Jesus said to his apostles: “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; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple— amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.”
If you’d like to see my shoulders slump, then tell me what I should or should not do, particularly if I’m not inclined to do what needs to be done or if I want to keep on doing what I shouldn’t be doing. I think this is a part of the Catholic ethos I’ve picked up that I wasn’t anticipating. I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about; it’s what’s called in the vernacular Catholic Guilt. I’m going to change the name, but a Catholic woman once told me that she’s thought about introducing herself this way to strangers: “Hi, I’m Betty and I’m sorry.” I suspect some of you can identify with this.
The primary reason for this is that there are many “shalls” and “shall nots” in our faith. We can start with the 10 Commandments and go from there. I don’t need to tell you this; it is part of our ethos. It’s particularly true if we really, truly want to be faithful above all else. So let’s look more closely. It’s about discipleship.
The Gospel readings this time of year focus on what could be called The Cost of Discipleship. You may have noted that with the Church’s emphasis on Evangelization, the term disciple is being used more and more. The Catechism tells us that: The disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it: “All however must be prepared to confess Christ before[others] and to follow him along the way of the Cross, amidst the persecutions which the Church never lacks.” Service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation…(CCC#1816)
I like to define discipleship as actually following Jesus over against just admiring him, usually from a passive perspective. Disciples get up and move; they actually follow him both literally and figuratively. They do what needs to be done and they refrain from doing those things that are not in accord with faithfulness. Discipleship is the manifestation of an active faith, not a passive one. Disciples are willing to be inconvenienced and even suffer for the cause of Christ. They are willing to take on the guilt as well as the glory.
In contrast, admirers tend to remain inert or to find something else to do. I remember a former parishioner once telling me that “Church is what you do in your spare time.” This is not an expression of discipleship.
But this former parishioner was on to something. There are many people who want all the benefits of the faith without the rather rigorous requirements and especially they don’t want the guilt. There are many reasons, but I have noticed that people tend to be natural minimalists, particularly when it comes to matters of faith. Frequently questions like: “What must I do to be saved?” or “How much should I give away?” or “What is required of me to forgive that “so and so” who cheated me?” These are almost always implying: “what is the very least I have to do to be saved, to give away or even to be forgiving? What are the minimum requirements to be obedient? What is the least I have to do to quit feeling guilty?”
In other words, “what are the minimum requirements to be a true Disciple of Jesus?” Now we do that with a lot of things, but it’s particularly prevalent among those who want to identify as being part of the faithful without having it cost too much.
Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this “Cheap Grace,” which he defined as the “grace we bestow on ourselves… Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, receiving Holy Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Cheap grace is concerned about social approval and risks nothing.
Over against cheap grace is costly grace. The term costly grace may seem like a contradiction in terms. However, let’s just think about Jesus’ parable of the treasure hidden in a field (Mt. 13:44ff). If you remember, this is the story of the man who discovers this hidden treasure in a field and happily cashes in everything he owns so he can to procure it.
Costly grace is not simply a lucky door prize. This grace takes the form of a call to follow Jesus to the cross. This was a teaching that the first disciples found very hard to take. How could the coming kingdom of God really mean that they might have to follow Jesus even to his death? Was there no short cut that did not involve this path?
There is no short cut. Grace costs nothing, but it demands everything. Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels us to submit to the yoke of Christ and to follow him.
True grace comes only from God. It is free, but it is ever so costly. It took the crucifixion for it to be always available to us, the recipients. And disciples are aware of that cost and consequently they—we—are charged to offer our very lives as the only appropriate response. And when we don’t want to do that, when something else is more important or even more interesting, the guilt kicks in. The Catechism tells us that: In union with his Savior, the disciple attains the perfection of charity which is holiness. Having matured in grace, the moral life blossoms into eternal life in the glory of heaven. (CCC #1709)
But it is not an easy journey to get there. We hear this in today’s Gospel lesson:
Jesus said …: “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; and whoever does not take up his [or her] cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
We must be careful with this. This is not the case, as some have claimed, that what matters is following Christ in your own way. Jesus is saying loud and clear, that what matters is allegiance to Him and the Gospel and on his terms, not ours. This is not some kind of hobby that we do in our spare time when it fits our schedules. It is not grace that we bestow on ourselves. Following Christ on his terms and not ours must supersede everything else.
But we can see as this story unwinds, how difficult this was even for people who were His disciples back then. Eventually Peter denied Him three times, Judas betrayed Him, and the rest ran away and hid. But His call and challenge remain: embracing everything, demanding everything, offering everything, promising everything.
So how do we respond? There may come a time when the hassle and even the persecution can and will be almost unbearable. But never forget that the challenge of Jesus’ sayings is always matched by the remarkable promises He makes to those who accept and live by them. We will never be abandoned. Ours is a God of love, and love will prevail.
So let’s remember this when our shoulders slump and the guilt kicks in. This is what keeps us on the straight and narrow; it leads us to repentance and reconciliation and puts us back on the path of true discipleship.