Fundamentals for Fruitful Discipleship – A Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter

In this Easter Season, we continue to reflect on how the Risen Lord Jesus minsters to us and supplies our needs. Last week we considered Him as our shepherd. This week we learn how He is the vine and we the branches, wholly dependent on Him for everything. As we consider how He cares for us as His disciples, we need to rescue the word “care” from its rather sentimental modern sense. True care does not merely include pleasant things such as providing food and shelter. Sometimes care involves difficult things, but ones that are necessary to discipline and purify us so that we grow and bear more fruit. Thus, the Lord speaks of “pruning” in this passage. While caring, pruning is not often pleasant, but it is proper care. Let’s look at how the Lord cares for us so that we can be true disciples.

The Lord presents us with four basic principles that assist us in being better, more fruitful disciples.

I. The Purpose of Disciples – The text says, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit … Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.

The purpose of a vine is to bear fruit. What are the fruits that the Father seeks? Surely justice, righteousness, and holiness are chief among them. The Letter to the Galatians speaks of them in this way: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:23). Surely, we can add virtues and fruits such as generosity, chastity, mercy, forgiveness, and zeal for God and His kingdom. These are among the fruits God seeks, and which are the purpose of the vine, His son Jesus, whom He sent to nourish us so that these fruits would come to pass.

Yet there are some branches that, though they take nourishment from the vine, do not bear fruit. Not only do they fail to bear fruit, they often harm the vine by drawing strength away from the fruit-bearing branches.

I know little of grapes, but for many years now I have grown tomatoes. As the tomato plant grows, small shoots emerge from the base of the vine branches. These are usually called “suckers,” because they draw strength away from the main branch where the tomatoes are growing. These suckers should be plucked for the health and vigor of the plant and the best development of the fruit.

God will often do the same. In our modern age, with its stress on individualism, hearing that God cuts off unfruitful branches strikes us as unmerciful and harsh. However, God has in mind not just the individual, but the strength and fruitfulness of the whole vine. Failing to bear fruit does not just affect the individual; it affects the whole vine. Therefore, God, as a loving vine-dresser, cuts away the harmful branches. Your life is not just about you. My life is not just about me. We exist in myriad, complex relationships with one another, and God must care for all of them. Because the purpose of the vine is to bear fruit, God tends the vine with that in mind.

The text goes on to say that severed branches wither and that “people” will gather them and throw them into the fire. If I don’t know who I am and whose I am, if I am no longer rooted in Christ, anyone can name me and carry me off. Yes, without the stability of abiding on the vine, I can get “carried away” by worldly things. In this way, I wither and die spiritually; the slightest breeze can blow me about. Like any dried and withered branch, I am good for nothing but to be thrown into the fire. Unless Christ carries me and sustains me, I am carried away by others, who cast me into the fire.

II. The Pruning of Disciples – The text says, and every [branch] that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.

Most of us who have cared for roses know how important pruning is. Without this careful and necessary cutting, the rose bush grows long and gnarly. It expends its strength more on the branches than on the flowers. Little by little the flowers become smaller and less beautiful; the leaves lose their beauty, shape, and color, becoming smaller and lighter green. Eventually the rose bush looks little better than a weed.

I imagine that if a rose bush could talk, it would protest and cry out in pain every November as I descend upon it and cut back its growth to a mere one foot above the ground. In May, though, the gorgeous roses in the front yard are a masterpiece and all the pain of November is forgotten.

Pain and pruning are part of the Christian journey; God knows what He is doing. We often do not, and like the roses in November that cry out in pain and protest, we look for answers. Yet no more than I can explain my purpose to the roses (they are only rose bushes, after all), can God explain to us what He is about (we are mere mortals with minds too small to comprehend the whole picture).

Just the same, November pruning gives way to May glory; God the vine-dresser knows what He is doing.

Note, too, that the Lord says that His Word “prunes” us. If we let the Word enter us uncompromised and unabridged, we read, For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12). Yes, God’s Word can humble our pride, cut to the quick our distorted and wrongful thinking, and hold us accountable. It can cut away error and mend the decayed wounds of sin.

We must allow the Word of God to be what it is. Too many of us seek a filtered and watered-down version of God’s Word. No! Let the undiluted Word go to work, of which Scripture itself says, Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jer 23:29)

A pruned vine bears abundant fruit. None of us like pruning, but nothing is more necessary.

III. Persistence of Disciples – The text says, Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.

In this short Gospel, the word “remain” occurs seven times. Do you get the point? Remain! The Greek word μείνατε (meinate) is the plural imperative of the verb meno, meaning, “to abide.” To abide means to remain habitually or to stay somewhere. It speaks of stability and persistence.

It is clear that a branch must always stay attached to the vine or else it is doomed. Absolutely nothing is possible to a branch (except to wither and die) unless it is attached to the vine 24 x 7 x 365. Nothing could be clearer in this analogy than this truth.

Yet it seems very unclear to the average disciple of Jesus, who so easily walks away, finding abiding both tedious and difficult. Then we wonder why our spiritual life is tepid and its fruits lackluster! We can’t have even a mediocre spiritual life apart from Christ; the text says we can’t do anything at all but be scattered.

How do we abide with and in the Lord? Scripture distinguishes four ways. We abide and experience union with the Lord through

HIS WORDIf you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you (Jn 15:7). Anyone who loves me will be true to my word and my Father will love him and we will come to him (Jn 14:22).

HOLY COMMUNION –  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (Jn 6:56).

PRAYER (especially communal prayer) –  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20).

KEEPING HIS COMMANDMENTSThose who keep his commandments abide in him and He in them (1 John 3:22).

Yes, abiding is accomplished through prayer, Scripture, sacraments, fellowship, and walking uprightly. This Gospel could not be more clear: abide, abide, abide, abide, abide, abide, abide. Seven times the word is used.

Do you get it? Abide. Abide persistently.

IV. The Produce of Disciples – The text says, If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Attached to and abiding in the vine, we will produce abundant fruit. Note that this is linked to a kind of fruitfulness in prayer that comes from the Father’s good pleasure.

Why is He pleased to answer our prayers if we abide? Because He can trust us with His blessings. In effect, He can say, “Here is someone who is close to my Son, who habitually remains with Him and abides with Him. Yes, here is someone I can trust with blessings. Here is a wise steward who is in union with my Son.” Scripture speaks often of the correlation between wise stewardship and blessings:

  • (Luke 16:10-11) Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So, if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?
  • (Matt 25:21) His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
  • (Luke 12:48) From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

Do you want more? Then use well what you already have. Be someone whom the Father can trust because you stay close and abide with His Son. Be like those who can say, with mother Ruth, Wherever you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay (Ruth 1:16). Be like the man who said to his wife, “If you ever leave me, I’m going with you.”

