When this challenging query was first posed to me, my questioner gave his own response: The worst day in Christianity came in February 313 with the publication of the Edict of Milan, the Emperor Constantine's proclamation, which for all practical purposes overnight transformed Christianity in the Roman Empire from being proscribed to the religion of the state. My initial reaction to this response was "How could recognition of the church be seen as a negative?" In the discussion that followed, my friend suggested that prior to Constantine's proclamation moved Christianity from the shadows to the light, a positive move indeed, but it also, without intending to do so, made Christian discipleship too easy. During the centuries when the practice of Christianity is proscribed, being a follower of Jesus required determination, perseverance and a willingness to suffer. Overnight, through the Edict, many of the hardships of being a Christian or instantly removed; the challenge of the Christian life was greatly eased.
The freedom brought by the Edict of Milan in the Patristic Church finds new challenges from the secular, freethinking overly open world of contemporary society. To be a faithful Christian, to be a follower of Jesus Christ is today indeed a great challenge for it forces us to violate the norms that the majority of society considers operative and appropriate. Living the Christian life today requires us to have a relationship with Jesus, to know him and to be in communication with him. Once we gain sufficient knowledge and are in proper communion with Christ then we can begin to follow him through a life of dedication, demonstrable perseverance, fulfillment of responsibilities and manifestations of faith.
Our Relationship with Jesus
Relationships of any nature begin by building our knowledge of those with whom we seek communion. Enhancing our knowledge of family, friends, colleagues at work, even neighbors down the street allows us to better understand them, allowing us to draw closer to people, making us more serviceable to each other. We would never seek advice, service, or treatment for many professional if we did not believe that the individual was conversant in the latest technologies, medicines, or interpretations of the law. If for whatever reason one person wants to get to know one another better, knowing more about that individual will greatly facilitate one's chances.
Similarly, if we want to have a better relationship with Jesus we need to improve our knowledge of him. Yet, while the average person would always say they seek an enhanced relationship with the Lord, few are willing to take necessary time and effort to know Christ better. We rely far too heavily on our knowledge of the Church for the last time we had any formal Christian education, whether that was through Catholic schools or parish religious education programs. We can and must do more and better if we wish to walk more closely and faithfully with Jesus. Opportunities to enhance our knowledge are all around us, but they require our time and effort. National and local (diocesan) newspapers as well as very readable magazines provide us with information on many levels and various topics. The Internet, through such serviceable site says Zenit.com and others provide a daily (if one wishes) summary of the important events and peoples in contemporary Catholicism.
There is no substitute for better knowledge of Christ in order to enhance our relationship with him, but must be combined with better communication, which lies at the heart of any relationship. Married couples, friends, teammates, even colleagues at work must be in good communication in order for relationships to flourish. Today we experience an overload on communication. This is especially manifested in the technological revolution that is produced cell phones, the Internet and all the various social media associated with it. Literally today people carry their whole lives in their hand; their phone is the source of communication with the outside world. Many people, especially the younger generation, cannot wait for their next "injection" of communication.
Contemporary people are experts in communicating with one another, but, unfortunately, this is not always translate to great communication with God. Like everything that is worthwhile, communication takes time and so we must find, carve out if necessary, time each day to speak with God. The Lord deserves our time; we cannot shortchange our communication with him for to do so places us in serious danger. In our communication with God, we must speak from our hearts, not simply from our heads and mouth. God knows the ideas in our heart as well as those manifested more overtly. In our commit acacia and we must not only speak, but listen for God's response. As a wise old religious sister once told me "We have two ears and one mouth and thus we should listen twice as much as we speak." We constantly speak, but we seldom listen for God's response. We may be very fortunate and receive God's answer through a theophany such as Moses observation of the burning bush that was not consumed. More likely however, the answer will probably be received in the heart, through life experience or events. Either way we must be listening for the Lord's response.
Following Jesus: Dedication, Perseverance, Responsibility, and Faith
Knowledge of Jesus and enhancing our ability to communicate with him is central to living the Christian life, but what is necessary to be good and faithful followers of the Lord? The process must begin by our commitment to dedication. Success in any endeavor requires our dedication and so too in living the Christian life. Great sports teams or individual athletic performances require dedication. Great artists, musicians, painters, dancers, actors must be completely dedicated to their discipline. Success in great achievement in any endeavor can only be reached by a sense of dedication, manifested most generally in time and effort.
What does dedication in the Christian life mean and how is it manifested? First, dedication requires us to follow God's law. The law, whether articulated in the Bible or through the Natural Law, is understood; we know what is correct and proper. In order to follow the law, however, it may be necessary to stand strong against outside pressure, especially in contemporary life, which constantly gives us a message of what is right and proper that is contradictory to God's law. Dedication will probably mean going against the flow, not being accepted by the majority, and even being unpopular or ostracized. But Jesus warned his disciples about this in his famous Beatitudes (Matthew 5:11-12), stating: "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
Dedication means total commitment; one cannot count the cost of being a contemporary disciple of Jesus. We are called to die to self so that others may have more. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous Lutheran pastor and theologian, wrote in his famous 1933 book The Cost Discipleship, that if one wishes to follow Christ one must be committed to death. St. Maximillian Kolbe literally manifested by substituting his life for another prisoner in the infamous Nazi death camp of Auschwitz. Or call to commitment will probably not be so great, but in any case we are called to pick up our cross and follow in the footsteps of the Lord. Jesus was very clear: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." (Matthew 16:24-25) Jesus summarized the dedication we must manifest in his timeless words: "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide in the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it." (Matthew 7:13-14)
Dedication that requires us to be countercultural, not count the cost of our discipleship, and enter through the narrow gate is indeed difficult especially in a society where acceptance is paramount. The road less traveled may not be popular and will require more of us, but the greatest accomplishments of most people in life never came by the easy route. On the contrary, those triumphs of which we are most proud in life required us to do more, to work, sacrifice, and raise the bar to higher levels. It did not come easy, but it was worth every ounce of our effort. If you want to do well in school you have to study; if you want to succeed in work you guys take the time and manifest the effort that signifies your dedication. If we slack off, in any endeavor, we will not achieve the end we seek. The same is true to be a follower of Jesus; dedication is absolutely necessary.
