Christ’s tough challenge—and promise

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23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: Sept. 5, 2010
Wis 9:13-18b; Ps 90:3-6, 12-17; Phmn 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33

“Are you man enough to be my disciple?” Jesus asks in today’s Gospel. “Are you woman enough to be my disciple? Do you have what it takes to go the distance? Do you have what it takes to finish the job?”

Now, some of us might want to give our Lord a little advice here! It seems that he has probably got a marketing problem! What kind of a message is that? And so we can imagine a conversation that some marketing and advertising executives might have with him:

“Lord, Lord,” they say. “Look! Great crowds are following you! This is your opportunity! Everything is going well! So, we’ve done some research for you. We’ve done some focus groups among these great crowds. And we’ve got some advice for you on what kind of message they will respond to. For our focus groups have told us what they’re looking for in a Messiah.

“Here’s your message. Three things:

  1. “First, they are looking for a God who doesn’t interfere in their lives very much, but who comes whenever they need him. Sort of a ‘divine butler.’ So let them know that you won’t interfere with their lives, you won’t disrupt the way that they live, but whenever they call you’ll come.
  2. “Second, Lord, they firmly believe that their chief and true goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about themselves. So they are looking for you to be a ‘cosmic therapist.’ So put aside all this talk about the cross and sin! Talk instead about self-esteem, self-indulgence. Use the word ‘pampering’ a lot. That will really bring the crowds in.
  3. “And third, the crowds do expect some moral teaching. So be sure to occasionally tell them that they should be good; that they should be good and nice to each other. But don’t go any further than that. ‘Good, nice, fair’: that’s enough.

“Yes, if you emphasize these three things, Lord Jesus, in your public message—to do good, to feel good, and a God who stays a good distance away but comes whenever you call—yes, we believe that Jesus Incorporated will be a success, with many, many followers.”

And speaking of followers reminds me of a recent cartoon that shows Jesus speaking with Simon Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And he is saying, “No, I’m not talking about Twitter. I literally want you to follow me.”

Now obviously our Lord never listened to the kind of marketing advice that we’ve offered him today in our imagination. That is not his message. It never was. But somehow a lot of people think that it is. Recently I have been reading the results of something called the National Study of Youth and Religion, which studied a few thousand American teenagers longitudinally over many years of this past decade. [article, article, article] And what did this survey find? It found that a fairly high number, about 80 percent, would identify themselves with some religion and associate themselves with some local congregation where they are. Sounds good. But we start finding that a significantly lower percentage actually practice their faith with any regularity, or think that their faith is of any great importance.

And then what is most striking is that, when the researchers reached the stage where they spoke with them and asked each one to tell them about their faith, they found that these otherwise articulate teenagers had very little to say. And what they did say was those three things that I had our marketing executives advise our Lord. And these include Christian teenagers across the board—all shades of Protestant and Catholic—who consider themselves Christian; participate with some regularity; and yet, this is what they think that their Christianity is: that God wants them to feel good, and do good, and will mostly stay away but will come when I need him.

Now notice what is missing from that vague description. There is nothing of Jesus Christ, who he is, what he has done, what he continues to do for us. There is nothing about sin; nothing about salvation. Nothing about the sacraments that Christ instituted to give us grace. Nothing about the Church that is his mystical Body, and into which he incorporates us. There is no mention of that cross that our Lord took on, and that he insists that we take on as well; no mention of that cross toward which he is headed in today’s Gospel, as he speaks these words.

No, this message that so many Catholic or Protestant teenagers articulate is not the message of Jesus. It is not the message that we hear clearly from him in today’s Gospel. It is not what he calls us to. It is not what he says it means to be his disciple.

And you know what? Contrary to our imaginary marketing executives, it also is not a marketing success. People do not flock to this message; they leave it. And why shouldn’t they? If all that your religion does is ask nothing of you and give nothing to you, why not walk away from it? And that’s what these teenagers do when they are young adults. Because why wouldn’t they? It’s pretty meaningless. It doesn’t tell them anything other than what the culture is telling them already.

But our Lord Jesus did not come to bring us that message. He did not become man just to tell us to be nice. He came to overcome all those problems and defeat all those enemies that we could not and cannot conquer on our own.

  • He came to conquer sin; to wash us clean, of that sin and evil that we cannot wash away from ourselves; to change us inside and give us a new heart and a new spirit.
  • He came to restore our relationship with the Father, that our first parents ruptured; and not only to restore it, but to raise us higher, to bring us into an adoption into his own relationship of being the Son of the Father. It’s a relationship that is not distant but very close, every day, every moment.
  • And he came to overcome death, and to make a way through his redeeming death to the Resurrection, where he—whereas we could never achieve this—he will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain. [Rev 21:4]

And so I especially pose the question to you and to any young people here present or that you may know: When you look at your life; or when you look at others’ lives around you, perhaps lives that you see on the news; do you see problems that you can’t solve? Do you see suffering that you can’t alleviate? And you would give almost anything to do it—but there’s nothing that you or anyone else can do to solve these problems? Do you look and see cancer? Do you see abuse? Do you see addiction? Do you see divorce? Do you see abortion? Do you see cycles of violence and revenge that just keep going on and on? Do you see cycles of oppression and poverty that keep going on and on? And people are caught in their suffering, and there is no one who can save them?

But Jesus can save them. Jesus is the Savior. And all of these seemingly unsolvable problems are clearly not small problems; and so his solution is not a small solution. Jesus did not come to be the “divine butler”; but he came to be the divine surgeon. And cutting and changing is what he will do, to solve these problems in our lives and others’ lives, that we desperately want to solve but cannot—unless we allow him; unless we will follow him in the way of the cross.

And so he asks: Do you have what it takes? Do you have enough? Enough what? In the two parables he tells, we hear of the man building a tower who needs enough money and materials to finish it; we hear of the king who faces a battle, who needs enough soldiers and plans to win it. And in our case we need

  • enough faith, in order to believe in who he is and what he wants to do in our lives;
  • enough hope to realize that, even when he asks us to give up some things or everything, and even to suffer and die, this is leading us to a glorious future;
  • enough love to give everything for him and for others, holding nothing back.

And it turns out that this message of the cross is actually a pretty effective marketing message. For 20 centuries, brave-hearted men and women—thousands, millions, in every time and every place—have actually said yes, and have laid down everything they had and followed our Lord and become saints.

A religion that asks nothing and gives nothing, you can just walk away from. But the Lord of the Universe, with the nail-marks in his hands and the glory of the Resurrection around him, who promises salvation and asks you to follow where he leads: can you walk away from him?

  • And so I urge you: whatever age you are, if that description that I gave of that vague, feel-good American faith matches what you have believed up until now, then I urge you to listen to our Lord Jesus Christ; to hear what he really says; to learn who he really is. Spend some time reading the Gospels, and don’t just read them, but let them be means of prayer, by which you speak to him and listen to him, and really get to know this Lord, who is Lord of the universe and who loves and calls you.
  • And whenever any one of you has the chance to speak about the faith with someone else, especially with your children or grandchildren, make sure that you tell them the fullness of the faith, and that you point them to Jesus Christ: everything he does, everything he asks, his mystical Body the Church, the sacraments, and especially the altar where we meet him.

Here on this altar our Lord makes himself present in his sacrifice, when he gave everything, holding nothing back. And he invites us to join him. “Are you man enough? Do you have what it takes? Who’s with me?”

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Published in: on September 5, 2010 at 1:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

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