Abide, abide, abide.

Working for the Kingdom – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

The readings of “Ordinary Time” focus on the call to discipleship and the living of the Christian Faith. The readings for today’s Mass are no exception, as they present us with a number of disciplines for disciples. These disciplines free us to serve Christ and His Kingdom joyfully, energetically, and wholeheartedly. We can group these disciplines into three broad areas; discipleship is undefiant, unfettered, and untiring. Let’s consider each area of discipline as reflected in the readings.

I.  Undefiant – The first reading today covers the ministry of the reluctant prophet, Jonah. In today’s reading we hear only the end of the story, but as most of us know, Jonah was not merely reluctant in accepting his mission as a prophet, he was downright defiant. Recall his story:

Refusal The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it …” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish (1:1-3). Jonah defiantly runs from God; he refuses the mission.

Running – Nineveh was 550 miles east of Israel. Tarshish was 2500 miles west of Israel. Do you get the picture? Jonah was doing some serious running! Rather than go 550 miles to do God’s will, he was ready to travel 2500 miles to get away from God’s will. It’s always a longer trip when you defy God.

Resistance – As Jonah runs away from God, great storms arise at sea. The storms of defiance rage, but Jonah sleeps—and the storms affect not only him but those who sail with him as well. Yes, our moral decisions do affect others around us despite our egocentric notion that what we do is no one else’s business. Thus, for some of us, there can be great storms that come into our lives. Has it ever occurred to you that some of the storms in your life may be related to a situation in which God said, “This way,” but you defied him and said, “No, that way”? Maybe we all need to wake up and say, “What does this storm mean?”

Return – Swallowed by the great fish, Jonah is brought back to the very place (Joppa) where he sailed away from God. In effect, God says, “Let’s try this all over again.” So Jonah makes ready and goes to Nineveh, according to the LORD’s bidding. Yes, Jonah was smart this time.

The point is that disciples (we) must learn to be undefiant. God wants to “save us some mileage.” Obedience to His will is always easier than disobedience.

Consider, too, how undefiant the Ninevites are as they hear and heed Jonah’s message and notice how this saves them from destruction.

It’s always easier to follow God. I did not say that it’s easy, just that it’s easier. Sin may be more pleasurable and easier in the moment, but it brings a world of difficulties and complications in its wake. If you do not think this is so, just read a newspaper and consider how many of our difficulties are directly tied to our sinful attitudes and choices. The vast majority of this world’s suffering is directly attributable to the rebellious sinfulness of humanity.

The first discipline of discipleship is undefiance. With this discipline we remain teachable and open to God’s wisdom and are thereby spared many difficulties.

II.  Unfettered – To be unfettered means to be unchained, unshackled, free to move about. The second reading today presents a vivid and sober portrait of what being unfettered and detached looks like:

I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world, as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:29ff).

This passage does not mean that we have no recourse at all to these things and people but rather that we live “as” not having them. In other words, we must seek the gift to realize that nothing in this passing world remains. Nothing here, not even marriage, is the sole reason for our existence or the sole source of meaning for us. God and God alone is the source of meaning and the lasting goal of our life. All else will pass.

For most of us, detachment form this world is the battle, the central struggle we face. Our attachment to this world hinders us from freely following Christ. A couple of passages come to mind:

Jesus, said [to the rich young man], “If you would be perfect, go and sell all that you have, (and you will have treasure in heaven) and then come and follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:22 ff).

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money … So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:24).

The world has a thousand hooks in us. We are chained and fettered; our freedom to follow Christ is severely compromised.

The battle to be free and unfettered is a process. God can give us this freedom but it requires time and obedience from us. Little by little, God breaks the shackles of this world; all its treasures come to seem as of little value to us. Slowly we come to what St. Paul said:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:7-8).

III.  Untiring – Consider that among Jesus’ first followers were several fishermen. The text of the Gospel today says, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Is there some meaning in the fact that fishermen were among His first and most prominent disciples? Perhaps so.

Consider that fishermen have some important qualities that are helpful for discipleship. Fishermen are:

Patient – Fishermen often need to wait for many hours, even days, for a catch. Disciples need patience, as do evangelizers.

Professional – Fishermen need to spend time learning about the types of fish and their behaviors, learning to observe the water and navigate, learning the right time of day and the right season to fish. They need to know the right bait and the proper use of the net. All of these traits are good for disciples and are especially helpful in evangelization, which is “job one” for the disciple. Through growing in practical knowledge we come to know our faith and learn effective ways to be fishers of men.

Purposeful – When fishermen are out fishing they are entirely focused on their endeavor. That’s all they do; everything is centered on the main task. They are single-minded. Disciples surely need more of this attitude. The Book of James says, The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). St. Paul says, But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14). Every disciple needs to be more single-minded.

Pursuing – Note that they simply go to the fish. Too many Catholic parishes merely open the doors and hope that people will come to them—that is not evangelization. The key word for disciples and evangelizers is this: go.

Partnered – Fishermen work in teams. Jesus sends the disciples out, two by two.

Persistent – If fishermen don’t make a catch one day, they’re back out the next. Disciples surely need to persist, both in their own journey and in making disciples of others.

In today’s readings there are a number of disciplines of discipleship. The green vestments of Ordinary Time remind us of growth, both our own and that of the Church. Ultimately, a free heart is a joyful heart. It is a heart that is not easily tired because it is not divided by serving two masters. It is a heart that ungrudgingly serves the Kingdom.

Here is a song that speaks of patient, purposeful, and persistent action on behalf of God’s Kingdom. It is a song that can only come from a heart that is undefiant, unfettered, and untiring; from a heart that says, “I keep so busy workin’ for the Kingdom, I ain’t got time to die!”

Four Depictions of Discipleship – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus defines four demands of discipleship. Let’s look at them one by one.

I. The CONTEXT of discipleship – The text says that large crowds were following Jesus and so He turned to address them. Just about any time you find mention of a big crowd in the Bible, fasten your seat belt and prepare for a hard teaching. Jesus didn’t trust large crowds, who were often merely after what they could get out of Him. They were looking for miracles, for multiplied (and free) bread, for physical healing, and for a fiery sermon.

So, upon sensing a large crowd of people, Jesus turned to address them. He then gives a series of hard teachings, which almost seem designed to thin the ranks and distinguish true disciples from ones who are merely giving “lip service.”

