“What We Men Need to Become: Disciples of Jesus Christ”*
Dr. Mark S. Latkovic
February 9, 2014
Introduction: Three quotes on Christian discipleship
Let me begin by quoting three different notable Roman Catholic authors on the notion of discipleship:
~In a homily given in 1986, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said this about our evening’s theme: “Discipleship means no longer finding for oneself the way one is to follow. It means surrendering one’s will to that of Jesus and genuinely letting him take the lead” (http://www.staugustines.on.ca/spiritual/Ratzinger.html)
~A former teacher of mine, the late theologian-philosopher Benedict M. Ashley, OP, describes discipleship similarly when describing the Christian moral life: “Christian morality is not an abstract ideal, nor is it a mere set of rules… It is discipleship, the following of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, not only outwardly but under the transforming power of his Holy Spirit sent upon all the baptized” (http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2008/print2008/bashley_dvmorals_feb08.html)
~Finally, Pope (and now Blessed) John Paul II, in his 1993 encyclical on the Christian moral life, Veritatis splendor (VS), no. 19, teaches: “Following Christ is thus the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality: just as the people of Israel followed God who led them through the desert towards the Promised Land (cf. Ex 13:21), so every disciple must follow Jesus, towards whom he is drawn by the Father himself (cf. Jn 6:44). This is not a matter only of disposing oneself to hear a teaching and obediently accepting a commandment. More radically, it involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny, sharing in his free and loving obedience to the will of the Father. By responding in faith and following the one who is Incarnate Wisdom, the disciple of Jesus truly becomes a disciple of God (cf. Jn 6:45). Jesus is indeed the light of the world, the light of life (cf. Jn 8:12).” Pope John Paul then adds this in no. 20: “Jesus asks us to follow him and to imitate him along the path of love, a love which gives itself completely to the brethren out of love for God: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you (Jn 15:12)’” http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_06081993_veritatis-splendor_en.html
These words of the future Pope Benedict XVI, Fr. Benedict Ashley, and Pope John Paul II can serve as good starting points for helping us reflect on Christian discipleship during this upcoming season of Lent. One common thread that runs through them is the notion of discipleship as “following” Jesus.
But to be disciples or followers of Jesus, we have to know who Jesus is before we can follow him. Jesus himself gives us a wonderful answer in John’s gospel: He tells Thomas that he is “the way and the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). Three chapters earlier, Jesus had told Martha, before raising her brother Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. …” (Jn 11:25-26). No mere human person could utter these stunning words – which have a fullness and comprehensiveness about them – without being taken as very weird or at least extremely arrogant. Imagine someone telling you today that he is “the way, the truth, and the life”! We know that this person would be laughed at or sent away to a mental institution!
Let us now see how Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” while at the same time we apply this to our lives as male disciples of the Lord Jesus.
Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life
Jesus is “the way.” Jesus is no mere human person who utters these words; he is a divine person on a mission from his Father to save the human race from sin. Note that he tells us first that he is “the way.” I do not think that this is accidental, i.e., that Jesus just happens to mention this first. Before one commits to a journey, one needs to know where one is going. As the philosophers ask, “What is my end or goal?” Jesus is saying that he himself in his person is the model and the map, the program and the path to follow.
Most of us men like simplicity in our lives. For example, we want to know what’s right and what’s wrong – but without the “shades of grey” that life often presents. We want to know what our “marching orders” are and then get on with carrying them out without a lot of fancy talk. Well, here Jesus presents things to us very straightforwardly, just as we want it presented: he is the way and his way is the only way. Men, I think, can relate to Jesus’ unambiguous style of speech! How often have we said, in our arrogance, unlike Jesus, “My way or the highway!”?
But with this simplicity of expression comes an arduous task, as Jesus expresses the conditions of discipleship this way: “and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:37). So, Jesus’ “way” involves embracing a “cross” – our cross and Jesus’ – which involves suffering and hardship. There is no easy way to be a Christian. There are no “shortcuts.” But Jesus’ way is also one full of mercy and compassion: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt 11:28-30).
Jesus is “the truth.” Jesus’ “way” is not some amorphous, “fill-in-the-blank,” carefree lifestyle. There is weightiness to Jesus’ “way.” The disciple of Jesus assents to a particular way of life: the truth of Jesus, which is Jesus himself. Jesus is truth in the flesh (= in his whole person). John 1:14 describes Jesus, the eternal Word-made-flesh, as “full of grace and truth.” These terms have overtones of God’s covenantal love and fidelity for his people in the Old Testament, now applied to the Word in his relationship with his body and bride – the Church, the People of God (see the footnote to Jn 1:14 in the New American Bible).
Thus, Jesus’ truth implies a real steadfastness, a real faithfulness, and a righteousness that we are to imitate in our choices and actions. To Pilate’s question put to Jesus, “What is truth?” (Jn 18:38), the disciple replies without hesitation: “It is the Master, Jesus Christ.” Our skeptical, relativistic post-modern world asks the same question: “What is truth?” We give the same reply – “It is Jesus Christ” – but now joined and assisted by the Holy Spirit and the Catholic Church, Christ’s body on earth. The footnote that accompanies John 14:6 in The New American Bible states that in the sacred author John’s thought, the truth is “the divinely revealed reality of the Father manifested in the person and works of Jesus. The possession of truth confers knowledge and liberation from sin (Jn 8:32).”
