Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Assurance of Salvation?
Before I write another word, let me put this out there. The movie has it problems. You may think it's nothing but problem-ridden and you are more than welcome to think so. I happen to like a lot about this film, but I don't expect to change your mind if you were/are utterly, irrevocably disenchanted with Star Wars: Episode VIII.
All I intend to do here for the next few minutes is suggest to you that, no doubt unintentionally,The Last Jedi demonstrates and enormously important Gospel principle. Ironically enough, it does so through precisely the plot point many die hard fans found deeply upsetting in the film, namely the disposition of Luke Skywalker. Let me try and unpack this!
In the wake of the release of Episode VIII in December 2017, a large number of fans the world over were upset, disappointed, or even outraged over the Luke we got in the film. The once starry-eyed, idealistic and unwavering hero from our childhood is now a mere shell of who he had once been. We were left with a broken, spiritless, brooding hermit who has evidently abandoned the Jedi cause, rejected his bond to the Force, and exiled himself to die in utter defeat on Ahch-To.
To make matters worse, he refuses to provide our new heroine Rey with any significant training or inspiring guidance, and he never budges to bolster her in her mission until the very end of the film. Fans were upset, some disillusioned altogether and filled with a somber sense that Star Wars is now officially over forever, the last light from a cherished childhood dream snuffed out in the blink of an eye.
For me however, Luke's story arc in the sequel trilogy is fascinating, completely correct, and it even sheds light on a profoundly crucial Catholic teaching. That teaching is in response to this question: "Can I be assured of my eternal salvation once I accept Christ?" Put another way, in reference to how this claim is articulated in many Protestant Christian circles, is "once saved, always saved" in fact true? Can a person who encounters the salvation offered to him or her in Jesus Christ ever do anything to lose that gift, to forfeit their salvation, to snuff out that light?
Many Christian denominations emphatically proclaim that once a person accepts Jesus as his or her personal savior and embraces the Christian faith, nothing can ever undo that moment of accepting salvation. Rightly so, they point to the incomprehensible love and mercy of Christ which atones for all sin, period. They correctly point out that Christ defeats sin and death and that, as Saint Paul says in Romans 8:38-39,
I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
But there is more to the story, here. The picture is far more textured and, as we all know, the temptation to despair and turn away from the light arises time and again along the rugged journey of life. The Catholic Church has always firmly warned that "once saved, always saved" is a flawed and even dangerous premise. It is not, in fact, authentically biblical. For starters, I would begin by revisiting Saint Paul in greater depth and context.
The same Paul who speaks so often and with deepest confidence of salvation in Jesus also refuses to presume it. He says, "I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:27). He goes on to say, "Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall" (10:12). Mind you, Paul is not speaking to or about those outside the Church who have not yet accepted Christ, but rather of himself and the Christians in Corinth to whom his letter is addressed. With utmost loving sincerity, Paul is sternly warning his spiritual children that he and they must persevere in the salvation they have accepted from the Lord.
Christ offers salvation freely, but it must be constantly embraced and applied. Like an "e'er blooming" rose, we must continually open up to the nourishing rays of the sun (SON!). We must accept the healing remedy at every moment of our lives and entreat the Great Physician to help us to never grow complacent. If we reject the Lord, if we grow weary and jaded and disillusioned, we are indeed capable of shutting out the light we once knew. It's what Judas did. It's what each one of us can do as well. Christ himself said, "The one who perseveres to the end will be saved" (Matthew 24:13).
Hopefully you see where I'm going with this! In the buildup to The Last Jedi I, like so many fans, imagined what Luke Skywalker would be like now, thirty years after defeating Darth Vader and inspiring him to repent and return to the light. The Luke who was setting out to restore the Jedi Order at the end of Episode VI would surely be powerful and wise and filled with inspiration for future generations of heroes to soak up and put to good use. But he wasn't like that. Why? Because "assurance of salvation" is presumptuous. It can lead us to take our eye off the ball. Luke makes mistakes, his greatest one leading to the all out repudiation of the light by his nephew, Ben Solo, in favor of a life cloaked in darkness, greed, and the lust for power. Luke blames himself for Ben's betrayal and he vanishes in shame. The once heroic hope of the galaxy is faced with the greatest temptation of his life: to lose hope forever.
But here's the key, gang. He doesn't give up. Not really. Luke thinks he has given up. So does almost everyone else. Yoda returns at a critical moment to deliver perhaps the greatest lesson of all. It's the lesson that lies at the heart of everything in our lives and that will carry us through to the end if we never cease asking God to center our hearts and our minds and our very beings around it. The lesson is simple: It isn't about me. It's not about what I did or failed to do and it's not ultimately all on my shoulders. Life and love and glory and salvation and heroism are about others and, ultimately, Other.
Everything is ultimately about love, about giving of myself for my fellow human beings. The entire universe and everything happening within it is, in the end, relative to the Source from where it all comes and to Whom it was always meant to return. As long as I am living, I have the free ability to align myself with that great reality or reject it in a spirit of selfishness. Luke realizes this just in the nick of time, and he makes the supreme sacrifice by distracting the forces of darkness long enough for the light to escape being extinguished. When the night is darkest, Luke chooses one last time to "accept his salvation" so to speak, and to endure to the end.
The Lord puts it quite plainly in the Old Testament. "I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life." (cf. Deuteronomy 30:15-20). We must keep going all the way to the finish line and never lose hope. Our salvation, our final destination, the true culmination of our story only comes when we cross that threshold, and not a moment sooner.