Before discussing what Jesus says to them, let’s examine some other incidents in the Gospels that also illustrate His tendency to distrust big crowds:

        • Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt 7:13).
        • For many are called, but few are chosen (Matt 22:14).
        • Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets (Luke 6:26).

Often the mention of a large crowd is followed by a hard teaching:

        • When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matt 19:1-6; Mark 10).
        • As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).
        • Large crowds were traveling with Jesus and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).
        • … and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick … and He said to them, “I am the living bread come down from heaven” … the crowds murmured (John 6:2).

So, the context of discipleship is not usually with the crowd. Though many are called—indeed, all are called—few make the cut and become true disciples. There is a kind of remnant theology at work here, to be sure, but it is a common pattern that Jesus thins the ranks and distinguishes the many who are called from the few who are chosen.

This is not just a fact in the Scriptures; the Lord has often had to prune His Church. Even now we are seeing a large falling away, a pruning, as many who are not able to accept the hard sayings of Jesus and the Scriptures (about sexuality, forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, heroic charity, and generosity) depart. The context of discipleship is with the few rather than the many.

This insight about the context is also important today because there are many who argue that the Church should “get with the times,” that she should listen to the people, that she should give them what they want, that she should reflect the views of the faithful. The role of the Church is not to reflect the views of its members, as if it were some political party. Rather, it is to reflect the views of its Founder, Jesus Christ, who handed on His teachings through the apostles and evangelists. More often than not, these teachings will not be in lockstep with what is popular or current.

The context of discipleship is often at odds with great crowds of people. We see this when Jesus turns on them. The first reading today reminds us: For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns. And scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty (Wisdom 9:13-16).

II. The CENTRALITY of discipleship – Jesus indicates that if we are going to be His disciples, we can love no one more than we love Him. This extends even to our family relationships: If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

The use of the word “hate” here does not mean that we are to have contempt for others or to nourish unrighteous anger toward them. Rather, this is a Jewish idiom. For some reason, the Hebrew language has very few comparative words such as more/less and greater/ fewer. If one preferred vanilla ice cream to chocolate, one would say (in ancient Hebrew), “I love vanilla but hate chocolate.” This would mean that I prefer vanilla to chocolate, not that I actually hate chocolate.

So, what Jesus means is that we cannot prefer anyone or anything to Him. He is first; He is number one. Jesus says that He must have absolute priority over even the closest human relationships in your life.

If there’s anyone in your life who can talk you out of obeying God, forget ’em! Anyone who keeps you away from God has too much power. Anyone who can keep you from your Christian walk has too much power. Anyone who can pull you into unrighteousness has too much power.

If your boss instructs you to do something immoral, just say, “Sorry, Boss.” If your accountant advises you to save money by paying unjust wages or cutting necessary benefits, say “Sorry, no.” If your boyfriend or girlfriend pressures you to have sex, say, “Sorry, Dear.” If your “friend” pressures you to use drugs, abuse alcohol, skip school, or steal, say, “Sorry, Buddy.” If your spouse calls you away from teaching your children the ways of faith, tell him/her “Sorry, Honey.” If your child pressures you to give him something unwise or sinful, say, “Sorry, child of mine.”

Do you get it? No one is to have priority over Jesus Christ and what He teaches. The word “hate” here may not be meant literally, but if Jesus really does have priority in our life it may cause some people to say to us, “You’re so devoted to Him that I think you hate me!”

We need to attend to this, because too many of our human relationships cause us to compromise our walk with Jesus. Some people have too much power over us, a power that belongs to the Lord.

III. The CROSS of discipleship – Jesus says, Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. If we want to be a disciple, we must be willing to carry the cross.

The cross comes in many forms, but in the end, being a disciple does not mean that we are in any way exempt from the troubles and trials of this world. Jesus indicates that we will be hated (cf Jn 15:20), persecuted, and sorely tempted by the world. If we hold out, though, victory will be ours.

It is a simple rule: No cross, no crown. There are some who want to preach a prosperity gospel. There are others who demand a gospel stripped of its moral imperatives. Still others demand an updated faith that tickles their ears and affirms their sinful behavior.

Jesus points to the cross not to torture us but because it is the only way to glory. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). Now, for a little while you may have to suffer various trials (1 Peter 1:6). This wisdom is already evident if we consider that even in this world, all of what we value most (family, talents, career, achievements) comes at the cost of sacrifice. Sacrifices bring blessings. Jesus is not into pain for its own sake but because sacrifice brings blessings.

IV. The COST of discipleship Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, “This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.” Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.

In this teaching, Jesus asks us to count the cost. Discipleship is costly. Jesus gives the images of someone building a tower and of a king going into battle. These examples may seem distant to us, so Jesus “brings it home” by saying, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.

The Greek word ἀποτάσσω (apotasso), translated here as “renounce,” also means “to say farewell.” The Lord is reminding us that Heaven costs everything. Ultimately, we must say farewell to everyone and everything we consider precious in this world in order to inherit Heaven. This is not something that happens all at once when we die.

On one level, we give back everything to God little by little as we go through life. We have all given back loved ones. Perhaps we have already given back our youthful physique, strength, or good health. Ultimately, though, we will give it all back.

On another level, the Lord is saying that we must be willing to part now with anything that hinders discipleship. Many things attach us to this world and make discipleship difficult. Are we willing to simplify our life and focus on being a disciple? Or will we continue setting down roots here and amassing a worldly kingdom?

What’s it going to be: the world or the Kingdom? Count the cost. See what it costs and then decide. In the end, Heaven costs everything—but you’re going to lose it all anyway. It is a wise man who gives away what he cannot keep in order to gain what he could never buy.

What Jesus is looking for are disciples who, having counted the cost and realistically assessed it, are nonetheless ready to be His disciples. Tag-alongs, lip-service Christians, and fair-weather friends need not apply. In today’s Gospel Jesus is teaching a big crowd in a way that is meant to distinguish true disciples from those merely giving lip service. We are asked to ponder in which category we fall.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Four Depictions of Discipleship – A Homily for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

Five Disciplines of Discipleship – A Homily for the 13th Sunday of the Year

This Sunday’s Gospel portrays through the life of Jesus some important disciplines for disciples. Let’s look at them and see how to apply them to our lives today.

I. Purposefulness – The text says, When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem, and he sent messengers ahead of him.

Note that Jesus was resolute. He was heading to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and rise; to undertake the great battle and the great mission entrusted to Him. Everything He did was to be oriented toward this goal.

