps St. Peter) needed to find a way to adapt to the dramatic increase in traffic and organize the orientation process.
I also wondered if these souls, while waiting in line, recognized each other. “Hey, I know you. You were next to me on the plane.” Or “Weren’t you the person I used to share an elevator with on our way to the office?”
For much of our lives as Christians we’ve attempted to figure out God’s will: who is saved and who is condemned? Who is in and who is out? And whatever we believe we’ve found Scripture passages that back up our belief. Some look to Acts 16:13 and say we need to believe in Jesus. Others look at Matthew 25:31ff and we need to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. There are dozens of other passages, but you get the point.
Non Christians often criticize us because we decide we know who God grants (or denies) salvation. There’s a joke I like to tell where someone dies and goes to Heaven. St. Peter gives him a tour and tells him: “Here are the Lutherans, and there are the Methodists. Way over there are the Catholics but keep you voice down when we go over there because they think they think they are the only ones here.”
And let’s face it: we all like the idea of exclusivity when we are included. Years ago I preached a homily and talked about wealthy and frequent fliers who had access to executive lounges at the airport. A parishioner who belonged to one of those lounges then invited me to come to one. I have to confess that it was nice but the amenities we all right but not stunning. I guess I just missed the point of being able to go to a place where most people can’t.
That’s fine but I’ve often found myself frustrated when I encounter people who believe that Heaven is a small place (that always includes them). I’m not sure why but they seem to think that Heaven will be a more valuable place because of its exclusivity. Economics teaches us about “supply and demand” where the smaller the supply, the more valuable the demand and the more can be charged. As we’ve seen in our COVID-19 world, scarce items cost more.
But I don’t think Salvation is subject to supply and demand. If we believe in God’s generosity (and I hope we do) Heaven can still be valuable regardless of how many of us are saved. In conversations with my hospice patients, particularly those who are Christian, I’ll ask who they will look for first when they get to Heaven. Many talk about spouses, parents, or friends who have gone before them. Some tell me they will seek Jesus first. And one woman looked offended and said: “Well I expect them to be waiting for me!” I’m always going to lover her for that.
Since I do genealogy for a hobby I have a long list of ancestors I’m looking forward to seeing again, or meeting. But if I’ve learned anything about God in my life as a Christian, it’s that God calls me that no matter how big I dream, he has plans that I can’t even imagine.
Our first reading described a scene that everyone should pay attention to. The community described here wasn’t, by any measure, a uniform community. Some were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah they had awaited. Here they are called “Hebrews.” But there were others who weren’t Jews. Because St. Paul preached in Greek speaking communities many of them decided to walk away from Paganism and embrace Christianity. Because they were Greek speaking they were known as Hellinists.
Then, like today, some followers of Jesus were wealthy and some were poor. Widows were often poor because the men who supported them died. These Hellenists read the words of Jesus and called out those who were wealthy. And to their credit, the early leaders of the Christian community listened. They appointed members whose job was to care for these widows. As an aside these people have become the deacons (transitional and permanent) that we recognize today.
We read these accounts 2000 years later but I think these lessons still apply. I like to think that when these widows died and went to Heaven they recognized their husbands and fathers who supported them earlier in their lives, but also those who were appointed to care for them. I pray these reunions were just as joyful.
I’m writing this in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. We’ve been reading about health care workers and essential employees who have given their lives to care for the rest of us. I pray that some of the reunions in Heaven are between patients and health care workers who recognize each other: “You held my hand as I struggled to breathe.” “You gave me a warm smile when I bought groceries. I don’t know if I infected you or you infected me, but I loved your smile.”
And maybe this goes beyond COVID-19. Maybe we enter Heaven and find the person who stood up for us against the bully from high school (and introduced us to the bully who ask our forgiveness). I hope we can all remember brief encounters with people who went out of their way to be kind to us. Maybe they did something as simple as holding a door open for us, or maybe they did something much more. Maybe they donated to a charity that made all the difference in our lives or gave a pint of blood that saved a loved one. Imagine how heavenly those reunions will be.
During the COVID-19 crisis we keep hearing “we’re all in this together.” They’re right, but they’ve all been right. When we get to Heaven, let’s look each other up.