How do you get into heaven?
If we were to ask most people, they would say that, after we die, God makes a list of all the good and bad things we've done. If the list of good works is longer than the list of sins, we go to heaven. But if the list of sins is longer, we go to hell.
This is the impression that most people – maybe even many Christians – have. However, there are some significant problems with this kind of thinking. In fact, if God really did judge our lives this way we'd be in big trouble.
First of all, every sin we commit is an offense to an infinitely good and loving God. Whenever we choose evil, we are rejecting the love of the one who created us and loves us unconditionally. Since even the smallest sin is a rejection of God's love, there is no way we could ever make up for offending him. Because we are finite, imperfect people, no amount of good works, donations or pure intentions could make up for the offense we give to our infinitely good and perfect God.
The second problem we have is that we do not really deserve that much credit for our good works. None of us can say to God," Well, I have never killed anyone or stolen anything." God would only respond to that, "Well, you're not supposed to kill or steal!" Because we're supposed to do good and avoid evil, we cannot expect God to give us a parade every time we do what he has commanded us to do or avoid doing what he has commanded us not to do.
So, we are faced with a tremendous dilemma. Every one of our sins puts us in debt to God. And, no amount of good works we perform could ever pay it back. How, then, would it ever be possible for any of us to get into heaven?
This is where the good news of Jesus Christ comes in. Because He is God, Jesus is infinitely good and loving. He has never sinned and can never offend the Father. By becoming man, He performed the ultimate good work. He did not need to take on our human nature and neither did He have to die. However, by doing so, He could pay the debt we incurred. Because He is infinitely good and perfect like the Father, He could offer a pure sacrifice on behalf of us who are sinful and imperfect. Once that debt is paid, we can be forgiven for the infinite offense we've caused the God who loves us unconditionally.
This reality makes sense of the strange words John the Baptist utters in today's gospel: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." Calling Jesus, "the Lamb of God" may not sound strange to us because we say those words at every Mass before receiving communion. However, it would have sounded unusual to the people of Jesus day.
Lambs were animals offered in sacrifice. They were slaughtered and their blood spilled in hopes of making peace with God. It was understood that anyone who broke the commandments deserved death. However, God in his mercy, would accept the blood of the lamb in place of the life of the sinner. Calling Jesus "the Lamb of God" means that, like the sacrificial lamb, He offered His life in exchange for ours. He received the punishment we deserve for our sins. And because of that, He can bring forgiveness, healing and peace to all who call on His name.
So, if Jesus takes away our sins, does it mean that we can go on sinning and breaking God's commandments without ever having to worry about getting punished for it? By no means! Consider this. What if someone you love hurt you. If he came back and asked for forgiveness, you would likely forgive him. However, what if he turned around and hurt you again? Would it not be that much harder to forgive him? Wouldn’t you start to wonder whether he was really sorry?
The same is true for God. Now that He has sent His Son to die for our sins, it is even more offensive to Him when we break His commandments. Thankfully, our Heavenly Father is infinitely merciful and always willing to forgive us. However we have to make an extra effort to avoid evil and to do good if we are to show Him that we accept His forgiveness. We can do so by going to confession frequently and making a point of showing mercy to others.
We cannot earn our way into heaven. Eternal life is not a reward for being a nice person. Rather Jesus, the Lamb of God, paid the price for us to take away the sins of the world. He offers eternal life as a free gift to us who believe and are baptized. For our part, we must strive to keep his commandments and spread his good news up until the day we stand before the judgment seat of God.
In a few minutes, I will hold up the Body of Christ broken for us and repeat the words of John the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” As we come up to receive Him, let us do so with gratitude for His sacrifice. Let us accept the offer of salvation He makes to us by welcoming Him into our hearts. And let us commit ourselves to serving our neighbor not only in hopes of one day seeing Jesus face to face in Heaven but in response to the love He has shown us.