What about us? Are we as determined to seek Christ and head for His Kingdom? Is our direction clear? Have we set our sights resolutely, or do we meander about? Are we on the highway to Heaven, or do we make compromises with this passing world, seeking to serve two masters? Notice how easily we take exits for sin city, vicious village, and injustice junction.

Our goal is to set our face like flint and pursue the Jerusalem of Heaven, just as Jesus set His face toward the Jerusalem of this earth to accomplish His mission.

Scripture speaks often of developing a firm and unequivocal resolve, of being purposeful and single-hearted in our determination to follow Jesus and set our sights on Heaven.

This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13).

A double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:4).

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (Mat 6:24).

There is one thing I ask of the LORD, this alone I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life and gaze upon the beauty of the LORD (Ps 27:4).

Are you focused? Purposeful? What is the one thing you do? Concentration is the secret of power. Water over a large area is a stagnant pond, but in a narrow channel it is a powerful river.

The first discipline of discipleship is to be purposeful, determined, single-hearted, and focused in our pursuit of the Lord and His kingdom.

II. Perseverance – The text says, On the way they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his reception there, but they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village.

James and John are angry at and discouraged by the rejection of Jesus and the values of the Kingdom, but He Jesus rebukes their desire for retaliation.

Notice how Jesus stays focused on His task. Rejected here, He moves forward. He does not let the devil distract Him or His disciples from the task of proclaiming the Word whether in season or out of season, popular or unpopular, accepted or rejected. Keep preaching; keep plowing; keep walking. Do not give up; do not grow angry; just keep working. Leave judgment to God. For now, just preach, teach, warn, and admonish.

Scripture says,

And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. … and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next (Matt 10:14, 22).

Yes, persevere! Remember, we’re called to be faithful, not successful. We need to persevere not just in the face of rejection, but in the face of trials, temptations, setbacks, sorrows, hurts, hardships, failures, and frustrations. Preach, teach, and be tenacious. Remember to trust in Jesus. They killed Him, but He rose.

Many have announced the end of faith. Many have sworn that they will bury the Church, but she has buried every one of her would-be undertakers. They dug our grave but fell into it themselves. Yes, we read the funeral rites over them. We have outlived every opponent.

No weapon waged against us will prevail. Long after the current confusion and pride of the decadent West has gone, the Church will still exist, preaching Christ and Him crucified.

III. Poverty – The text says, As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Here is another critical discipline of discipleship: following Jesus even if worldly gain not only eludes us but is outright taken from us. Do you love the consolations of God or the God of all consolation? Do you seek the gifts of God or the Giver of every good and perfect gift? What if following Jesus gives you no earthly gain? What if, in fact, being a disciple brings you ridicule, loss, prison, or even death? Would you still follow Him? Would you still be a disciple?

In this verse Jesus’ potential disciple seems to have power, prestige, or worldly gain in mind. Perhaps he sees Jesus as a political messiah and wants to get on the “inside track.” Jesus warns him that this is not what discipleship is about. The Son of Man’s Kingdom is not of this world.

We need to heed Jesus’ warning. Riches are actually a great danger. Not only can riches not help us in what we really need, they can actually hinder us! Poverty is the not the worst thing. There’s a risk in riches, a peril in prosperity, and a worry in wealth.

The Lord Jesus points to poverty and powerlessness (in worldly matters) when it comes to being disciples. This is not merely a remote possibility or an abstraction. If we live as true disciples, we are going to find that wealth is seldom our lot. Why is this? Well, our lack of wealth comes from the fact that if we are true disciples, we won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil. We won’t take just any job. We won’t be ruthless in the workplace or deal with people unscrupulously. We won’t lie on our resumes, cheat on our taxes, or take easy and sinful short cuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage, provide necessary benefits to workers, and observe the tithe. The world hands out (temporary) rewards if we do these sorts of things, but true disciples refuse such compromises with evil. In so doing, they reject the temporary rewards of this earth and may thus have a less opulent place to lay their heads. They may not get every promotion and they may not become powerful.

Yes, poverty is a discipline of discipleship. What is “poverty”? It is freedom from the snares of power, popularity, and possessions.

Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Now that’s poor! But it also means freedom from the many duties, obligations, and compromises that come with wealth. If you’re poor no one can steal from you or threaten take away your things. You’re free; you have nothing to lose.

Most of us have too much to lose and so we are not free; our discipleship is hindered.

IV. Promptness (readiness) The text says, And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The Lord seems harsh here. However, note that the Greek text can be understood in the following way: “My Father is getting older. I want to wait until he dies and then I will really be able to devote myself to being a disciple.”

Jesus’ point is that if the man didn’t have this excuse, he’d have some other one. He does not have a prompt or willing spirit. We can always find some reason that we can’t follow wholeheartedly today because we have to get a few things resolved first. It’s the familiar “I’ll do tomorrow.”

There is a peril in procrastination. Too many people always push things off to tomorrow, but tomorrow is not promised. In the Scriptures there is one word that jumps out over and over again; it’s the word now.

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD (Isaiah 1:18).

behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).

Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Ps 95:7).

Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1).

That’s right, tomorrow is not promised! You’d better choose the Lord today because tomorrow might very well be too late. Now is the day of salvation.

There were three demons who told Satan about their plan to destroy a certain man. The first demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no Hell.” But Satan said, “People know that there is a Hell; most have already visited here.” The second demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no God.” But Satan said, “Despite atheism being fashionable of late, most people know, deep down, that there is a God, for He has written His name in their hearts.” The third demon said, “I’m not going to tell them that there is no Hell or that there is no God; I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” And Satan said, “Now that’s the plan!”

Yes, promptness is a great gift to be sought from God. It is the gift to run joyfully and without delay to what God promises.

V. Permanence – The text says, And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

When we accepted Christ, we set our hand to the gospel plow and we left certain things behind. We are not to return to those things, things like harmful habits, ruinous relationships, soul-killing sinfulness, and perilous pleasures.

Yes, there are some things that we used to do that we have no business doing now. We need to give up our former ways and not look back.

Scripture says,

Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ, assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:17-23).

Therefore, brothers, make every effort to make permanent your calling and election, because if you do these things you will never stumble (2 Peter 1:10).

An old spiritual says,

“Hold on, Hold on! If you want to get to heaven let me tell you how, keep your hands on the Gospel plow! Keep your hands on the plow and hold on! Hold on. When you plow that field don’t lose your track, can’t plow straight and keep a-lookin’ back. Keep your hands on the plow and hold on, hold on!”

Persevere. Hold on and don’t let go.

Here, then, are five disciplines of discipleship. Learn about them and seek them from the Lord. Without them we will surely perish.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Five Disciplines of Discipleship – A Homily for the 13th Sunday of the Year

What Does Heaven Cost? A Homily for the 28th Sunday of the Year

The Rich Young Man Goes Away Sorrowful, J. Tissot (1894)

The Sunday Gospel invites us to wrestle with these fundamental, essential, focal questions: “What does Heaven cost?” and “Am I willing to pay it?”

I. Problematic Pondering – A rich man asks Jesus, Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

Though his question is a good one, it is problematic because he couches it in terms of his own personal power and achievement. He wonders what he himself must do to attain eternal life.

The problem is that none of us has the holiness, the spiritual wealth, or the power to attain Heaven based merely on what we do. The kind of righteousness we need can come only from God. The misguided question of the rich man betrays two common misunderstandings that people bring to the question of salvation and the need for redemption.

The first misunderstanding comes about because we underestimate the seriousness of our condition. We tend to think that we’re basically in good shape. Perhaps we have a few flaws, but fundamentally we mean well and are decent. We suspect that a few sacraments, occasional prayers, and some spiritual “push-ups” will be sufficient. Any look to the crucifix should belie these notions. If it took the horrible death of the Son of God to rescue us, then our condition must be worse than we, with our darkened intellect, imagine.

Jesus related a parable of a man who owed a huge debt—10,000 talents (cf Mt 18:24). This was an amount so large as to be almost unimaginable. No one with such a debt is going to be able to repay it merely by working a little overtime or picking up an additional part-time job. The point is that we humans are in deep trouble and have absolutely no ability to rescue ourselves.

A second misunderstanding comes about because we tend to intellectualize and minimize what the law of God requires. We ask, “What must I do?” rather than “What must I become?” This bespeaks a law-based approach that seeks a manageable list of things to do in order to be saved rather than an open-ended relationship with God. “Okay, so I’m not supposed to kill anyone. No problem, I don’t like the sight of blood anyway. I’ve got this commandment down!” This thinking minimizes the commandment and what it asks of us.

These two misunderstandings seem to undergird the problematic nature of the rich man’s question. In order to engage the man further, Jesus in effect plays along with the premise; this leads us to the second point.

II. Playful Prescription – Jesus decides to follow up on the man’s premise, saying to him, You know the commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.

Jesus is being playful here in that He continues with the flawed premise of the man: that he can attain to Heaven by something he does.

It is interesting to ponder why Jesus quotes only the Second Table of the Law, the part pertaining to love of neighbor, omitting reference to the First Table of the Law, the commandments pertaining to love of God. Perhaps it is because the Lord recognizes that the man does love Him, for he is seeking the Kingdom of Heaven and asking how to enter into it. Therefore, the Lord focuses on the Second Table of the Law, which is in evidence in this man’s life, at least in this interaction. Further, as Scripture says elsewhere, How can you say you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you do see? (1 John 4:20) Hence, the Second Table of the Law fleshes out the First Table of the Law.

The Lord is not affirming here that the keeping of the commandments can save us or justify us. Even if we consider ourselves blameless, Scripture says, the just man sins seven times a day (Prov 24:16). We can affirm with Isaiah that, I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips (Is 6:5), and we must say with St. Paul, I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose (Gal 2:21).

While the law gives us a necessary and clear frame of reference for what pleases God, its summons Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy (Lev 19:22) is not attainable through mere human effort unaided by grace. Jesus makes it clear that when God says, Be holy, He does not have in mind mere human holiness, for Jesus says, Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

Thus, Jesus is drawing out the man’s problematic premise, but as we next see, the rich man doesn’t take the hint.

III. Perceived Perfection – Strangely—and humorously to our mind—the man boldly says, Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.

Notice that the man’s perfection is perceivedsimply noting it in himself does not mean that he actually has it in himself. Having heard Jesus quote the Second Table of the Law, he announces that he has observed all of these from his youth.

To be fair, his self-analysis was not uncommon for a Jewish man of his time. The Jewish people had a great reverence for the law, a beautiful thing in itself, but they tended to understand it in a fairly legalistic and perfunctory way.

For example, in a conversation with Jesus, a scribe of the law asks Him, And who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29) It’s as if he is saying, “If I have to love my neighbor—and I acknowledge my duty to do so—how can I define ‘neighbor’ in such a way that this is manageable?” In other words, I recognize that I have limits. If justice comes to the law, then the law must have limits, defined in such a way that the keeping of the law remains within my power.

Jesus sets aside such thinking in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), in which He calls for the law to be observed not in a minimalistic sense but in a way that fills it to the fullest. Jesus says that it is not enough not to kill; we must also reject anything that ultimately leads to killing or to wishing people were dead. The commandment not to kill requires not only that we not take life, but also that we banish from our heart and mind, by God’s grace, hateful anger, retribution, and revenge. The commandment not to commit adultery requires not merely that we avoid breaking the marital vows, but also that we banish from our heart and mind, by God’s grace, any lustful, impure, and unrighteous sexual thoughts.

Hence, the commandments and precepts of the law cannot, and should not, be understood in a minimalistic way. Jesus sets aside the usual manner of the people of His day: reducing the law to something manageable and then declaring that they have kept it. God seeks more than perfunctory observance. His grace desires to accomplish within us wholehearted observance. We need grace in order to be saved, in order to qualify for anything that God calls holy.

So, Jesus sets aside the rich man’s claims of righteousness and is now is ready to address the question, “What does Heaven cost?”

IV.  Pricey Prescription – What does Heaven cost? Everything! Jesus, looking at the man with love, says to him, You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

Ultimately, the cost of Heaven is leaving this world and everything in it to go and possess God and Heaven. To have Heaven we must set aside this world, not only its life but its pomp, ephemeral glories, and passing pleasures. If you want Heaven you’ve got to leave here!

Although we know this, we often live in a way that seeks to postpone the inevitable and to ignore the joke that this world is ultimately playing on us. The world says, “You can have it all!” Yes, you can, but then you die and lose everything. We like to postpone facing that fact, pretending that perhaps it ain’t necessarily so. We’re like the gambler who goes to the casino thinking he will be the exception to the general rule that the house always wins. You can’t cheat life; whatever we have when we die, whatever we claim to have won, we lose.

In the end, there is only one way to attain the things of lasting value. Only what you do for Christ will last. The Lord says, Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, that neither rust nor moths can corrode, nor thieves break in and steal (Lk 12:33).

The Lord says that being generous to the needy and poor is a way of storing up treasure in Heaven. Sadly, most of us don’t believe that, thinking that clinging to our “treasure” here is a way of keeping it. It isn’t. Whatever we have here is slipping through our fingers like so much sand. The only way to keep it unto life eternal is to give it away to the needy and poor and to allow it to advance the Kingdom of Heaven and its values.

Otherwise, wealth is not only not helpful it is actually harmful. There are many texts in the Scriptures that speak of the danger and the harm of wealth, how it compromises our souls and endangers our salvation:

  • Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God(Mk 10:23-25).
  • For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; 8 but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs (1 Tim 6:7).
  • No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Luke 16:13).
  • But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep (Luke 6:24-25).
  • But many that are first will be last, and the last first (Mat 19:30).
  • Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5).

While the Lord’s claim that Heaven costs everything bewilders us, we cannot fail to see its truth and that the world’s claims on us are rooted in a lie, in false declarations that we can be secure in the passing glories of the world. You can have the passing glories of the world, but then you die—end of glory. Because we like the lie, we entertain it. In the end, though, we give everything back because it was never ours to begin with, it only seemed that way.

How foolish we are, how blind! Speaking of blindness, note that the Lord looked at the man with love, yet the man went away sad. That look of love from the Lord never reached his soul. If it had, the result would surely have been different.

V. Powerful Possibility – So shocking is this teaching that even the apostles, who had in fact left everything to follow the Lord, are shocked by it. They see and are in touch with the depth of this wound in the human heart, the depth of our delusion that the world and its goods can satisfy us. They see and know how strong and numerous are the hooks that this world has in us. Thus, they cry out, Then who can be saved? Jesus responds, For man it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.

In the end, salvation must be God’s work. He alone can take these tortured hearts of ours, so rooted in passing things, and make them willing to forsake all things for the Kingdom of Heaven.  Only God can take our disordered love and direct it to its proper end: the love rooted in God and the things awaiting us in Heaven. Only God can remove our obsession with the Titanic and place us squarely in the Noah’s Ark that is the Church, the Barque of Peter.

Yes, God can give us a new heart, a properly ordered heart, a heart that desires first and foremost God’s love, a heart that can say, “I gratefully receive what you give me, Lord, and I covet nothing more. Thank you, Lord. It is enough. You, O Lord, are enough.”

Don’t miss the look of love that Jesus gave the young man, the look that He gives you. In the end, only a greater love, God’s love received, can replace the disordered love we have for this world.

St. Augustine wrote,

Such, O my soul, are the miseries that attend on riches. They are gained with toil and kept with fear. They are enjoyed with danger and lost with grief. It is hard to be saved if we have them; and impossible if we love them; and scarcely can we have them, but that we shall love them inordinately. Teach us, O Lord, this difficult lesson: to manage conscientiously the goods we possess and not covetously desire more than you give to us (Letter 203).

I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.
Yet all good things together came to me in her company,
and countless riches at her hands
(Wisdom 7:7-1).

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Two Teachings on Discipleship from Jesus

In the Gospel for today (Monday of the 13thWeek of the Year) Jesus gives two teachings on discipleship. They are not easy, and they challenge us—especially those of us who live in the affluent West.

Poverty– The text says, As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Here is a critical discipline of discipleship: following Jesus even if worldly gain not only eludes us but is outright taken from us.Do you love the consolations of God or the God of all consolation? Do you seek the gifts of God, or the Giver of every good and perfect gift? What if following Jesus gives you no earthly gain? What if being a disciple brings you ridicule, loss, prison, or even death? Would you still follow Him? Would you still be a disciple?

In this verse, the potential disciple of Jesus seems to have had power, prestige, or worldly gain in mind. Perhaps he saw Jesus as a political messiah and wanted to get on the “inside track.” Jesus warns him that this is not what discipleship is about. The Son of Man’s kingdom is not of this world.

We need to heed Jesus’ warning. Riches are actually a great danger. Not only do they not help us in what we really need, they can actually hinder us! Poverty is the not the worst thing. There’s a risk in riches, a peril in prosperity, and a worry in wealth.

The Lord Jesus points to poverty and powerlessness (in worldly matters) when it comes to being disciples. This is not merely a remote possibility or an abstraction. If we live as true disciples, we are going to find that piles of wealth are seldom our lot. Why? Well, our lack of wealth comes from the fact that if we are true disciples, we won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil. We won’t take just any job. We won’t be ruthless in the workplace or deal with people unscrupulously. We won’t lie on our resumes, cheat on our taxes, or take easy and sinful shortcuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage, provide necessary benefits to workers, and observe the tithe. The world hands out (temporary) rewards if we do these sorts of things, but true disciples refuse such compromises with evil. In so doing, they reject the temporary rewards of this earth and may thus have a less comfortable place to lay their head. They may not get every promotion and they may not become powerful.

Thus “poverty” is a discipline of discipleship.What is “poverty”? It is freedom from the snares of power, popularity, and possessions.

Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Now that is poor. However, it also means being free of the many obligations and compromises that come with wealth. If you’re poor no one can steal from you or threaten take away your possessions. You’re free; you have nothing to lose.

Most of us have too much to lose and so we are not free; our discipleship is hindered. Yes, poverty is an important discipline of discipleship.

Promptness (readiness)The text says, And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The Lord seems harsh here. However, note that the Greek text can be understood in the following way: “My Father is getting older. I want to wait until he dies and then I will really be able to devote myself to being a disciple!”

Jesus’ point is that if the man didn’t have this excuse, he’d have some other one. He does not have a prompt or willing spirit. We can always find some reason that we can’t follow wholeheartedly today because. There are always a few things resolved first.

It’s the familiar refrain: I’ll do tomorrow!

There is peril in procrastination. Too many people always look to tomorrow. But remember that tomorrow is not promised. In Scripture there is one word that jumps out repeatedly; it’s the word now. There are many references to the importance of now or today rather than tomorrow:

  • Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD (Isaiah 1:18).
  • behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).
  • Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Ps 95:7).
  • Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1).

That’s right, tomorrow is not promised! You’d better choose the Lord today because tomorrow might very well be too late. Now is the day of salvation.

There is an old preacher’s story about delay: There were three demons who told Satan about their plan to destroy a certain man.The first demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no Hell.” But Satan said, “People know that there’s a Hell and most have already visited here.” The second demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no God.” But Satan said, “Despite atheism being fashionable of late, most people know, deep down, that there is a God, for He has written His name in their hearts.” The third demon said, “I’m not going to tell them that there’s no Hell or that there’s no God; I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” And Satan said, “You’re the man! That’s the plan!”

