Discipleship, Part 1, Follow Me: The Counter-Cultural, Unnatural Life of the Disciple
Light and Life – Jan-Feb 2021, Vol 74, No 1 – A Publication of the Western Dominican Province
[Fr. Michael Fones, OP entered the Western Dominican Province in 1984 and was ordained to the presbyterate in 1992. He has served in campus ministry, parochial ministry, as co-director of the Catherine of Siena Institute, and as student master for the Western Province. He currently is the Socius and Vicar Provincial.]
I have just finished reading Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World, by Tara Isabella Burton.1 It describes new movements in the U.S. that are replacing traditional religions, not only among the young, but among people of all ages who make up the “Nones”. These are the folks who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious”, agnostic, or atheist. Yet most of these people, although rejecting traditional worship and religious institutions, still seek meaning, purpose, community and rituals that celebrate and express these basic human needs. Burton describes a whole set of replacements for religion designed by the individual and tailored to their felt needs with the following foundational tenets:2
“I am the only truth I know…To be my truest self I should follow my instincts. My body and my gut know more than my mind. An unjust and repressive society has held me back from becoming my best self. It has warped my faith in my own abilities and my relationship with others. I owe it to myself to practice self-care. I owe it to the world to perfect myself: physically, spiritually, and morally. There is no objective right or wrong.”2
I saw examples of this when I was a pastor just a few years ago. If prayer to God failed to get a desired result, some people sought help from someone who dabbled in the occult, or who could sell them a potion. The Church’s liturgies for marriage or funerals were sometimes treated as obstacles to the unique way people wanted to express their love or their grief. When I would ask someone why they did not come to Mass, the reply often was, “I don’t get anything out of it.” The message permeating our society is that freedom is the ability to do what you want, when you want, and how you want. This message is warping our understanding of what it means to be a person of faith.
The Scriptures give a different message of freedom. We are fundamentally good, since we are created by a good God who loves us. But we are fallen, slaves St. Paul says, of sin3 – to attitudes and behaviors that undermine our own humanity and the humanity of others. The story of the Fall in the third chapter of Genesis brilliantly exposes the root of sin. The serpent tempts Adam and Eve with an illusion of self-sufficiency: the promise to be like God and thus no longer be beholden to him. No self-help guru, juice cleanse, meditation app, or magic spell will save me from this delusion. Instead, they only reinforce it. The truth that the Scriptures reveal is summarized by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans: “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.”4 We all need a savior to free us and, thanks be to God, we have one in Jesus of Nazareth.
The Gospels make it very clear that the man, Jesus, also claims to be divine. He expects his teaching to supersede the Torah given by God (“You have heard it said…but I say…”). He forgives sins, which his enemies quickly point out is God’s prerogative alone. He raises the dead, and claims to be the Way, the Truth and the Life through whom we come to the Father. After healing a cripple on the Sabbath he justifies his actions to those who oppose him saying, “my Father is at work until now, so I am at work,” and his enemies try all the more to kill him “because he not only broke the sabbath but he also called God his own father, making himself equal to God.”5
One other way in which he claims divinity is more subtle. He invites men and women to follow him as disciples with the words, “follow me”. But accompanying this invitation is a demand that only God can make. “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”6 Why is this a claim of divinity? Because the greatest and first commandment of the Jewish law was to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”7 The disciple who follows Jesus must realize that no attachment to family or even oneself can stand in the way of total commitment to him. Only God is worthy of this kind of single-minded devotion, not a human being, including ourselves. The “new religions” of today are nothing more than a repackaging of the primordial temptation of Adam and Eve.
The strange, counter-cultural nature of discipleship is expressed graphically in the Gospel of Matthew immediately after Jesus claims that, “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”8 With a sentence that would have horrified his listeners he continues, “whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.”9 They were intimately familiar with the instrument of torture the Roman used to discourage rebellion. The image would hardly have encouraged his listeners to become disciples!
I have heard people my age or older refer to “their cross”. Often it is some unfortunate aspect of their life: an alcoholic child, a chronic illness, a difficult boss. Their cross is not something taken up willingly, as much as something imposed and endured. In the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus speak of his own cross very differently. “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.”10 The laying down of his life on the cross is the consequence of his obedience to the Father, and naturally follows from the daily crucifixion of his own will in order to do his Father’s will. In fact, throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus claims that he lives only to do the Father’s will.11 In a world where, as St. Paul says, “no one is good,” and all live according to their own will in slavish imitation of the fallen Adam, the life of such a man would be not just a contradiction, but a conviction of the lives of sinners.
