Discipleship (3): A Diversity of Paths

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – September 26, 2021

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Numbers 11:25-29; Psalm 19:8, 10, 12-14; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

Discipleship: The Relationship of Child to Father

We’ve been spending the past several weeks talking about this elusive idea of discipleship, being Jesus’ disciples. Disciple, that word, literally just means a learner or a student. So to be a disciple of Jesus means to be his student, his pupil. The problem is that we usually think of students as passive learners, sitting in seats, taking notes. But as Jesus has been pointing out, his method of being a teacher and our method of being a student is much more like what we would call “apprenticeship.” We don’t just sit and take notes, we share in the life of the master, we work alongside him. That’s why discipleship, at its most basic level, just means to be in relationship with Jesus. To be a disciple, to be in relationship with him, means to share in his life.

But sharing in Jesus’ life is about more than sitting around and “hanging out” with Jesus. To share in his life means to share in his mission and work as the Messiah, the Christ—his mission of defeating the powers of Sin and Death which rule this world. Everyone knew the Messiah was the one that would come to rescue them from all of the terrible powers that ruled the world and sought to enslave and oppress and destroy them. And as Jesus continued to point out, those powers were not Rome and Babylon and Egypt, those powers were and still are Sin and Death.

And the way Jesus goes to battle with these powers is so upside-down and counterintuitive that people can’t fathom what he means! Deny yourself, take up a cross, follow him? What? But that’s just it: the life of this Messiah, the life he wants us to learn from and to share in is this: denying yourself and your own ideas of what you think will make you happy, and embracing a life of obedience to the Father. In other words, just like he does himself, Jesus is inviting us to set aside a life of self-invention and self-reliance, and instead to follow him on the path of complete dependence on and trust in and obedience to the Father.

And so today, Jesus continues to expound on this, to open it up. This life of discipleship doesn’t just look like one thing. It involves an infinite number of variations. And this life isn’t about conforming to a single one-size-fit-all way of life, but in being faithful to whatever is given by the Father.

Children Are Different

If you have more than one kid, you know how different they all are—you couldn’t adopt a one-size-fits-all parenting strategy. As I’ve mentioned before, I am the fifth of ten kids in my family; five boys and five girls. And one of the things that happened all the time was that we were constantly comparing ourselves to each other. For instance, my oldest brother is a freak genius; and so as I was growing up, I was kind of upset because I knew that I wasn’t and that I couldn’t be as smart as him. Or, another example: my older sister is way better at playing her instrument than me, and so I was constantly frustrated with myself for not being as good as her. Or another example: my kid brother, my kid brother, the one I used to be able to control with one hand—he is now way stronger and lifts far heavier weights than I will ever be able to. And there are so many other examples I could share.

And so what happened is that I expected myself to have all the same strengths, temperaments, talents and habits that my other siblings had; I expected that if I was going to live-up to my family name and be someone, be who I was supposed to be—I had to study as much and be as smart as by oldest brother; practice as much and be as talented as my sister; go to the gym and exercise as much as my brother. In other words, in constantly comparing myself to others, in constantly expecting myself to have all the same strengths as others—I fell into the trap of thinking that life has to look like something very specific if I wanted it to be “successful.” And when I didn’t live-up to these ridiculous standards I had set-up for myself, well of course I felt like a failure.

And to make things worse—and this is the point—sometimes I made the mistake of projecting these expectations I had for myself onto my siblings, especially my younger siblings. I thought that since I had compared myself so much to my siblings and spent so much time and energy trying to live-up to the nearly impossible standards I had set for myself—I thought that they needed to compare themselves to all of us too and try to live-up to the standards we set.

Sonship (and Discipleship) ≠ Conformity

With this in mind, let’s ask ourselves: why are the disciples so upset in our gospel today, and what does this teach us about discipleship?

Here is this story where they are very upset because they saw someone casting out demons. And they aren’t mad because this person is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, no; casting out demons is a good thing, no complaints there. They are upset because “he does not follow us” (Mark 9:38). Do you see that? They do not say, “Jesus, we are upset because this man doesn’t follow you.” No, they say, “Jesus, this man doesn’t follow us. This man doesn’t follow all of the standards that we have set-up.” The disciples are upset because they have been following Jesus in a very specific way; and now that they see others following him in a different manner than themselves, they can’t understand it. They expect being a follower, a disciple of Jesus, to operate according to this law of comparison and conformity—but it doesn’t.

This is something we all struggle with to some degree or another. We see some people who appear to be so holy, they always seem to be in deep prayer, always in the Church, always saying a rosary, their family seems to be perfect, they always seem to be happy. And then, when we look at our own lives and our own relationship with Jesus Christ, we can tend to think, “Wow, there is no way I can be that holy or be as happy as they are; there is no way I can live up to the standard they have set.” And so there is the temptation to just give-up. We can find ourselves unspeakably lonely because everyone else seems to “get it,” or everyone else seems to be growing in holiness, but we’re stuck. Or look at it the other way: “Here I am being a disciple of Jesus, and these people don’t do all the things I do, they don’t pray as much as me, they don’t do this or this or this…They can’t possibly be disciples of Jesus.” And we get upset with them.

But the Lord doesn’t call some people to follow him and others not to, and more importantly, the Lord doesn’t expect everyone’s path of discipleship to look the same. Sure, there are some things that are common to all of us, but not everything is going to look the same.

The Saints: Diverse Paths of Discipleship

The Lord doesn’t expect us all to be like Saint Jose Sanchez del Rio. Saint Jose Sanchez Del Rio was a martyr during the Cristero War in Mexico during the first part of the twentieth century; martyred at fourteen. He refused to renounce Christ, and so was forced to walk to his execution over rocks after his feet had been cut. That path of discipleship is probably not going to be ours.

God also doesn’t expect all of us to be like Mother Theresa, sleeping only four hours a night and serving the poor the entire day, no. Because this is just another case of comparing ourselves and our lives to others’, and thinking that we have to be just like them if we want to follow Christ. 

We celebrated Padre Pio this past week. Does God expect each one of us to have the stigmata? To sit in a confessional over ten hours a day? To build a hospital? To miraculously cure people day after day? Am I a failure as a priest if I don’t do that? Are you a failure if you don’t do that?

No, of course not. Really, our path of discipleship, our path to holiness comes from the ordinary, daily circumstances in which we find ourselves, and from faithfully living those ordinary, daily circumstances with great love. Loving your wife, taking care of your kids; praying as a family, playing as a family, eating together as a family. It is through living those ordinary, daily circumstances with great love that true holiness and happiness is found.

The important thing is to begin to cultivate that personal relationship with Christ, so that when we run up against those circumstances, we can be faithful. When a challenge is placed in our path, we embrace it. When we are asked to do something for the Father, we are obedient and faithful. Not all of us are supposed to move to India to serve the poor, but we are called to be faithful in the small, daily circumstances we are given right now.

Faithfulness to What Is Given

Again, the life of discipleship doesn’t just look like one thing. It involves an infinite number of variations. And this life of discipleship isn’t about conforming to a single one-size-fit-all way of life, but in being faithful to whatever is given by the Father. It is a little way, it isn’t flashy. And sure, it is very easy to fall into the habit of comparing our lives to others and deciding that we can only be happy, or holy, or satisfied if a thousand conditions are met, or if we can live our lives as others do. But really, the only concern is that we follow Christ in the daily circumstances of our lives, and that we do this with great love. That’s what discipleship boils down to.

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