Many tributes have been paid to Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. And rightly so, for he was a great man. Among the world leaders in the later half of the twentieth century he stands head and shoulders above many. While other leaders were concerned about their popularity and appeal to the masses, the Pope was concerned for those who had no voice, for the underprivileged, for the unborn, for the poor, for the sick, for the oppressed.
His input into the downfall of communism especially in Poland have been highlighted often in the past few days. He was a man who, more than any other pope, spent himself in travelling to other countries, 129 in total. His third overseas visit was here to Ireland in 1979.
He was not afraid to take a stand and to say what needed to be said on issues like abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia etc. It was refreshing to see someone who took their standards from God's word, and not from the opinion makers of popular culture.
He was a great man. And we need men like him to be leaders in the world today.
But he was still only a man.
And Jesus himself said, "No man comes to the father, except through me." (John 14:6)
You see it isn't how much good we do that gets us into Heaven, rather it is coming through Jesus, and trusting in him that gets us there.
There is no denying that Pope John Paul II did a lot of good in his life. But if he is in Heaven, it will not be because of the good he did, but simply because of Jesus. Over and over again the Bible tells us that it is not the amount of good we do that gets us into Heaven, but rather whether or not we have asked Jesus to be our saviour.
This is wonderfully comforting because not many of us could live as influential a life as the Pope, and we might be inclined to think that we haven't a chance of getting into Heaven.
But it doesn't depend on us, but on Jesus. He said, "whoever comes to me I will never drive away." (John 6:37).
It was Jesus who said to a murderous thief who hung on the cross next to him, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." That man had no time to do enough good to outweigh the bad, if such a thing were possible. Instead he threw himself on the mercy of Jesus, and asked for forgiveness and peace from him. And Jesus holds that offer out to each of us today.
And yet if Jesus said that a thief and murderer could enter Heaven "Today", why are all the prayers and masses being said for Pope John Paul? Apparently they are to speed his journey into Heaven.
Where is he if he isn't already in Heaven? Saint Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that when the believer is absent from the body, he is immediately present with the Lord. For the person who has trusted Jesus as their saviour there is no journey, just an immediate appearing in God's presence.
Again, I find this wonderfully comforting - no journey of the soul through some shady underworld; just immediate transportation to the present of God.
I would ask my Catholic readers seriously to consider this question: Why are you praying for the Pope? Does the Pope require the prayers of 1.1 billion Catholics to get him into Heaven, after all his good deeds? If so, what hope is there for the ordinary man or woman? What about you; are you trusting in the good life you are living, and relying on the prayers and masses of loved ones after you die to get you into Heaven?
It doesn't have to be like that. Saint Paul writes, "Therefore, since we have been made right in God's sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of highest privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God's glory."
Notice that it is our faith in what Jesus has done for us that saves us, not our good works. And notice also that the "highest privilege" and the confident expectation of being in Heaven are a present reality for the believer.
There is no uncertainty for those who turn from their own efforts to please God and who come to Jesus seeking his salvation.