Sunday, April 29, 2012

The “Jesus Train” And What It Means For The Salvation Of Non-Christians

(Fourth Sunday of Easter (B): This homily was given on April 30, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 4: 8-12; 1 John 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Easter 2012]

Are you on the “Jesus Train”?

That, believe it or not, is a very important question—because the answer we give to it has eternal repercussions!

Let me put it to you this way: If you’re NOT on the Jesus Train when you leave this earthly life, you don’t go to heaven, simply because you CAN’T go to heaven!

It’s impossible.

The Jesus Train is also an idea that can be very helpful in dealing with an issue that many Christians are confused about.  Simply stated, the issue is this: Can non-Christians be saved?

A teenage girl from our parish asked me that question just a couple of weeks ago.  It was definitely not the first time I had heard it in my 26 years of priestly ministry.

I’m sure that she, like most of us, has friends who aren’t baptized, professed Christians—and she probably cares about them a lot.

So she wants to know if she can have any hope whatsoever of seeing them someday in the Lord’s eternal kingdom.

The problem, of course, stems from the fact that certain passages of the Bible seem to indicate that it’s not possible for those who haven’t been baptized or professed faith in Jesus to be saved.  One of those problem texts is found in today’s first reading.  I’m talking about the line where Peter says to the religious leaders of the Jews: “[Jesus] is the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.  There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are saved.”

And then we have that famous text from John 3, where Jesus makes it clear that the grace of Baptism—sanctifying grace—must be in a person’s soul if that person wants to pass through the “pearly gates” of heaven.  Our Lord says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.”

Concerning those of us who are baptized believers, St. John says in today’s second reading, “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God.  Yet so we are.”

But what about those who are not baptized believers?  What about those who do not explicitly know the Good Shepherd and follow him as his professed disciples?

Well, there are some Christians (usually Protestants) who say that all these other people go to hell.  They say that if you die without explicitly professing your belief in Jesus Christ and his resurrection, then you will be damned for all eternity.  Period.  End of story.

To make their point they’ll often quote Romans 10:9 where St. Paul says, “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Of course, St. Paul doesn’t say that if a person fails to believe and confess faith in Jesus then he or she cannot possibly be saved, but that’s how they interpret the text.

This is one of the reasons we should thank God we’re Catholic!  Our Protestant brothers and sisters who try to interpret the Bible on their own (without the guidance of the Magisterium) can very easily fall into errors like this.

The Catholic Church in her official teaching takes the entire New Testament into consideration, not just a few isolated verses.  And in doing that she makes two very basic points.

The first is that the only way to heaven is through Jesus and his saving grace.  As today’s first reading says, there is no other name under heaven by which a person can be saved.  Remember what Jesus told us in this regard.  He said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.  No one comes to the Father but by me.”

So anyone who is saved is saved by Jesus and through Jesus.

But at the same time the Church also affirms that it’s possible for a person to be saved by Jesus—it’s possible for a person to be united to Jesus in his passion, death and resurrection—even if he doesn’t explicitly know or believe in Jesus.  (This is the second important point of Catholic Church teaching on the matter.)  It’s possible, in other words, to receive the grace of Baptism (sanctifying grace) without explicitly receiving the sacrament in a religious ceremony and professing the Creed.  Now it’s a lot less likely that a person will be saved in this way, namely, without an explicit knowledge of the Lord and a relationship with him that’s nourished by the sacraments.

But it is possible!  And that shouldn’t surprise us because God, as St. Paul says in 2 Timothy 2 “desires all people to be saved.”  He predestines no one to hell.

Here’s where the idea of the “Jesus Train” becomes helpful.  This term “Jesus Train,” incidentally, is not something that’s found in the Bible (I need to make that clear).  But it does help us to understand what the Bible actually teaches about salvation. 

I first came across this idea about 20 years ago in an article by Professor Alan Schreck of the University of Steubenville.  In that article he said, “Imagine the way to heaven to be like a railroad train: You could get to the destination riding in a boxcar or clinging to the sides of the train, or by riding in the first class coach in the front.  Some Christians hold that only those in first class are saved.  These are people who explicitly believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and who make [a] profession of faith [in him and in his resurrection]. . . The Catholic Church has arrived at a different conclusion: Even those in the boxcars and on the sides of the train have a chance of reaching heaven.”

If you know the truth about Jesus and his Church and consciously reject it, then you cannot be saved, no matter who you are.  As Vatican II put it, “They could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.” 

But there may be some people in this world who are invincibly ignorant of the need for Christ and his Church, and God will judge them accordingly.  That’s what the Church teaches.  But that’s GOD’S job to do, not ours, because only he knows a person’s heart.

It’s interesting that in Matthew 25, when we read about that famous scene of Jesus judging the nations at the end of the world, the criterion he uses for judgment is charity and not faith: “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, etc.”

So there’s always hope—for everyone.

Does this mean that we don’t need to try to evangelize non-believers and lead them to an explicit faith in Jesus?  No, it doesn’t mean that.  Yes, it’s true: everyone connected to the train will eventually make it to the desired destination.  But it’s obviously much more pleasant to ride in first class than it is to hang on the side of the caboose!  With Christ, in other words, we have a joy and strength in our life that a non-believer does not have.  Furthermore, without Christ, we will never reach our full potential as a human being; something will always be missing from our life.

Also, if a person is hanging on the side of a train, he’ll be much more likely to fall off at some point, compared to the person riding in first class! 

So we must always evangelize!

Let me conclude now with a famous passage from Vatican II that sums it all up:

“Those can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.  Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to his grace.  Whatever goodness or truth is found among them is looked upon by the church as a preparation for the gospel.”

The bottom line is that God wants everyone to be on the “Jesus Train.”  And he wants everyone to STAY on it until it finally arrives at its heavenly destination.

May all of us do our part to help make this beautiful desire of God become a reality—for everybody!