Yes, promptness is a discipline of discipleship. It is a great gift to be sought from God. It is the gift to run joyfully and without delay to what God promises.

Here are two disciplines of discipleship. They are not easy, but the Lord only commands what truly blesses. There is freedom in poverty and joy in quickly following the Lord!

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Fundamentals for Fruitful Discipleship – A Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter

In this Easter Season, we continue to reflect on how the Risen Lord Jesus minsters to us and supplies our needs. Last week we considered Him as our shepherd. This week we learn how He is the vine and we the branches, wholly dependent on Him for everything. As we consider how He cares for us as His disciples, we need to rescue the word “care” from its rather sentimental modern sense. True care does not merely include pleasant things such as providing food and shelter. Sometimes care involves difficult things, but ones that are necessary to discipline and purify us so that we grow and bear more fruit. Thus, the Lord speaks of “pruning” in this passage. While caring, pruning is not often pleasant, but it is proper care. Let’s look at how the Lord cares for us so that we can be true disciples.

The Lord presents us with four basic principles that assist us in being better, more fruitful disciples.

I. The Purpose of Disciples – The text says, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit … Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.

The purpose of a vine is to bear fruit. What are the fruits that the Father seeks? Surely justice, righteousness, and holiness are chief among them. The Letter to the Galatians speaks of them in this way: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:23). Surely, we can add virtues and fruits such as generosity, chastity, mercy, forgiveness, and zeal for God and His kingdom. These are among the fruits God seeks, and which are the purpose of the vine, His son Jesus, whom He sent to nourish us so that these fruits would come to pass.

Yet there are some branches that, though they take nourishment from the vine, do not bear fruit. Not only do they fail to bear fruit, they often harm the vine by drawing strength away from the fruit-bearing branches.

I know little of grapes, but for many years now I have grown tomatoes. As the tomato plant grows, small shoots emerge from the base of the vine branches. These are usually called “suckers,” because they draw strength away from the main branch where the tomatoes are growing. These suckers should be plucked for the health and vigor of the plant and the best development of the fruit.

God will often do the same. In our modern age, with its stress on individualism, hearing that God cuts off unfruitful branches strikes us as unmerciful and harsh. However, God has in mind not just the individual, but the strength and fruitfulness of the whole vine. Failing to bear fruit does not just affect the individual; it affects the whole vine. Therefore, God, as a loving vine-dresser, cuts away the harmful branches. Your life is not just about you. My life is not just about me. We exist in myriad, complex relationships with one another, and God must care for all of them. Because the purpose of the vine is to bear fruit, God tends the vine with that in mind.

The text goes on to say that severed branches wither and that “people” will gather them and throw them into the fire. If I don’t know who I am and whose I am, if I am no longer rooted in Christ, anyone can name me and carry me off. Yes, without the stability of abiding on the vine, I can get “carried away” by worldly things. In this way, I wither and die spiritually; the slightest breeze can blow me about. Like any dried and withered branch, I am good for nothing but to be thrown into the fire. Unless Christ carries me and sustains me, I am carried away by others, who cast me into the fire.

II. The Pruning of Disciples – The text says, and every [branch] that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.

Most of us who have cared for roses know how important pruning is. Without this careful and necessary cutting, the rose bush grows long and gnarly. It expends its strength more on the branches than on the flowers. Little by little the flowers become smaller and less beautiful; the leaves lose their beauty, shape, and color, becoming smaller and lighter green. Eventually the rose bush looks little better than a weed.

I imagine that if a rose bush could talk, it would protest and cry out in pain every November as I descend upon it and cut back its growth to a mere one foot above the ground. In May, though, the gorgeous roses in the front yard are a masterpiece and all the pain of November is forgotten.

Pain and pruning are part of the Christian journey; God knows what He is doing. We often do not, and like the roses in November that cry out in pain and protest, we look for answers. Yet no more than I can explain my purpose to the roses (they are only rose bushes, after all), can God explain to us what He is about (we are mere mortals with minds too small to comprehend the whole picture).

Just the same, November pruning gives way to May glory; God the vine-dresser knows what He is doing.

Note, too, that the Lord says that His Word “prunes” us. If we let the Word enter us uncompromised and unabridged, we read, For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12). Yes, God’s Word can humble our pride, cut to the quick our distorted and wrongful thinking, and hold us accountable. It can cut away error and mend the decayed wounds of sin.

We must allow the Word of God to be what it is. Too many of us seek a filtered and watered-down version of God’s Word. No! Let the undiluted Word go to work, of which Scripture itself says, Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? (Jer 23:29)

A pruned vine bears abundant fruit. None of us like pruning, but nothing is more necessary.

III. Persistence of Disciples – The text says, Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.

In this short Gospel, the word “remain” occurs seven times. Do you get the point? Remain! The Greek word μείνατε (meinate) is the plural imperative of the verb meno, meaning, “to abide.” To abide means to remain habitually or to stay somewhere. It speaks of stability and persistence.

It is clear that a branch must always stay attached to the vine or else it is doomed. Absolutely nothing is possible to a branch (except to wither and die) unless it is attached to the vine 24 x 7 x 365. Nothing could be clearer in this analogy than this truth.

Yet it seems very unclear to the average disciple of Jesus, who so easily walks away, finding abiding both tedious and difficult. Then we wonder why our spiritual life is tepid and its fruits lackluster! We can’t have even a mediocre spiritual life apart from Christ; the text says we can’t do anything at all but be scattered.

How do we abide with and in the Lord? Scripture distinguishes four ways. We abide and experience union with the Lord through

HIS WORDIf you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you (Jn 15:7). Anyone who loves me will be true to my word and my Father will love him and we will come to him (Jn 14:22).

HOLY COMMUNION –  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (Jn 6:56).

PRAYER (especially communal prayer) –  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt 18:20).

KEEPING HIS COMMANDMENTSThose who keep his commandments abide in him and He in them (1 John 3:22).

Yes, abiding is accomplished through prayer, Scripture, sacraments, fellowship, and walking uprightly. This Gospel could not be more clear: abide, abide, abide, abide, abide, abide, abide. Seven times the word is used.

Do you get it? Abide. Abide persistently.

IV. The Produce of Disciples – The text says, If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

Attached to and abiding in the vine, we will produce abundant fruit. Note that this is linked to a kind of fruitfulness in prayer that comes from the Father’s good pleasure.

