Are You In? Brace Yourself

13th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

We are free to choose whether or not to take up the yoke of discipleship and follow Jesus, but to those who accepted the call, Jesus was absolutely clear about his expectations. It won’t be easy, and there are no alternative routes on the journey.

 “I will follow you wherever you go” —Luke 9:57

There’s no rest, no downtime, and no relaxing of the rule to love. When Paul told the Galatians that “Christ set us free,” [Gal 5:1] meaning, free from adherence to the 613 Mitzvot[1] of Judaic law, Paul reminded them that there was still the one all-encompassing, non-negotiable rule that Jesus left them with: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Gal 5:14].

Some early Christians, and some still today, misinterpreted “freedom” or “being saved” to mean they were now somehow separated from and therefore not responsible for the rest of God’s creation. Paul warned them against such self-centeredness, telling them to “not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” [Gal 5:13]. It is too easy to misread Paul’s use of the word “flesh” to mean illicit sex, debauchery, and licentious behavior. But by “flesh” Paul was saying that any act of selfishness was an act of self-gratification and therefore opposed to the rule of love, or as Robert J. Karris puts it, “Flesh is the entire world turned against God.”[2]

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, to his crucifixion, when he responded to the person who said: “I will follow you wherever you go.” The text says Jesus was “resolutely determined” to be on his way, and as shocking as this is to our systems, so too should we.

“Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” —Luke 9:59

There’s no time like the present. Jesus’ response “Let the dead bury their dead” seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? After all, don’t we have responsibilities to our family members? And this guy only wanted to go home and bury his father. Or did he? The text doesn’t say his father was lying there dead in his burial cloth; he might have been in perfect health for another twenty years for all we know. The one who Jesus called hesitated, not because he didn’t want to answer Jesus’ call, but because he didn’t think the time was right. Jesus is saying, “No, I will not hold.”

John Shea writes, “With Jesus’ command, “Follow me,” a new and vital possibility has entered his life, a possibility that demands immediate and wholehearted response.”[3]

Spiritual inspiration is like a spark which unfanned, will die. And like the one who wants to follow Jesus but who isn’t ready, those of us who hesitate —the wait-and-see followers —“will be in the position of a son who is spiritually dead burying a father who is physically dead.”[4]

Following begins the moment we’ve been called. Don’t wait until the calendar is clear to accept Jesus’ invitation.

“I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” —Luke 9:61

There’s no turning back. The Prophet Elijah allowed Elisha to return to kiss his parents goodbye before following him, [1 Kings 19:20] but Jesus’ invitation demands a full and immediate commitment from those he calls. He says, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” [Luke 9:62].

Elisha destroyed the plow he had been using and fed the twelve oxen leading it to his people. He literally changed his occupation and did not turn back. Once called, life looks different.

Obviously, the single focus that discipleship commands does not say we all quit our jobs and leave our families; what it does command, however, is our determination and resolve. “It is only sheer individual resolve that will overturn the earth significantly enough for the seed of the gospel to be planted. A determined hand on the plough is Jesus’ concern.”[5]

Are you in?

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[1] Mitzvot (Commandments) includes positive (acts to perform), and negative commandments (acts from which to abstain).
[2] Robert J. Karris, OFM. “The Letter to the Galatians”, in The New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament. edited by Daniel Durken. Collegeville, MN: Liturigical Press. 2009.  581-601, here 598.
[3] John Shea. 2006. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: The Relentless Widow. Year C edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 182.
[4] Shea, 182.
[5] Shea, 182.

But, Does it Give Life?

12th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Poor Paul. I mean St. Paul, the former Saul of Tarsus, the once rabid persecutor of Christians whose profound encounter with the risen Christ, subsequent conversion and career about-face, and marathon-like journeys to spread the truth of Jesus to the ends of the earth, led to the rapid growth of the early Christian church.

Artistic portrayals of Paul often present him in tidy settings, calmly preaching to a rapt audience, his right arm raised for emphasis, or sitting at a well-appointed desk, plume in hand, with reference materials within reach. But I envision Paul with his head in his hands, his face a portrait of incredulity, his frustration nearly boiling over. I also see Paul channeling his urgent responses into the expanded writings on the life-giving truths of Jesus, letters which were both a gift to those communities, and to us.

Paul intrigues me. During my time as a student at CTU (Catholic Theological Union), I was fortunate to have studied many of Paul’s letters under the guidance of some top-notch biblical scholars, an experience which fostered in me the desire to know more about the life of Paul, his theology, and the Christian communities he established.

When I sit with one of Paul’s letters, such as Galatians,[1] I try to insert myself into the text, either as a member of the receiving community, (in this case the Galatians, who were receiving misinformation) or as one of his opponents, (the other teachers who were sidelining Paul’s teaching) or even as Paul himself.

