What does it take to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? What must we do to be worthy of the name of Christian?
Jesus makes a pretty sweeping statement about what it takes to be his disciple. Let me quote him again: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” First of all we need to realize what Jesus is doing here. He is actually making a new commandment—ONLY GOD CAN DO THAT. So if you have any ideas that Jesus is just a good teacher and prophet, think again. There are other commandments of love: love your neighbor as yourself and love the Lord you God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Jesus cites both of these commandments, but he doesn’t call them “new.” That is because Jesus knows full well that both of those commandments that I quoted are mentioned in the Old Testament. They are not new at all. This new commandment that Jesus gives is a highly personal one. Please notice that Jesus is not simply saying to love one another. He commands us to love one another as he loved. He puts an extra condition on it.
If I tell you that when you leave this church, you should try to love one another as I (Fr. Basil) love you—what would you necessarily have to know FIRST in order to fulfill that commandment? YOU WOULD HAVE TO KNOW ME, WOULDN’T YOU? So think about Jesus’s command again: Love one another as I have loved you. You cannot fulfill this command unless you first know the man who is giving the command—Jesus Christ. So do you know him? Are you aware of the love with which he loved? Has the fact that God humbled himself, became a servant of all, and then died on a cross for the sake of his friends—has that really sunk into your heart? Because that is the kind of love that we are talking about. That is the kind of love that we are supposed to have for one another: a love that is not proud, a love that seeks to serve, a love that is not afraid to suffer so that someone else might be saved.
How do you learn to love as Jesus loved? I will tell you the only way that I have learned how: meditate on the gospels, share with the Lord in prayer your insights, hardships and joys of the day, and then share what you have learned with others either by word or deed. That is the only way that I have learned to GET TO KNOW this Jesus who commands that we should love one another like he loved. It is very simple, but not very easy. We all know how to get healthy: eat good food daily and exercise regularly. And you have to do it pretty much constantly or your body begins to slip. The soul is not different. It requires constant effort and maintenance. So I will ask you a simple question: do you meditate on scriptures daily, share your life with the Lord in prayer, and then share what you have learned with others?
What else does Jesus say about discipleship? “Unless you bear your own cross and follow me, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27).” What do you do with a cross? You carry it, and its heavy. And in the end you are crucified on it. YAY, HUH? And you do it in public for everyone to see, just like Jesus did. And it has to be YOUR OWN cross—Not anyone else’s and not one that you built for yourself, but the one God built and gave specifically to you. I knew a man who was constantly in pain over the success or failure of his son. It’s all he ever talked about. And certainly a parent will have pain over the hardships of a child—but this man took it to such an extreme that he was trying to carry his son’s cross and basically almost emotionally living his son’s life. This man had his own struggles that God wanted him to tackle—he has his own cross. But he wasn’t carrying it. He was trying to shoulder his son’s cross. Which cross are we carrying? Is it ours? Have we put it down in the dirt and refused to move? If so, we are not being good disciples.
Jesus also says that whoever does not hate his own life (and pretty much everything else) when we go to Jesus cannot be his disciple. Jesus is not talking about constantly being down on yourself and everything else. He is talking about the seriousness of prioritizing things. Doing God’s will and fulfilling the new commandment of love has to the first priority that orders every other priority. Think about what is absolutely necessary in your life. Do you order your life around work, and everything else falls in line behind it? Do you order your life around exercise, and everything else falls in line behind it and serves that? Or perhaps the first priority is some hobby or addiction? For example, I used to know a woman who was such a health nut that pretty much her entire schedule would revolve around exercise and getting frequent healthy meals. If mass got in the way of a workout, she would rearrange it or not go to mass. Whether or not she was going to drive her children around depended on when she was working out. Her husband had to reorganize his schedule around her gym time. The whole house had to bow down and be subjected to her diet. ESSENTIALLY, HER ENTIRE LIFE FELL IN LINE BEHIND HER OBSESSION WITH HEALTH. This kind of activity is a false worship of the health or appearance of the body. Really, my friends, what takes top priority in your schedule? Because the answer to that question is the answer to what you worship. And if your answer is not God, then Jesus is telling you that you cannot be his disciple. All of us make mistakes with this. All of us prioritize other things over God from time to time. But this saying of Jesus that you must even hate your own life should make us ponder whether or not some serious changes need to be made in the priorites of our lives.