This is the heart of the difficulty of becoming a disciple. When Jesus, the light of the world draws near to us, we suddenly are convicted! His light reveals our sin – our shadow – and makes clear to us that we have to change. How do we respond to that? Are we like the rich man in the Gospel of Mark12, and simply walk away sad, because we have become accustomed to the illusion of control? Do we justify our own behavior because we no longer recognize what is good and bad? After all, some in the crowd refused to believe Jesus was good! They dismissed him saying, “He is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”13 and “by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he drives out demons.”14 Or are we like Zaccheus, the tax collector who recognizes his avarice and promises restitution to those he cheated, or Saul, the Pharisee whose worldview had to be reconsidered because of his encounter with the risen Lord?
We cannot be complacent and be content with part-time Christianity. The last three popes have emphasized the radical nature of the Christian life. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his first encyclical, The Mission of the Redeemer, that “the proclamation of the Word of God has Christian conversion15 as its aim: a complete and sincere adherence to Christ and his Gospel through faith… Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple.”16 This initial conversion, which is personal and intentional and a response to grace, is necessary before catechesis can have its full, or possibly any, effect. The same saintly Pope ruefully observed “A certain number of children baptized in infancy come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ; they only have the capacity to believe placed within them by Baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit.” It requires consistent, creative evangelization for these children, and their parents, for that matter, to allow Jesus to be Lord over their lives in the midst of the cultural shift Ms. Burton observed in which they are urged instead to follow their [fallen] instincts.
Similarly, in his first encyclical, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI laid down a challenge. “Being a Christian,” he said, “is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”17 Contrary tothe complaint of many post-moderns, Christianity is not simply a moral system or set of rules. It is a way of life based on a relationship with Jesus lived in the context of the community he established which is the Church, imperfect as it is. Our parishes – not just the priests but all the members – must continually proclaim this radical call to conversion and discipleship and encourage one another to pursue it with all their heart, mind and soul.
Finally, in Pope Francis’ first encyclical, The Light of Faith, he notes that St. John the Evangelist, “brings out the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus for our faith by using various forms of the verb ‘to believe’. In addition to ‘believing that’ what Jesus tells us is true, John also speaks of ‘believing’ Jesus and ‘believing in’ Jesus. We ‘believe’ Jesus when we accept his word, his testimony, because he is truthful. We ‘believe in’ Jesus when we personally welcome him into our lives and journey towards him, clinging to him in love and following in his footsteps along the way.”18
This is the life of discipleship; a life of constant prayer for guidance, of checking our attitudes and actions against those of the saints, the disciples who have gone before us. We are not meant to be comfortable in this world. Rather, if we are a disciple, the Lord will be using us to change the world, beginning with ourselves, our colleagues at work, and the institutions to which we belong. Such a life is anything but natural. It is the supernatural life of grace in which like Mary, the first and greatest disciple, our whole being proclaims the greatness of the Lord.
1. Public Affairs Publishing, New York, NY, 2020
2. These movements include those focusing on “wellness” like Soul Cycle, Goop and the followers of The Secret and the prosperity Gospel; online gaming groups; fandoms surrounding the Harry Potter or Star Wars universe; New-Agers and their neo-pagan cousins; Wiccans, witches and other occultists; and two movements vying to become the new secular religion: anti-establishment social justice advocates and anti-authoritarian advocates of human perfection through cybertechnology.
3. Romans 6:17-20
4. Romans 3:10-12, 23
5. John 5:17-18
6. Luke 14:26
7. Matthew 22:37; Deuteronomy 6:5
8. Matthew 10:37
9. Matthew 10:38
10. John 10:17-18
11. John 4:34, 5:30, 5:36, 6:38, 9:4, 17:4
12. Mark 10:17-23
13. Matthew 11:19
14. Luke 11:15
15. italics in the original text
16. Redemptoris Missio, 46
17. Deus Caritas Est, 1
18. Lumen Fidei, 13