Called to be Disciples
The following homily was given by Deacon Kirby Longo at SS Cyril and Methodius Parish on the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.
When I was playing basketball in elementary school, the coolest tournament to go to was always Gillette – not because it was the biggest or most prestigious, and certainly not due to the beauty of Gillette, but because the Holiday Inn in town was enormous and awesome. One year when my friends and I were running around pranking during a tourney, an older kid named Ryan ran by my group and said- “I am starting a country, if you want to join, you listen to what I say.” Now Ryan was the coolest, not because he was good at basketball, he was actually totally mediocre, but he was just a cool guy. So we joined his country and proceeded to wreak havoc on the Holiday Inn, running systematic pranks, dispersing with a designated meeting place whenever authorities were in sight. And when Ryan told you throw a water balloon off a 4th story balcony down into the lobby or cannonball into a small hot tub full of people you didn’t know, you didn’t do it because you thought it was a good idea, you did it because he told you to do it. And if you got in trouble, he would take the fall and bail you out because he could smooth talk adults like no one else.
Thinking back on that story, it is surprisingly analogous to our discipleship in Christ. When we chose to be a member of Ryan’s country, to be his “disciple,” we didn’t expect prestige or honor; we expected an adventure. That’s what hanging with Ryan offered- a great adventure. Now to be a Christian is to be Christ’s disciple- what does this mean for us? What is Jesus asking of us, and what is he offering us?
The first man in the gospel today thinks he knows what discipleship means, and he says to Jesus: “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you may go!” In the same story from the Gospel of Matthew, this man is presented as a scribe. The scribe is the formally trained, commissioned teacher and interpreter of the law. Yet this prestigious temple official sees Jesus the Nazorean, the son of a poor carpenter, and is moved to become his disciple – what an incredible act of abandonment! Was he presumptuous – too bold? Perhaps, he certainly seems to have a romantic idea of Jesus’ future plans – possibly he thought Jesus and his disciples would go to Jerusalem to take their seats of honor at the head of the Sanhedrin.
“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” There is clearly no seat of honor is Jesus’ future. It is easy to hear this response and assume Jesus is rejecting the scribe’s desire of discipleship. This is not the case. Jesus hears the scribe’s vulnerable appeal and reciprocates with a revelation of his mission – Jesus has nothing, no place of refuge, he is not heading to Jerusalem to take a seat of honor, rather his life is a life of exile. He calls nothing his own, for his life is entirely dependent on His Father.
Thus Jesus both bares his heart to the scribe while simultaneously giving him a warning – do you know what it means to be my disciple? It means living the life that I live, to walk with me, to give up everything for me, for I have no things to give you, only myself. St. John Chrysostom articulates it well, “For Jesus there was no table spread, no lights, no house, nor any such thing.” To be Jesus’ disciple is to dispense of any expectation of worldly rewards, but rather to follow him because we are in love with him.
Did the scribe stay or walk away? We don’t know, the scriptures don’t say. Perhaps he couldn’t overcome his pleasing vision of discipleship to embrace the austere reality. Yet, maybe he stayed and followed Jesus – even if at a distance for a while, not immediately ready to give up his status in the world.
Jesus looks to another saying, “Follow me!” And He replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” And in one of the hardest passages in the scriptures, Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury the dead, But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” …And again’ another said “I will follow you Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” Jesus gives another harsh response, “No one who sets his hand… and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” To understand these stories, we must look to the first reading, the story of Elijah commissioning Elisha, where a similar exchange takes place. Elijah walks forward and throws his mantle around Elisha, and Elisha responds generously – asking only to kiss his father and mother goodbye before coming after him. Elijah gives him full permission to complete these formalities, for he has no claim over Elisha. Elisha then follows by killing his massive 12 oxen train, tearing up his plow to use for kindling to cook the oxen, feeding his people with the food and heading out. When Jesus calls his disciples it is different, he rejects their requests- why? Because unlike Elijah, Jesus does have a claim on us, he can demand everything from us and he does. When the disciples say- first let me– Jesus makes clear that he must always come first.
Can you relate to the would-be disciples? I relate to all three. For myself, when I sit in a consoling hour of prayer, I make many promises to the Lord, all genuine and good, full of enthusiasm and zeal. Like the scribe, I don’t know what I’m promising. Do I know exactly what I am embracing in my vocation to Holy Orders? Absolutely not! Did any of you couples know what was in store when you accepted the vocation of Holy Matrimony?
Yet in all this Jesus accepts our zeal. Yes, He demands total abandonment, but when we fail, he does not abandon us. He knows our hearts, He knows we are not free, and though we want to follow him, we are afraid.
Paul speaks of this in the second reading. “For freedom Christ has set us free!” In that initial zeal, that desire to follow Christ, we have encountered the freedom Christ alone can give. This is not the freedom the world promises, which exempts us from responsibility, the freedom to wander, to owe nothing to anyone, an absolute autonomy. The freedom Jesus gives is something entirely different and Paul states it very simply- rather, serve one another through love. This freedom has nothing to do with us, instead it is the capacity to get outside ourselves and love our neighbor. I just made a promise of celibacy, a promise of obedience to my bishop, a promise to serve the poor with my life, and to conform my entire life and ministry to Christ- is that freedom? Certainly not the freedom of autonomy. It is true freedom, the freedom we find only in being a disciple of Christ.
My elementary school friends and I joined the country of Ryan because we thought Ryan was the cool. We followed him into misdemeanor grade pranks with abandonment because he knew how to get us out (or at least he convinced us he did).
Are we willing to follow Christ wherever he may go- no matter what that means? When we choose to be Christians we are not choosing a lifestyle, we are choosing a person. In return for our total abandonment to him, Christ promises only himself in return. But what we cannot forget is- to have union with Jesus is to have everything- to be truly free. In my ordination Friday, June 24th, I tasted that freedom. My heart has been conformed to Christ the servant – my desires, my intellect, my will, my life – no longer belong to me, I belong to Christ and to his Church. I’ve entered into exile with Christ and I’ve never been happier. So choose Christ, abandon yourself to his will, enter into exile with him that you may be truly free.