27 June 2010

The Way of the Disciple

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 27 June 2010

Readings: 1 Kngs 19:16b, 19-21; Ps 16:1-2, 5, 7-8, 9-10, 11; Gal 5:1, 13-18; Lk 9:51-62

Let us begin with Gal 5,1 (from the Second Reading): “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

Christ has set us free. Among other things this means we are able to make moral choices. Which one would you choose: the spirit or the flesh, freedom to the full or a return to the slavery of sin, follow Christ or follow the Tempter? The question may seem rhetorical, and the right answer obvious, if not for the tone of the Gospel message this Sunday.

Today we hear no convincing words as to how discipleship would make us happy or fulfilled. Instead we hear Jesus saying follow me and sure as night follows day you will experience difficulties and sufferings, you will have to leave your loved ones and risk everything. Not a very good way to pitch discipleship.

Yet Jesus tells it as it is, borne out of a real concern for those attracted by His charismatic personality and the chance of changing the world with Him. He doesn’t want to mislead them into thinking what they are getting into is just one great adventure – mingling with the masses, communing with nature, getting into an alternative lifestyle, etc. It is not. He knows fully well that the mission of building the Kingdom is fraught with as much peril as promise. He doesn’t want His own people to go to battle unarmed and unprepared.

And so let us take time to discern this dangerous call to follow Christ.

1. Discipleship is following the way of the Lord.

This means not following our way but God’s way; not the way of power and privilege, its shortcuts and abuses; not the way of self-righteousness.

The little episode in the Gospel involving the brothers James and John illustrates the point. As Jesus and His disciples journey to Jerusalem, they were barred from entering a Samaritan village. The brothers nicknamed Boanerges, meaning “sons of thunder”, were quick to react with: “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus was also quick to rebuke them. It was not His way.

In the First Reading, we listen to the account of the prophet Elijah calling to mission his would-be protégé Elisha. The life story of Elijah is also one good lesson on following God’s way. Here is Fr. Bill MacCurtain, SJ’s reflection from thinkingfaith.org:

“Elijah himself had had to learn the hard way. When he was appointed prophet to lead back the chosen ones from the evil ways of Baal to the love and worship of Yahweh, he was invested with miraculous powers, but those powers went to his head. He lashed out with great signs and wonders and he slew the prophets of Baal and the people were very impressed at his showmanship but they were not converted. Elijah was a failure. He wished he were dead.

With fatherly gentleness God led Elijah back through the history of His dealings with His chosen ones and then He put on a show of strength for Elijah, nature at its most terrifying. But God revealed Himself to Elijah, not in the sound and fury, but in a gentle breeze, and then He sent him back to do the job properly, God’s way. And so Elijah became a great prophet, the restorer of Yahwism to God’s chosen people.”

The way of the Lord is gentleness and humility, patience and peace.

2. Discipleship is taking the high road.

Following Christ means taking the high road, the hard road. It is not for the faint of heart or the ambivalent. There is a radicalism to it, a sense of urgency, an insistence on it taking priority before all else. We sense this in the interaction between Jesus and three would-be disciples in the second half of the Gospel passage.

To one Jesus says follow me and forget about food security or lodging, and expect life to be hard, for “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. One of them Jesus actually called but he asked to “go first and bury his father”, i.e., fulfill first his obligations to his parents, and when they die he will then be free to be a disciple. He got a rather insensitive remark from Jesus: “let the dead bury their dead”, i.e., “let those who don’t matter much take care of that, but you, you have to go and proclaim the Kingdom”. The third one expressed the desire to follow but sought leave to bid farewell first to his family. To him Jesus says, “if you think you can be with us but still keep looking back to your home, you’re not fit for the Kingdom.”

The passage is not about putting less value on family as about delivering a strong and clear message that following Christ takes precedence over everything, even over our concerns for the ones we love. There are examples of this type of sacrifice even outside the “Christian world”.

Harry Wu is a noted Chinese human rights activist, now a citizen of the United States. Because of his activities, in 1960 he was sent to the Chinese labor camp system and imprisoned for 19 years in 12 different camps. There he was forced to do various back-breaking work: mining coal, building roads, clearing land, and planting and harvesting crops. He was beaten, tortured and nearly starved to death, and witnessed the deaths of many other prisoners from brutality, starvation, and suicide. When he was released in 1979, he went to the United States where he became a professor and later a human rights activist documenting the abuse at Chinese labor camps and exposing corrupt practices there. He was briefly imprisoned in 1995 as he tried to enter China legally, charged in court, sentenced to 15 years in prison, but was released after 66 days due to international pressure.

Aun San Suu Kyi was elected by her people to lead Myanmar many elections ago but had to endure house arrest, and the many indignities that come with it, for 14 years now, at the hands of a brutal military junta not keen on losing its grip on power.

The heroism and sacrifices of Harry Wu and Aung San Suu Kyi are awe-inspiring. But as Christians we have to realize we have a reason higher than their noble and lofty concerns in order to compel feats of heroism and sacrifice. We have Christ.

3. Discipleship is journeying in the way of the cross.

Lk 9,51 in the today's Gospel says: “When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled,
he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” This journey to Jerusalem will be His last. It will culminate in His suffering and death. He is very much aware of this, yet “He resolutely determined” to push through with His way of the cross.

This way of the cross is something Jesus offers as well to His disciples. The Episcopalian minister Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor sees it this way: “He is always offering to share (the cross) with us, to let us get underneath it with him. Not, I think, because he wants us to suffer but because he wants us to know how alive you can feel even underneath something heavy and how it can take your breath away to get hold of your one true necessity. Even suffering itself pales next to what God is doing through it, through you, because you are willing to put yourself in the way.”

Rev. Taylor identifies Jesus as our “one true necessity”. Because of this it makes sense that “discipleship costs all that we have, all that we love, all that we are.” Indeed, if we profess Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Savior, our Alpha and Omega, our Way, Truth and Life, then it is most reasonable that following Him is the one most important and urgent thing to do. Friendship with Him is the one relationship that we should value above all else.

With Jesus by our side, the suffering we have to endure is no longer just suffering – it becomes redemptive, it transforms us for the better. It is sacrifice worth taking.

These are what discipleship is about.

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