Even listening with just one ear, we can't miss the theme of life which runs through Sunday's three readings.

The author of the first reading begins with a narrative of Elisha's gift of life to the generous woman of Shunem (Kngs 4:8-11, 14-16). "She has no son," Gehazi tells his grateful master, "and her husband is getting on in years."

In a world in which there's no concept of an afterlife as we know it, being childless means when you die, you're really dead. You can only achieve immortality by living on in your descendants. If you have children, you'll never die. "This time next year," the prophet thoughtfully promises the woman, "you will be fondling a baby son."

Life now

The readings from the Christian Scriptures reinforce the message of life. But, because of the way many of us learned our faith, we must listen carefully to them. By the time of Jesus' earthly ministry, most followers of God believe that a place called heaven eventually awaits people of faith. Yet the authors of our Christian Scriptures almost never direct anyone just to heaven.

They certainly encourage us to achieve life, but they're not preoccupied with a life up in the sky after our physical deaths. They expect us to attain the life which the dying and rising Jesus attained, a life we can experience right here and now.

There's a big scriptural difference between people oriented to getting into heaven and those who direct their lives to imitating Jesus. The former usually are content just following a program of rules and regulations which guarantees them entrance into the pearly gates. Jesus comes into their faith only because He's the one who commanded we follow these specific rules and regulations, or because His sacrificial death opened the gates of heaven and made it possible for us to get in.

But when we hear Sunday's readings, we find a different way to achieve life. Paul (Rom 6:3-4, 8-11) and Matthew encourage us to look backward to Jesus rather than forward to the pearly gates. Our present Christian life comes only by imitating the dying/rising process which Jesus pioneered.

"Are you unaware," Paul asks the Roman community, "that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were indeed buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we, too might live in newness of life....If then we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him."

Paul believes that only those who identify with a dying Jesus can reach the life the risen Jesus achieved.

New dozen

As we listen to Matthew's words on the same topic, it's important to remember that Jesus is speaking to His Twelve, the followers who symbolize the reformed 12 tribes of Israel. Jesus' plan for reform is to have the actions of the new Twelve stand in contrast to the actions of the old Twelve (Mt 10:37-42).

Because Jesus' disciples are to join Him in dying and rising, He can assure them, "Whoever receives you receive me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me." Of course, Matthew never lets us forget that those who are received as Jesus are those who first have taken up their crosses and followed Jesus. It's the act of surrender to Jesus -- not a surrender to a set of laws -- which leads us to life. We lose our lives for the sake of life.

Somehow, this essential Christian message got sidetracked through the centuries. Eventually, we thought our only purpose on earth was to get into heaven -- by any means possible. It's no wonder that when our Catholic grade school teachers asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, no one ever shouted out, "Another Christ!"