And in doing so, I experience a deep sense of empathy for the man and his mission.

Galatians is a short letter of 6 chapters that can be read in one sitting. Note that I left out the word “easily” because Paul employs a rhetorical style of writing that may have made complete sense to his contemporaries but is foreign to most modern-day readers. Paul’s sentences are lengthy, complex, and challenging to read aloud, even for experienced lectors.

Early on in my biblical studies there’d be times when I’d think “Man, this guy needs an editor” or “Get to the point already!” But I’ve come to admire Paul’s complex, often nuanced apologetics. And what I have learned about Paul’s vulnerability, persistence, courage, and his life-giving patience and love for the members of the early church continues to inspire me.

Paul’s conviction that he was specifically called by Christ to spread the gospel compelled him to risk his life and personal comfort. He willingly gave up the respect of his peers and took on the identity of the despised. He was beaten, left for dead, and imprisoned. Paul was continually challenged to defend his authority and was falsely accused of having pilfered or created the gospel he preached. He was seen as a braggart, and at times he was difficult to be with, but he loved and was loved by the faith communities he established.[2]

Paul’s extraordinary life and his zeal for his apostolic mission represent the sum of discipleship which Jesus so succinctly spelled out to his apostles: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” [Luke 9:23]

But imagine how tiresome it must have been for Paul to have to defend his calling again and again, and how frustrating it was to receive news from church communities that the gospel he shared and which had been so well received was being misinterpreted or dismantled. What stamina he must have had to continue to correct and console, to convince and exhort the early Christians to keep the faith and believe the truth about Jesus Christ.

Scripture scholar, educator and author, Robert J Karris, OFM, likens the conversion experience of Paul and the subsequent skepticism of his authenticity by others to that of St. Francis of Assisi, whose radical rejection of worldly comforts for a life of asceticism led many to question not only his authenticity but his sanity. Karris suggests that one major criterion used to judge the veracity of a person’s actions, a storyline, or a teaching is to ask, Does it give life?

So, by putting Paul’s teachings to the test of whether or not they give life, Karris judged them to be truthful because they had “given life to the Galatians, who had received the Spirit through Paul’s preaching of this story as gospel.” [3]  And the life which the Galatians received did not end with them; its truth continued to be given for the fullness of life each time the Word was shared verbally and by their example of Christian love.

I find the premise of Karris’ question, Does it give life? refreshing. It resonated deeply with my troubled soul on a day of great mourning that emerged in the midst of yet another week of growing outrage and hostility between humans, in a month of escalating global tension, in a year of white hot division that continues to compound like interest in hatred bearing account.

It was as if at the moment my emotions were dragging me to a dark placeKarris himself asked me, Does it give life?

In this usage, the word life probably needs defining. The life that Truth gives is not bestowed upon one person or a group of like-minded people, but on all people. If the truth is not true for all, it is not truth.

Truth is egalitarian, it is color blind, it exists outside of history, and it does not bend for gender or symbols of worldly power.

Truth is the soil of all human flourishing. Anything less can never claim to be true.[4]

I began to test the question Does it give life? against some of the controversial ideologies, political stances, religious judgments, human rights issues, and environmental policies that deserve our serious attention.

And what did I discover? That very little of what contemporary society sets forth—the ideologies, stances, and policies that we hold up as true—passes Karris’ test, and in fact too much of it intentionally restricts the flourishing of all but a particular group of like-minded individuals. It was startling.

Why do we not see this? Why? Because Truth is difficult.

Karris’ question made me think about how in recognizing Truth as life-giving I am able to think more clearly, and respond more accurately to what I read, what I hear being said, what I say to others, and what I align myself with.

As Christians, we have to think about what we profess to believe as Truth and how we live out that truth. For example, if we believe we have the right to remind others of Jesus’ command to love one another how then can we justify the various exceptions we have added to our observance of the Golden Rule?

Truth is hard, and it is challenging. It requires great sacrifice and persistence, and it demands both from us every single day. That’s what Jesus did, and it is what he told his disciples they’d have to do. It’s what Paul did. It is what the Martyrs of the early Church did. It’s what the Saints and modern-day spiritual heroes do. And it’s what we are called to do too.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] Galatians is the earliest example of Paul’s writing. It is read from the 10th through 14th Sundays of Ordinary Time, year C.

[2] For a quick but wonderful summary of Pauline history including a virtual tour of his missionary journeys, click here.

[3] Robert J. Karris, OFM. “The Letter to the Galatians”, in The New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament. edited by Daniel Durken. Collegeville, MN: Liturigical Press. 2009.  581-601, here 592.

[4] Are you interested in exploring philosophical arguments on the nature of truth? Visit the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.