Wednesday, August 10, 2016

THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP



20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: Jr. 38:4-6, 8-10; Heb. 12:1-4;

Lk 12: 49-53.

AIM: To challenge the hearers to a fresh decision of Jesus Christ.

Is it easy to follow Jesus Christ – or difficult? Sometimes Jesus makes discipleship sound easy. Here is a well known example: “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest … For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt. 11:28, 30).

In other passages, however, Jesus makes discipleship sound very difficult. Today’s gospel reading is a case in point. Jesus says there that he came “to light a fire on earth” – not for peace but for division. Jesus spoke those words out of his own lived experience: “I have a baptism to receive. What anguish I feel till it is over!”

Those words refer not to Jesus’ baptism in water in the Jordan River, but to his coming baptism in blood on Calvary. That was what caused Jesus “anguish.” Those words from today’s gospel give us a rare and precious glimpse into Jesus’ inner life.

From his birth at Bethlehem to his death on Calvary, Jesus was the faithful disciple of his heavenly Father. He summons us to be his faithful disciples. But he also warns us that obeying his summons will mean “division” from some of those nearest and dearest to us. Such divisions are unavoidable, because Jesus demands a decision: for him, or against him. Where decisions are demanded, people will decide differently. The resulting divisions can be painful – and costly.

Our first reading told about the cost of discipleship for the prophet Jeremiah. God commanded Jeremiah to warn his people of disaster if they did not repent and place their national life on the firm foundation of obedience to God’s law. The people responded not with repentance but by frantically shoring up their military defenses against foreign enemies. Jeremiah warned that a purely military response to danger was futile.

That message was, understandably, unwelcome to the military and political leaders of the nation. Lacking the courage to kill Jeremiah, they tried to silence him by putting him into one of the underground cisterns used in Jerusalem to store rainwater. This incident is a good example of the divisions Jesus speaks about in the gospel between those who, like Jeremiah, are willing to follow God’s call regardless of the cost, and those who reject God’s call because the cost seems too high.

 Is the cost of discipleship today too high? For many it is. In today’s dangerous world there are many voices warning us Americans of the need for a strong military defense. We hear less about the need to repair our moral defenses. In a world filled with terrorism, military defenses are as important for a nation as an efficient police force is for a city. All the military might in the world will not save our country, however, or any country, if the moral fabric of our national life is rotten. We do not need to look far for signs of this moral decay. Here are just a few examples:

       Schools that are awash in a sea of drugs, physical and general lawlessness; where parents who want the best for their children are willing to have them driven many miles to attend better schools; and where many who would like to be teachers instead of wardens are quitting in disgust.

       Lying, cheating, and taking unfair advantage of others at every level: in business, government, in labor unions, and in the so-called learned professions. A retired lawyer said to me recently: “When I was admitted to the bar, you could take another lawyer’s word for it. Now you had better get it in writing.”

       The indiscriminate and legal killing of unborn children in our country, because their birth might be an inconvenience. There are now a million and a half abortions a year in our country. That is one tiny human life snuffed out every twenty seconds of every hour, day and night, day in and day out. Some pro-life activists are upset that Pope Francis seldom speaks about abortion. Here is what Cardinal Sean O’Malley, one of eight cardinals from all over the world chosen by Pope Francis to be his advisers, recently said about this: “I think he speaks of love and mercy to give people the context for the Church’s teaching on abortion. We oppose abortion, not because we are mean or old fashioned, but because we love people. And that is what we must show the world.”

          Those examples are just the tip of the iceberg – only a small part of the evidence of moral sickness in our society. There are, thank God, also many beautiful signs of moral health, especially in the idealism and willingness to sacrifice of many of our young people. I’ll give you some examples in a minute. But all this good evidence cannot cancel out the bad. A moment’s reflection discloses part, at least of the reason for this moral sickness: placing private gain ahead of public good; seeking happiness through getting rather than through giving.

          Calling attention to such things is as unpopular today as it was in Jeremiah’s time. Critics today are called unpatriotic, or silenced with the simplistic slogan: “America – love it or leave it.” Anyone who has experienced that kind of hostility knows what Jesus means when he says in today’s gospel: “Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”

          The price of following Jesus Christ is high. How could it be otherwise, when the One we follow found that the price of his discipleship was death?

          Perhaps there is someone here who thinks that the price is too high; that Jesus Christ makes unreasonable demands; that is better to compromise, to bend with the winds of public opinion, and not to try to swim against the stream. Such thoughts are understandable. But they are wrong.

          Though the price of following Jesus Christ is high, it is price which an uncounted multitude of God’s faithful daughters and sons have already paid, and which many more are paying right now. They did not find the price too high. On the contrary they were happy to pay it.

A few years ago I received into the Catholic Church a 29-year-old graduate of Yale and former Lutheran seminarian who made his decision for the fullness of Catholic faith despite the embittered opposition of his family. And in that same week two young men whose religious vocations I have been nourishing gave their lives to Jesus Christ; one through ordination as a transitional deacon, the other through taking life vows as a Jesuit. And at the same time a young woman from Ohio, who spent nine months working in an inner city school as a Vincentian volunteer, was clothed as a novice with the Franciscan Sisters of the Martyr St. George. She is now in junior vows.

          In making their decisions for Jesus Christ those four young people, all under 30, joined the “cloud of witnesses” we heard about in our second reading. They are portrayed there as spectators in a stadium cheering on us who are now running the same race which they ran in their day. Unanimously they proclaim that the race is worth running, and price of discipleship is worth paying.

          Listen again to those words, in a modern translation. They thrilled me with I first discovered them at age 13 or 14. They thrill me still. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us; looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”