What does St. Paul specifically say to the disciples in the first reading today? It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships in order to enter the kingdom of God. Paul wasn’t just talking about apostles and prophets. He was saying this to everybody. And he didn’t mean just any kind of hardships. Everybody has hardships. Atheists have hardships. Muslims have hardships. People that never go to church have hardships. Those are not the hardships that will win you heaven. It is the hardships that you endure because you tried to be a disciple of Jesus Christ that will win you the kingdom of Heaven. If you are not giving up SOMETHING because you are a Christian—if your life isn’t somehow different than your neighbor who is NOT a Christian because you serve Jesus Christ, then I would like to suggest that something is not quite right.
I would like to mention one final condition of being a disciple. Jesus also says “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” I think that most of us are fairly well aware of those first few conditions. But this one is kindof a secret spiritual killer. Serving the Lord is work. This is what Jesus means by putting your hand to the plow. And the Greek verb that is used for “looking back” implies continues action, so a better paraphrase might be “Whoever puts his hand to the plow and keeps on looking back is not fit for the kingdom of heaven.”
After we decide to serve Him, Jesus wants us to finish what we started. He wants us to trust him. We need to be like explorers who take a journey forward into an unknown ocean, out into the deep, trusting that wind and weather and grace will bring them to a land that where we’ve never been before. If they turn back, at best they will be ridiculed by all the people who wished them a heroic journey; at worst, they will not even be able to make their way back and will die on the wide ocean. I don’t know if you remember the story of Lot’s wife in the Book of Genesis. An angel warned Lot and his wife that God was going to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and if they looked back, they would be destroyed. Lot’s wife DID look back, and she turned into a pillar of salt. Do we do this in our lives? Do we look back at a life of evil deeds and wish for that again? Or are we so full of regret when we look back on our lives that we are not really able to move forward? Jesus wants us plowing. He wants us looking forward. He wants that ship to reach the Everlasting island where he lives. If we are constantly looking back, then we certainly aren’t paying much attention to where we are going or even where we are NOW. This “looking back” I think can take two primary forms.
One is our regret over a past that we wish we could change for whatever reason. Perhaps some deeds we committed, things we never did that we wished would would have done, or the curse of having wasted so much time doing things that were meaningless and even destructive.
The other is looking back, in a way, not over things that happened but at things that WILL NEVER BE. I am convinced that this is a secret spiritual killer. How much of us spend precious time fantasizing or obsessing over the person we will never become, the kind of children we will never have, the things we will never have, the job that will never materialize? The crazy thing about this kind of “looking back” is that IT DOESN’T EVEN EXIST. When we break our hearts over WHAT WILL NEVER BE, we are living in dreams and wishes that aren’t even real. But they are real to us, aren’t they?
Our regret, our resentment, our wishing for fantasies that will never come true MUST BE SURRENDERED in order to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Life is hard enough living in the present to be wasting our energy on a past that we cannot change, or a future that will never be. It’s high time to let go of such things. They are only hurting us anyway. The day of our judgment could be at hand.
Love one another as Jesus has loved you. Take up your own cross daily and follow him. Make serving him the priority that orders all other priorities. Stop living in regret for the past, and fantasies that will never be. Though difficult, the man or woman who succeeds in doing this is actually the most free, most joyful person that we could ever meet. Surrender. Let go. Jesus is waiting ahead of you on that uncharted ocean whispering in the wind, “Behold, I make all things new.” He can make your life new as well, if you let him.