The Cost of Discipleship

Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J











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Jesus was up front and very clear about the cost of discipleship. “Whoever wishes to follow me must deny his very self, take up his cross each day and follow in my steps.” “I solemnly assure you unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” “No servant is greater than his master. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”

The apostles failed to understand this. On three different occasions our Lord explicitly told them of his passion, death and resurrection. Each time they refused to believe it. When Jesus was arrested they all fled. A crucified messiah was completely unacceptable. It was not until they were filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost that the apostles understood. It was left to Paul to preach the folly of the cross, “a stumbling block to Jews, an absurdity to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, the power and the wisdom of God.”

How strange that the apostles who lived so closely to Jesus did not get the message of the cross. It is even stranger that we some 2,000 years later still do not get it. With a new style of triumphalism we proclaim on bright colored banners the glory of the resurrection. But there are few banners, if any, that warn us that the road to glory is the way of the cross. We seem to have the idea that Jesus has done it all. Now we can enjoy all of the pleasures. When the cross is placed on our shoulders we think that something is wrong. We think that we will begin to follow Jesus when we get rid of the present cross. That day will never come. There is only one way to follow Jesus and that is the way he chose, the way of the cross.

Never before has there been such a flight from the cross as today. Our reliance on pills is unparalleled in human history. We take pills to pep us up, pills to calm us down, pills to gain weight, pills to lose weight, pills to go to sleep, pills to stay awake, pill to aid fertility, pills to avoid conception. We are living in a dream world where the constant demand for euphoria threatens our very civilization. Yet never before have there been such pain, suffering and misery as today. This is not in spite of but precisely because of the refusal to accept the cross. When we flee one cross we only find another and generally a heavier one. “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die,” may sound very attractive and thrilling, but the trouble is we usually do not die, but live on to pay the high price of the consequences.

Why did Jesus choose the cross? Jesus did not choose the cross. In fact, he tried to get out of it. Three times in the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed, “Father, if it is possible let this chalice pass, but not my will, Thy will be done.” Jesus came to do the will of his Father. His whole life can be expressed in, “Yes, Father.” And the will of his Father was that he become one of us not only to redeem us but also to give us an example of what it means to be authentically human. It just happens that the cross is an integral part of the human condition. In accepting the human condition he had to accept the cross.

The cross is an inevitable fact of human life. We enter the world in the pain of another and we leave the world in our own pain. And in between the entrance and the exit there is more of the same. The cross is built into human nature. We are not God, although we think we are. We are not self-sufficient; we are dependent on God for all we are and all we do. We are made for God and nothing else will satisfy us. This “existential neediness” is the source of our existential loneliness. “Lord you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

We are one person but we are not integrally one. We do not have integrity. Each of our faculties goes out after its own proper object heedless of the others. The higher faculties do not have control over the lower faculties as we all know by our own personal experience. With Paul we find a law in our body warring against the law of our mind. The good we will we do not and the evil we will not that we do. Discipline is what we need most and desire least.

We have a lust for knowledge and certitude. We want to know and we want to be certain. And the One we want to know most about and be most certain about is God. But God always remains the “Incomprehensible Obvious.” Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived in faith, hope and love. Many answers are not intellectual but existential; they are not present now but they will be known in the future. Each person is a mystery known to God alone. There are over 6 billion persons, mysteries, in the world today all doing their own will. The result is a “mystery of mysteries.”

We are social beings; we live together in society. And when people live and work together, especially in a highly competitive society like ours, there is friction, frustration, pain and suffering. Add to this the fact that everyone has moral and professional standards that they never achieve. This results in a constant tension between our ideals and our accomplishments. Then there is the negative influence of our counter-culture, the positive temptations of the devil and the effects of our personal sin. Human life is not an adventure for a coward.

We do not seek the cross. We seek only to be human, to be a Christian. We do not make the mistake of substituting self-imposed and self-inflicted penances for the asceticism of Christian living, for the sacrifice involved in loving and serving others.

The cross is an inevitable fact of human life. No one can escape it. And every one has to solve the problem of the cross for himself. There are three possible solutions. The first is to deny the inevitability of the cross, to think that we can go through life without having to carry it. So we set out in pursuit of all the pleasures we can find and at the same time ward off all of the pain, sorrow and disappointment. But this is no solution at all. How can anyone avoid the inevitable? How can you avoid what no human being has ever been able to avoid?

The second possible solution is to admit that the cross is inevitable and to make the best of a bad bargain. To stoically grit our teeth and endure what we cannot cure. This is a better solution than the first but it commits us to a dully, dreary, monotonous and passive existence.

The third possible solution to the cross is to accept the invitation of Jesus, and to pick up our cross daily and follow him. When we do we realize that it costs to be a lover and that the language of love is sacrifice. Then we see in our cross a splinter of his cross and an opportunity to prove our love for him. Then life becomes a great adventure, a battlefield, where we do battle for Christ the King. Our suffering is transformed into sacrifice. And no matter how dark the prospects become we never lose heart because we are certain of victory.





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