‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.” – Matt. 7:21-23
Janet, a friend of mine who was raised Roman Catholic had a strong sense of not being right with God. She had turned away from the church and no longer attended worship, prayed or embraced Catholic doctrine.
I asked her why she had left the church. She said that she couldn’t recite the Creed and believe it one hundred percent. Was this a requirement of belonging to the church, I wanted to know. She said that it was.
Then she went on to speak one of the most poignant personal credos I have ever heard. “I am probably going to hell,” she said, “and I used to worry about that quite a bit. But now I think of it differently. There has to be some person who will love all the damned souls down there, because nobody else is there for them. So I guess I am that person. I will go to hell so that I can love the people who are there.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that there are ways by which we can be cut off from him. Prophesying, casting out demons and doing deeds of power in his name do not cut it with him. We might guess from this that, while there is a place for Creeds in our worship, they are not the essential thing. What is important is that we hear his words and act on them, that we do the will of God. And his consistent, oft repeated statement of what God desires of us is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your strength and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Time after time in the Bible God reproves Israel for ignoring or mistreating widows orphans and strangers. Jesus, the fulfillment of the Law, emphasizes love. Those who are different, those who are powerless, those we don’t understand or sometimes don’t even see, these are our neighbors. These we must provide for, even when it costs us very dearly. A relationship of trust and love of God, and love of everybody, especially the marginalized and helpless – that is what Jesus asks again and again of us. It’s a tall order, but anything less is simply lip service.
I don’t know what happens after we die, but on this side of the grave I like to hope I am someone who will go to hell for the sake of the people who are there. This means many things to me: helping those in need, listening and supporting those struggling with inner demons, working on my racism, classism and middle class American complacency, living simply so others might simply live, and speaking up when I see wrongs being perpetrated even when it’s dangerous or unpopular.
I know I fail more often than I succeed. But grace abounds. I am certain that my friend Janet is a friend of Jesus. I can only hope the same might be said of me.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado