Sunday, June 26, 2016

Discipleship and the Cross

(Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year C; This homily was given on June 25 and June 26, 2016 at St. Patrick Church in Cumberland, R.I.; see Luke 9:51-62) 

In our Gospel for this Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time we encounter the awesome mystery of our Lord's cross.  Not only was Christ willing to suffer and die on the cross for the salvation of the world, but we discover in Sacred Scripture that He was well aware of what would happen to Him long before the events of Good Friday and the Crucifixion.  Three separate times in the course of his public ministry Jesus called aside His disciples and announced to them all that awaited Him: 

"Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day."
-Matthew 20:18-19

Jesus Christ knew that He was going to suffer greatly and die, and yet St. Luke's Gospel this morning reveals how he greatly desired to go to Jerusalem anyway!  We hear:  

When the days for Jesus' being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem. 
-Luke 9:51 

He resolutely determined to make His way to Jerusalem.

He was completely set and totally driven to complete that journey to the cross.


Jesus Christ is not a masochist.  He is not seeking the agony and the suffering of Calvary for suffering's sake.  He is simply driven and compelled by love to pour Himself out as a living sacrifice for us.  Jesus Christ is "resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem" because He wants to give His life for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of the world.  That one thought, that singular desire, utterly consumed Him.

There is a popular author and business consultant named James Collins who has written several bestselling books on leadership and corporate success.  It is his conviction, backed by solid data, that corporations and companies able to rise from simply good to truly great are not led by geniuses or charismatic gurus.  It is not the case that the men and women who have graduated from Harvard, or who have IQ's that are off the charts, are the ones that find great success in leadership.  He contends that the ones who reach the highest level (what Collins describes as Level-5 leadership) are often mediocre from an external perspective.  But what they have in common are two essential characteristics: humility and a fierce resolve.

Level-5 leaders, contends Collins, possess tremendous humility.  They do not have to be the center of everything that is happening all the time; in fact, they do not even want to be.  They are not afraid to pass on the credit for the great things that are happening under their charge.  Furthermore, they are completely resolute to see the project through to the end, no matter what the obstacles.  They have a tenacious will and a compulsion to bring about a successful end result.

We discover in the Gospel that long before James Collins, before such things as Level-5 leadership or Fortune 500 companies, Jesus Christ modeled the tremendous humility and fierce resolve that would culminate in the salvation of the world.  In the Gospel for this weekend, however, he encounters some would-be disciples that are much less determined or prepared to follow Him in that endeavor.

By all means, the people Christ engages in the Gospel this weekend appear very well-intentioned.  The first one says to Christ, "I will follow you wherever you go" (Luke 9:57).  This man had an eagerness to follow the Lord!  We can only imagine his reaction when Jesus responds, "Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head" (Luke 9:58).  Jesus is basically communicating to this person, "Are you sure you want to follow me wherever I go?  You might not know where your next meal is coming from; you may not have a roof over your head.  Are you really resolved to be my disciple?" 

The second encounter begins with the initiative of Christ Himself.  After calling the man to follow Him, and receiving the response that this man wants first to go home and bury his father, Jesus replies, "Let the dead to bury their dead.  But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:60).  Some Scripture scholars contend that the father may still be living and that the son simply wants to remain at home and attend to his father until his time on earth is over.  Nonetheless, Jesus' meaning is clear.  If we wait until 5 years from now to follow Him, or if we hear the voice of Christ inviting us to follow Him and we put off that invitation until tomorrow or the next day, then we will never become His disciple.  There is tremendous urgency in the awesome invitation to follow Christ, and nothing less is at stake than eternal life.

Perhaps the interpretive key to understanding this very challenging Gospel passage is to be found in the final encounter, where that would-be disciple says, "I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at my home" (Luke 9:61).  It is easily the most reasonable request so far.  Astoundingly, Jesus shoots that one down, as well!  Instead He states, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). 

The Fathers of the Church see in this reference to the plow an image of the cross.  A plow, they explain, is a configuration of wood, bound together by iron.  Jesus Christ would be bound to the wood of the cross, fastened there by the iron that was driven through His body.  In that sense, what He is communicating to the would-be disciple, and to us, is that we cannot fully embrace the cross and continue to look back on our former way of life at the same time.  True discipleship entails that we put our hand to the plow, embrace the cross as we experience it in our lives, and consistently move forward with Jesus Christ.

A few verses earlier, in St. Luke's Gospel, Jesus proclaimed, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23).  He will later go on to say "Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27).  The cross is inseparable from the path of discipleship and the vocation of following Jesus Christ.  Knowing that the cross awaited Him in Jerusalem, our Lord "resolutely determined" to go there and offer Himself as a living sacrifice for love.  In our own crosses, He invites us to that same self-gift.

St. Josemaria Escriva, whose feast day we celebrate today, would often say, "A day without the cross is like a day without God."  He was not speaking negatively or cynically, but from his own experience and from a heart filled with faith.  St. Josemaria had come to see that, in those moments when he was able to accept and even embrace the contradictions of daily life, God was never more present to him.  He came to recognize that God is the one who helps us to carry our crosses and to walk ever more closely with Jesus Christ.  A day without the cross is like a day without God.

Every one of us in the Church this morning, without exception, carries some cross.  It may be a small cross, or many small crosses; we may simply be beset by numerous annoyances and difficulties.  On the other hand, some of us may be carrying a cross that seems so heavy and overwhelming that we wonder if we will even be able to bear it.  Our crosses could be temporary setbacks, challenges that will all be resolved in time.  They could also entail afflictions that last for years on end.  Whatever the case may be, we can be assured that we are not alone in the burdens that we carry.  Jesus Christ walks with us, helps us to carry our crosses, and helps us to cooperate with Him in that self-giving love through which He redeemed the world.

This morning, in the strength given to us by Christ, present to us in the Eucharist, may we discover a greater awareness of those two attributes that make not just good business leaders but also great Christian disciples: humility and a fierce resolve.  With deep humility we acknowledge our tremendous need for God.  We need Jesus Christ to grant us the grace and the forgiveness that He was "resolutely determined" to offer us from the cross.  At the same time, we move forward with Him, fiercely resolved to offer our lives to Him and to those around us.  With humility and a fierce resolve, we commit ourselves once again to being true disciples of Jesus Christ.