Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Urgency of Discipleship

There once was a man named Anthony who grew up in a small village in Egypt. The Church was fairly young at this point, only a bit more than two hundred years old, but Anthony’s family were very devout Christians. Anthony loved attending church. He listened with great attention and sobriety to the reading of God’s word although he himself was illiterate.

On one occasion Anthony heard the words of Christ spoken in the Gospel of Matthew to the rich young ruler, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow Me.”

Anthony felt as if Christ was speaking directly to him. He had recently inherited quite a bit of property after the death of his parents, but he sold it off and distributed the money to the poor. He left everything behind and moved out into the desert to live a life of prayer, poverty, and celibacy.

Anthony became something of a trend setter, soon thousands of men and women were renouncing the world and moving into the desert to live a life of self-denial and discipline. Anthony wasn’t the first Christian hermit, but nevertheless his influence was such that he is nevertheless called the father of monasticism. His feast day is January 17, celebrated this past Wednesday.

When the disciples in today’s Gospel message hear Jesus’ pronouncement,  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” they—like Anthony—leave everything and follow him. There is an urgency to this message that takes precedence over everything else.

Our Epistle reading reinforces the seriousness and urgency of the gospel’s call. Saint Paul writes, “let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.”

How then should we respond? Does the gospel demand that we renounce the world and live as hermits in the desert? Can a person be both a disciple and also an active person in the world, working, and raising a family?

To answer these questions, we need to put Saint Paul’s comments in the context of the rest of the chapter. Paul is responding to certain zealous believers in the Corinthian church who want to make celibacy the norm for Christians.

He quotes from a letter they sent him which said, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” Saint Paul basically responds by saying that singleness is good for some, and that in his opinion it may even be preferable for those who can manage it, but that it is not reasonable to expect that all should be single and celibate. It can be very difficult to be single and chaste, and for many having a husband or a wife is the best choice. It certainly is not sinful. In fact, he goes on to instruct both husbands and wives not to neglect their partner’s needs for physical intimacy out of some misguided attempt to be super spiritual.

Next Saint Paul addresses the question of whether a Christian who is married to an unbeliever should seek a divorce.  His counsel is that they should stay with their spouse, “For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband…Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.”
“If your unbelieving partner separates,” he writes, “let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you.”

Saint Paul’s suggestion—and he makes it clear that he is merely offering his own advice here—is that each person should remain in the station of life in which they were called.  He writes, I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.”

What is this impending crisis? Many people suggest that Paul is here referring to Jesus’ return and the final judgement. They believe that Paul expected these events to take place in his own life time.  On the other hand, the date of this letter is often said to be around 55-59 A.D. during the reign of Nero. The signs of the coming persecution and hardship for the church may have already been written on the wall.

We could see Paul as like an airplane attendant who says, “everyone please remain in your seats we are about to experience some turbulence.”

I said earlier that Paul believed that celibacy may be preferable to marriage. The reason he felt that way wasn’t because he was harboring some puritanical view of sex, but because marriage and family are a huge responsibility.  Those who are single are free from such restraints and concerns. You can see why he may have felt that way in light of the coming persecution.

All of which brings us to the Epistle reading for today. The time is short. No matter what our situation is, Paul wants our perspective to be focused not on the things of this world but eternity, not on what is passing away but on what will endure forever.  Only with such hope can we persevere in suffering.

Those who are married and those who are unmarried have the same goal, to grow in holiness to be perfect even as Christ is perfect. For some the path of celibacy is their road to holiness. For others, it is the discipline of marriage. We shouldn’t fool ourselves. Both are demanding vocations that require sacrifice, self-denial, and discipline.

Are we in mourning for someone we have lost? Let us remember that sorrow does not last forever and that we do not grieve as those without hope. Are we rejoicing? Let us remember that the joys of this world are fleeting, but that the joy of our inheritance in Christ is eternal.

Do we have lots of wealth, little, or none? Regardless, we each have the same goal to keep our hearts from being snared by the deceitfulness of wealth. If we have wealth let us give generously. If we do not than let us be content with what God provides, trusting in him.

Are we a mover and a shaker in the world or are we a hermit like Anthony? We both have the same goal, to love the Lord above all things and seek first the Kingdom of God.  We should be in the world but not of the world, living in it as ambassadors of the Kingdom.

As Christians we should not pattern our lives on the changing fashions of the world because the fashion of this world is passing away, it is temporary. We should not live as if this life and this world is all that there is, but remember that it is but a brief moment in light of eternity.

We may not all be called to follow Christ in the same way as someone like Anthony, but the call of discipleship is always radical and demanding. Each of us is called to leave behind our worldly perspective just as the disciples left their boats and nets. Each of us must allow Jesus to change us from those who work for earthly gain to those who work for eternal gain, from fishermen to fishers of men. 

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