Why is He pleased to answer our prayers if we abide? Because He can trust us with His blessings. In effect, He can say, “Here is someone who is close to my Son, who habitually remains with Him and abides with Him. Yes, here is someone I can trust with blessings. Here is a wise steward who is in union with my Son.” Scripture speaks often of the correlation between wise stewardship and blessings:

  • (Luke 16:10-11) Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So, if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?
  • (Matt 25:21) His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
  • (Luke 12:48) From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

Do you want more? Then use well what you already have. Be someone whom the Father can trust because you stay close and abide with His Son. Be like those who can say, with mother Ruth, Wherever you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay (Ruth 1:16). Be like the man who said to his wife, “If you ever leave me, I’m going with you.”

Abide, abide, abide.

Working for the Kingdom – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

The readings of “Ordinary Time” (Tempus per annum in Latin) focus on the call to discipleship and the living of the Christian Faith. The readings for today’s Mass are no exception, as they present us with a number of disciplines for disciples. These disciplines free us to serve Christ and His Kingdom joyfully, energetically, and wholeheartedly. We can group these disciplines into three broad areas; discipleship is undefiant, unfettered, and untiring. Let’s consider each area of discipline as reflected in the readings.

I.  Undefiant – The first reading today covers the ministry of the reluctant prophet, Jonah. In today’s reading we hear only the end of the story, but as most of us know, Jonah was not merely reluctant in accepting his mission as a prophet, he was downright defiant. Recall his story:

Refusal The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it …” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish (1:1-3). Jonah defiantly runs from God; he refuses the mission.

Running – Nineveh was 550 miles east of Israel. Tarshish was 2500 miles west of Israel. Do you get the picture? Jonah was doing some serious running! Rather than go 550 miles to do God’s will, he was ready to travel 2500 miles to get away from God’s will. It’s always a longer trip when you defy God.

Resistance – As Jonah runs away from God, great storms arise at sea. The storms of defiance rage, but Jonah sleeps—and the storms affect not only him but those who sail with him as well. Yes, our moral decisions do affect others around us despite our egocentric notion that what we do is no one else’s business. Thus, for some of us, there can be great storms that come into our lives. Has it ever occurred to you that some of the storms in your life may be related to a situation in which God said, “This way,” but you defied him and said, “No, that way”? Maybe we all need to wake up and say, “What does this storm mean?”

Return – Swallowed by the great fish, Jonah is brought back to the very place (Joppa) where he sailed away from God. In effect, God says, “Let’s try this all over again.” So Jonah makes ready and goes to Nineveh, according to the LORD’s bidding. Yes, Jonah was smart this time.

The point is that disciples (we) must learn to be undefiant. God wants to “save us some mileage.” Obedience to His will is always easier than disobedience.

Consider, too, how undefiant the Ninevites are as they hear and heed Jonah’s message and notice how this saves them from destruction.

It’s always easier to follow God. I did not say that it’s easy, just that it’s easier. Sin may be more pleasurable and easier in the moment, but it brings a world of difficulties and complications in its wake. If you do not think this is so, just read a newspaper and consider how many of our difficulties are directly tied to our sinful attitudes and choices. The vast majority of this world’s suffering is directly attributable to the rebellious sinfulness of humanity.

The first discipline of discipleship is undefiance. With this discipline we remain teachable and open to God’s wisdom and are thereby spared many difficulties.

II.  Unfettered – To be unfettered means to be unchained, unshackled, free to move about. The second reading today presents a vivid and sober portrait of what being unfettered and detached looks like:

I tell you, brothers and sisters, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world, as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:29ff).

This passage does not mean that we have no recourse at all to these things and people but rather that we live “as” not having them. In other words, we must seek the gift to realize that nothing in this passing world remains. Nothing here, not even marriage, is the sole reason for our existence or the sole source of meaning for us. God and God alone is the source of meaning and the lasting goal of our life. All else will pass.

For most of us, detachment form this world is the battle, the central struggle we face. Our attachment to this world hinders us from freely following Christ. A couple of passages come to mind:

Jesus, said [to the rich young man], “If you would be perfect, go and sell all that you have, (and you will have treasure in heaven) and then come and follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:22 ff).

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money … So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:24).

The world has a thousand hooks in us. We are chained and fettered; our freedom to follow Christ is severely compromised.

The battle to be free and unfettered is a process. God can give us this freedom but it requires time and obedience from us. Little by little, God breaks the shackles of this world; all its treasures come to seem as of little value to us. Slowly we come to what St. Paul said:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:7-8).

III.  Untiring – Consider that among Jesus’ first followers were several fishermen. The text of the Gospel today says, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

Is there some meaning in the fact that fishermen were among His first and most prominent disciples? Perhaps so.

Consider that fishermen have some important qualities that are helpful for discipleship. Fishermen are:

Patient – Fishermen often need to wait for many hours, even days, for a catch. Disciples need patience, as do evangelizers.

Professional – Fishermen need to spend time learning about the types of fish and their behaviors, learning to observe the water and navigate, learning the right time of day and the right season to fish. They need to know the right bait and the proper use of the net. All of these traits are good for disciples and are especially helpful in evangelization, which is “job one” for the disciple. Through growing in practical knowledge we come to know our faith and learn effective ways to be fishers of men.

Purposeful – When fishermen are out fishing they are entirely focused on their endeavor. That’s all they do; everything is centered on the main task. They are single-minded. Disciples surely need more of this attitude. The Book of James says, The double-minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). St. Paul says, But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14). Every disciple needs to be more single-minded.

Pursuing – Note that they simply go to the fish. Too many Catholic parishes merely open the doors and hope that people will come to them—that is not evangelization. The key word for disciples and evangelizers is this: go.

Partnered – Fishermen work in teams. Jesus sends the disciples out, two by two.

Persistent – If fishermen don’t make a catch one day, they’re back out the next. Disciples surely need to persist, both in their own journey and in making disciples of others.

In today’s readings there are a number of disciplines of discipleship. The green vestments of Ordinary Time remind us of growth, both our own and that of the Church. Ultimately, a free heart is a joyful heart. It is a heart that is not easily tired because it is not divided by serving two masters. It is a heart that ungrudgingly serves the Kingdom.

Here is a song that speaks of patient, purposeful, and persistent action on behalf of God’s Kingdom. It is a song that can only come from a heart that is undefiant, unfettered, and untiring; from a heart that says, “I keep so busy workin’ for the Kingdom, I ain’t got time to die!”