September 4, 2022 at St Peter the Apostle Church in Naples, FL
Wisdom 9, 13-18 + Psalm 90 + Philemon 9, 10, 12-17+ Luke 14, 25-33
Not just the crowds, but Jesus’ closest disciples do not seem to understand the radical nature of his mission or the total cost of it. They only see the glory of victory after their experience of Jesus’ powerful campaign of miracles and preaching and his rising popularity as they approach Jerusalem on the eve of Passover. His repeated predictions of suffering and rejection fall on deaf ears in the din of the welcoming crowds and swirling rumors of a messianic breakthrough.
The truth is that few of us just like those earliest disciples fail to grasp the radical nature of following Jesus. We are much like those disciples who had to go through a series of baptisms before they realized the cost of imitating him, dying with him in order to rise with him, and I mean “a series of baptisms.” That Baptism of Fire Jesus speaks of is something other than a ritual ceremony. It is the day in and day out perseverance in face of every temptation and failure accepted with patience and embraced without complaint. That “baptism of fire” is suffering sometimes emotional, sometimes physical, and sometimes spiritual. What eventually got those first disciple through their “baptism of fire” was their willingness to say “yes” and not waver in their faith and commitment to the one whose ultimate “baptism of fire” gave them hope for the future and the resurrection. It can be no different for us. Like them, we can only continue to say “yes” to the small, daily invitations to die to ourselves for the sake of others, to listen for the voice of Jesus in our own circumstances to hear his instructions for us.
Our personal transformation in Christ and the fulfillment of our baptismal journey is not a program of self-improvement but a surrender to God’s will as it is uniquely revealed to us one step at a time. Losing ourselves to find ourselves is more than a metaphor. That dark moment when we stop living for ourselves will be unmistakable. God loves us so much that every false self we cling to will be taken from us to prepare us for the gift of Gods image in us, our true self. We rejoice that God will accomplish this in each of us.
By emphasizing the phrase “his own life,” Luke highlights what we might today call ego. The things Jesus demands his disciples leave behind are indicators of importance, like family connections, social status and possessions. Striving after these is a temptation in every age, but something in Luke’s own journey of discipleship convinced him that a life built on them was utterly empty.
Discipleship requires the absolute renunciation of one’s ego. The measure of far we have come with that renunciation can be seen in the accumulation of possessions. Is there anything we can’t give away or do without? It can be seen in striving after status and recognition. Again, the measure of how far we have come is seen in how much we expect to be thanked and recognized for doing the simplest of things. Searching for purpose in “riches, honor and pride,” as St. Ignatius put it, might satisfy briefly, but the inevitable reality of death makes these efforts futile. Most of our ego monuments vanish with our last breath. Only a life spent pursuing God’s dream, after the example of Christ, will give a human life eternal consequence, and we know very well what God’s dream for us and all creation really looks like. One look at Jesus Christ, and we can’t get it wrong.
Christ issues this same challenge today. A life primarily spent crafting an ego cannot support the demands of discipleship. A life of trust in the Spirit, on the other hand, reflects Jesus’ own fulfillment of God’s dream. Just as Jesus renounced everything and so saved the human race, disciples who fulfill God’s dreams in their own lives will draw others to the same saving power.
In one of my favorite books, “Happy Are You Poor,” Fr. Thomas Dubay writes: “If we wonder why, despite the millions of us who follow Christ, the world has not long ago been converted, we need not look far for one solution. We are not perceived as men on fire. We look too much like everyone else. We appear to be compromisers, people who say they believe in everlasting life but actually live as though this life is the only one we have.”
The challenge for myself then is to look at my life with Gospel eyes and see what in my heart still belongs to this world, what in my heart seeks to run from suffering and daily crosses, and what in my heart I haven’t fully given to Christ. Then, make a plan, renounce it all, and live radically for Christ.