(See the readings for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 8)
Jesus continues to teach the crowds about discipleship in this week’s passage from the Gospel According to St. Luke. He says: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” The two principle elements of discipleship are thus carrying the cross and following Jesus.
Carrying the cross is walking in the footsteps of Jesus. Carrying the cross is following the example of Jesus. Just what is involved in carrying our crosses? Why is it so central to discipleship? When we look at Jesus carrying His cross several points come to mind that may help us understand the centrality of the cross.
First, Jesus takes the cross as part of His mission from the Father. He takes up the cross and carries it to the end. He fulfills the Father’s will for human salvation even though it entails great suffering and even death. His love enabled Him to carry the cross: His love for the Father and also His love for each one of us.
Second, Jesus had to trust the Father completely. He had to rely on the Father’s faithfulness. His self-emptying humility was an expression of His faith in the Father.
Third, Jesus offers himself completely in love. The cross represents Jesus’ passion and death. He willingly embraced the cross and offered himself as a sacrificial offering for our salvation. His gift of Himself was complete, nothing was held back, he loved to the end.
Following Jesus is the path of love, it is the way to the Kingdom of God and the road to our heavenly Father. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus says: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” If we want to experience the fullness of life both in this world and in the world to come we need to follow Jesus because He not only leads us to the fullness of life but He is the fullness of life. If we are going to learn from Jesus (“disciple” means “student”) we must be with Jesus so that He can teach us.
Jesus uses several images to reflect on as we consider discipleship in today’s Gospel. The passage opens with Jesus telling the crowd that the relationship the disciple has with Him must be the primary relationship in one’s life. In describing the importance of this He uses the most basic of human relationships, the family.
He says: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” The words are sharp. Although they may reflect a serious situation among the first disciples whereby some of these disciples were rejected or ostracized by their families, they invite us to reflect on the centrality of our relationship with Jesus in our everyday lives.
To make His point even more clear Jesus tells us that even our lives have to be considered second to our relationship with Him, for it is only in relationship with Him that our lives reach the potential the Father has given them.
Discipleship requires diligence and effort. Jesus uses the image of building a tower to get this point across. In order to build a tower much effort needs to be done in planning the project and calculating the costs involved. If the builder does not do this, he very well might not finish the project and then be subject to ridicule.
Rather, if one is going to start a project of such importance, one should prepare well so that he or she can complete the project. So with discipleship one must be diligent in planning and practice. Much effort will be required but in this endeavor Jesus is there with us to bring the project of our lives to completion.
Nothing can get in the way of our relationship with Jesus. If we identify something that blocks us from Jesus, we must rid ourselves of this object. Jesus speaks of a king who is marching to battle. If he recognizes he does not have enough men to engage the enemy he will sue for peace before the battle begins. He will preserve his army.
Jesus’ reference to possessions and the necessity to abandon them is a call to focus again on our relationship with Him. Possessions cannot replace or replicate the life that is offered in, through and by Jesus. We are deceived if we think so. If we are to be his disciple, He has to be the center. Nothing can take precedence over Jesus.
St. Paul gives us an example of discipleship. He refers to himself as a “prisoner for Christ Jesus” as he writes to Philemon. In the letter he is pleading for the safe return of Onesimus. He also refers to his “imprisonment for the gospel.”
While Paul may be referring to a literal imprisonment, he is also referring to the abandonment of his life so as to be a disciple of Jesus. He is pleading with Philemon to take Onesimus the slave back freely and to treat him with the respect, indeed love, of a fellow disciple. All the while he says, “but I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.”
He wants Philemon to make the decision, to make the choice for the good. In our lives we make the decision to be a disciple freely. We are not forced or coerced but invited — invited to accept the call to discipleship and to life.
The first reading lends light to the path of discipleship and life. The passage from Wisdom speaks of the human condition compared with the divine. “Who can know God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends? For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our paths.”
By ourselves we might wander aimlessly and find it difficult to find the right path in life. But the Father does not leave us alone in this condition. He sent Jesus to be our way in life. God Himself shows us His plans and His way. He leads us to Himself and the fullness of life. With Jesus we walk on the path to life.
Carrying the cross and following Jesus is at the heart of discipleship. Jesus is the way to the Father. He invites us to follow on this path and to share the life that is love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.
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