Shortly after I received my brown belt in Ju-Jitsu I was authorized to teach by my sensei. This was important because he was moving back to California and he wanted to make sure I was going to fulfill my obligation to teach as part of preparation for my black-belt exam. I was a senior in High School, very altruistic, and despite the fact that I was pretty sure I knew everything; I was very naïve. I offered Ju-Jitsu classes in the basement of my home at no cost. Guess what, no one took me up on my offer. During the next phone call I had with my Sensei, he asked my how it was going with teaching and I told him I had no takers. He asked me how much I was charging, and after I explained to him my altruistic motives, he laughed and said people will value things in proportion to how much it costs them. Sure enough, I started charging about $15 a month - a reasonable cost for a high school student at that time, and soon I had five students – all that I could fit in my basement.
There are three points made in the Gospel today: 1. discipleship is a bond that supersedes all other bonds, 2) true discipleship will inevitably lead to the cross, 3) discipleship also has its rewards. The first 2 points have to do with our own attitude and the third has to do with our attitude towards others.
The first reading speaks to the first point. Who are we entertaining, what thoughts, what philosophies, and who are we walking with? What do we value? Where do we place our resources? The answers to these questions are absolutely critical to our spirituality. Are we seeking holiness in our relationships with others? Are we actively looking for God in those relationships and are we willing to be vulnerable at some level to the needs of others? Pope Francis invites us, in the Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other”. To accompany others on their journey. Today - more than ever – we need to bring the fruits of our own sacrament of Confirmation - prudence, understanding, patience and docility to the Spirit… to our relationships, and to practice the art of listening with an openness of heart that is absolutely necessary for genuine encounter. But, to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other is to be vulnerable and that means spiritual danger unless we are grounded in sacramental relationships in the Body of Christ. We derive the word sacrament form the term sacramentum which was the oath taken by a Roman soldier where he pledged to fulfill his duty even if it meant his death. The sacraments bind us to God and His promises are fulfilled through us.
St. Paul makes very clear the cost of true discipleship in the second reading from the Letter to the Romans. Point 2: true discipleship will inevitably lead to the cross. Central to our discipleship is the reality of our Baptism that we have died in Christ, and that we must embrace that death so that we can live in Christ. We are dead to sin. That is so easy to say, yet the reality for us and for all who seek the Lord that we must enter the spiritual combat and remain in that combat all the days of our lives. We need to be careful here with Paul’s words: Paul’s perspective is NOT that “ongoing sin is just the way things are” and that should NOT be our perspective either. But it’s that we are washed in the blood of Christ; AND because God just doesn't see us that way any longer – God doesn’t label us as sinners, he calls us as children. Paul is trying to get us to see that our baptism is a monumental shift in reality brought about by God through Jesus Christ. This does not just transform how we THINK God sees us or how we THINK about ourselves. It transformed our very nature. Paul’s talking about relocating the sphere in which we dwell as humans – shifting our spiritual center of gravity. What Paul is getting at is like the difference between Narnia and mid-20th century England in C. S. Lewis’ book The Chronicles of Narnia. Rather than jumping back-and-forth between the two realms, baptism symbolizes our passing through the wardrobe, into a new existence, never to return. Lucy, Edmund, and Peter’s reality was translated by their experience in Narnia and it changed them forever. They were never truly at home in mid-20th Century England – they didn’t fit there anymore – they were at war with an unjust and insensitive world AND their hearts and their true identity was defined by who they became in Narnia. We are invited to embrace the struggle against sin each day so that we can live more and more in the Lord. We might still struggle as we remain in the flesh; but we no longer "remain" in sin as "sinner." That identity is dead.
Point 3: discipleship also has its rewards. Regarding parents, sisters, brothers, children, etc. the Gospel never implies that these relationships are not important but simply tells us that God is more important. The conditions of discipleship outlined in Matthew's gospel may appear harsh. There is no place for a policy of safety 1st in the Christian life. But the conditions of discipleship point to a difficult truth - choosing anything with one's whole heart has consequences. The one who seeks comfort and security first, or the fulfillment of personal ambition may well get all those things – but they will not be happy. We are called to a higher purpose. AND choosing life with Christ means that every relationship we have must be understood from a new perspective.
We can hoard our time and resources if we wish, but we will soon discover that their true value is not in possessing them but in using them to help others and only in helping others do we discover the true worth of living and fulfill the gospels purpose for us. This is one of the great challenges of following Jesus and the great reward of discipleship. The more we deny ourselves out of love for others, the more life of Jesus we have and the greater our joy. The call in Evangelii Gaudium to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other is possible when we have ourselves have an authentic, life changing experience with Jesus – one in which we declare our sacramentum - and then invite other into that experience. Even our brothers and sisters, even our mothers and fathers -whatever our relationship with them has been - it becomes only a steppingstone to a place where we seek the face of Christ in others - them and with them. When we share a common sacramentum and we become one body joined by the experience of what Pope Francis calls the “fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze”. Our baptism was a new birth and incorporation into the body of Christ. The reward of discipleship in this world is to be welcomed and loved as Christ would be welcomed and loved among the disciples.
With this Eucharist we are about to celebrate, let us renew our sacramentum with Christ and with each other.