There is probably no better picture of Jesus and his truth than the Beatitudes – what John Paul II calls “a sort of self-portrait of Christ.” Because they so remarkably portray who Christ is, the pope argues, they “are invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ” (VS, no. 16). Found in Matthew’s gospel as a sort of “prologue” (5:3-10) to the Sermon on the Mount (5-7) and in Luke’s gospel, in a slightly different form (6:22), the Beatitudes are “above all promises, from which there also indirectly flow normative indications for the moral life,” as John Paul II notes (VS, no. 16).
Therefore, the Beatitudes are not optional. They are not suggestions. They are not only for a spiritually elite few. They pertain to every Christian. They are normative for the Christian moral life. That is, they are requirements of Christian discipleship. They are conditions of entry into the Kingdom.
St. Augustine understands the Beatitudes as seven “degrees” or “stages” of the spiritual life (the eighth summarizes the others) leading the Christian from humility or poverty in spirit to wisdom and the vision of God, as one modern author has observed (see Servais Pinckaers, O.P., Sources of Christian Ethics, CUA Press, 1995, p. 145). From conversion to the Kingdom, the Beatitudes mark out the Christian virtues that characterize the faithful disciple of Jesus.
The believer needs the natural moral virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude to live a morally good life. But to follow Jesus and achieve holiness, he also needs the gospel virtues spelled out in the Beatitudes: not only humility and wisdom, but also docility, repentance, hunger for justice, purity of heart, and peace.
Because we men are prone to abuse our strength in violence and to abuse our sexuality in pornography and other sins against chastity, we are especially in need of peace and purity of heart. A good place to start in overcoming these sins would be the imitation of Jesus’ own practice of the virtues of meekness and chastity. But far from passive or “wimpy,” Jesus’ practice of these virtues was strong. So too must ours be as men. Doormats don’t have dignity, but disciples do.
Jesus is “the life.” The lyrics of many popular songs speak of the beloved as “my life,” “my everything,” and “my savior.” But only Jesus can be “my life,” “my everything,” “my savior.” From the mouth of Jesus, however, we hear: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (Jn 6:35). Only Jesus can satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts for a life and a love that will truly never die. Similarly, he tells the Samaritan woman at the well: “[W]hoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14).
Jesus declared that He came into the world that we might “have life and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). He, as the Incarnate Word (cf. Jn 1:14; Gal 4:4-5), as we’ve seen, even identified himself as “the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25). Jesus, as evidenced by his miracles and his own resurrection from the dead, wants to give us life not death! This should inspire us with confidence, joy, and a spirit of thanksgiving: God wants what is best for us, i.e., our happiness, and that includes an abundance of life unto eternal life in his Kingdom.
Nonetheless, Jesus makes crystal clear that heaven is not guaranteed, or as my older children might say, he makes clear that it is not a “slam dunk.” Rather, our Lord emphasizes the link between eternal life and obedience to the Ten Commandments. Here’s how John Paul II treats the link: He begins by quoting Jesus’ words to the rich young man in Matthew’s gospel: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17). “In this way,” the pope continues, “a close connection is made between eternal life and obedience to God’s commandments: God’s commandments show man the path of life and they lead to it. From the very lips of Jesus, the new Moses, man is once again given the commandments of the Decalogue. Jesus himself definitively confirms them and proposes them to us as the way and condition of salvation. The commandments are linked to a promise.” This promise is the “Kingdom of Heaven,” as Jesus says in the eighth beatitude (VS, no. 12; cf. Mt 5:10).
As well, keeping the commandments is the absolute necessary preparation for living the Beatitudes. A life characterized by the former enables a life conformed to the gospel Beatitudes. This means that respect for life, for marriage, for sexuality, for parents, for truth, for property, etc. manifests hearts that cherish human goods and the persons that these goods have been created by God to perfect; and that without mastery of these most basic “negative” moral norms/laws of Christian life, we cannot even hope to live the Beatitudes in any meaningful way.
But forming these attitudes also serve as the most appropriate way to inculcate the Christ-like dispositions of soul in us to keep the commandments as Christ kept them: thus, not only will we not murder, we will not even get angry with our neighbor; not only will we not commit adultery, we will not even look lustfully at a woman, and so on. As men who are trying to do God’s will in our lives, let us make every effort this Lent, assisted by divine grace, to uphold the Decalogue, but to do so in a spirit of the love of God and neighbor – the most basic of moral principles.
Conclusion: Some Key Questions to Ask Ourselves
Jesus tells the Jews who had believed him, that if they “abide” in his word that is proof of their discipleship, and they will then be empowered to know the truth – a truth that is freeing (cf. Jn 8:31-32). This Lent must be a time of serious reevaluation and questioning for us men. Are we “abiding” in the word? Do we “know the truth”? Do we, like Jesus, “testify to the truth”? (Jn 18:37). Have we been liberated from sin, truly set free?
As we ask these questions, let us focus on not only what sin(s) I must uproot from my life, but on how this uprooting can make me a better disciple of Jesus. If I become a better disciple, then I will become a better husband, a better father, a better brother, a better friend, a better co-worker, and so on. Let us make this our solemn goal each and every day this Lent.
Thank you and God bless you.
* This is the revised text of a talk on Christian discipleship in preparation for Lent 2012. It was originally given for the St. Therese of Lisieux Parish Men’s Group in Shelby Township, MI on February 17, 2012. This written version of my talk is a slightly revised one, dated February 9, 2014. Earlier and various versions were posted shortly after the talk on February 22, 2012, May 29, 2012, October 15, 2012, February 12, 2013, July 25, 2013, and November 9, 2013.