We must be dedicated, but this great quality must be sustained with our perseverance. The Christian life requires us to never give up but to always stridently move forward. When knocked to one's knees, either proverbially or literally, the Christian has no option but to stand up, dust oneself off, and continue on the road. The road of discipleship will seldom be straight, unencumbered, and without a few chuck holes and detours. Relationships of all sorts, including our relationship with the Lord go through rocky times, but perseverance is absolutely necessary. Remember the rather tenuous relationship between Jesus and his chosen chief apostle, Peter. The Gospels portray Peter is the one who does not fully understand why Jesus must die; he is the one who when the Lord needs him most denies Christ three times. Yet, as described in John chapter 21, Jesus gives Peter a second chance. The Lord persevered; he never gave up on his relationship with Peter and he will never give up on any of us. Francis Thompson and his epic poem, "The Hound of Heaven," aptly analogizes Jesus to one who leaves no stone unturned in a diligent search for us Jesus is the good Shepherd, the one who leaves 99 perfectly good sheep in the desert and searches for the one who has straightaway. Since Jesus continually perseveres in reaching out to us, we are called to do likewise in our outreach to him.
There will be times when we do not understand what is happening; we might even question God. We cannot understand why something is happened, the illness, injury, or death of a colleague, friend, or relative. We cannot understand why the inhumanity of some is so destructive to the decency of others. We ask why are plans did not work out as we forecast. We must always remember, however, that God's ways are not our ways and his time is not our time. Perseverance is absolutely necessary to be a follower of Jesus, to live the Christian life today.
After dedication and perseverance, the third element to successful Christian life today is meet our responsibilities, to ourselves, to others, and ultimately, of course, to God.
Responsibility is something we learn from our earliest days. We are taught that when given certain privileges, responsibility comes with it as a package. When we are young and receive the privilege to go out with our friends, we must take serious the responsibility for our actions, realizing that failure to be responsible would jeopardize the privilege we have received. If we wish to be a member of a club, athletic team, for or fraternal organization we must follow the creed, the rules of that group. If you want the freedom and other privileges that come from being a citizen in a democratic nation, we must be responsible for our behavior and make it consistent with the laws of the land.
Christianity indeed gives us numerous privileges, but with those privileges come significant responsibility. We have the privilege of the Word of God, the sacraments, the Church and all of its many groups that provide support. We revel in such privileges, even taking them too often for granted, but the significant responsibility that comes with such privileges must not be ignored. These responsibilities mean taking seriously what Church teaches and carrying it out in our daily lives. To be responsible Christian means to be an active participant. When they come to mass are we ready to celebrate and not simply sit there disinterested, waiting for the time to pass, thinking about what we plan to do that afternoon or the next day. A responsible Christian life means frequenting the sacraments, especially confession, which is far too often neglected in our contemporary Church. All people are sinners and therefore need to be reconciled to the Church and to God, the two elements provided by the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The Christian life requires us to be dedicated, persevere in all our endeavors, and be responsible, but without the unifying glue of faith these important qualities, our quest will never be complete. What precisely is faith; how can one define? While many good answers could be chosen my favorite response comes from the Letter to the Hebrews 11:1: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Through the journey of life there are many things for which we hope. When we are young we hope for good grades in school, to be successful on the athletic field, to gain admission to the college of our choice, and to marry and raise a family. Later in life we hope for success in the professional world,, transfer children, the opportunity to enjoy the world in which we live, and when appropriate to retire and enjoy the fruits of our labor. We always hope for good health and for world peace. There are many things that we cannot see, yet we believe. We have a conviction about these un-sealable, but very believable things. We cannot see God, but we believe; we cannot understand the concept of the Trinity, yet we believe. We cannot predict the future, but we believe it will, and bring both goodness and challenges. St. Paul tells us that without faith were lost. He knew what he was talking about, for he was lost until Christ appeared to him on the road and gave him the gift of faith.
Living the Christian life has never been easy, but the challenges that it presents make us better prepared and able to not only live today, but to ready ourselves for a return home to God at the end of our days. To satisfactorily be a follower of Jesus begins by better knowing the subject of our attention and finding ways to better communicate with him. Four distinct, yet related, qualities form the recipe for success in living the Christian life today. First, Christians today must be totally dedicated, including, especially today, the reality that such dedication will probably necessitate going against the mainstream flow, to enter through the narrow gate, realizing that it is the one path to life. We must be people of perseverance, never giving up, but always striving to go further and find better ways to be a disciple. Christians are called to be responsible, realizing that the great privilege of being a follower of Jesus encourages significant responsibility. Our dedication, perseverance, and responsible attitude are wrapped together by being a person of great faith, believing what cannot be seen or touch, yet with full conviction professing our trust through all we do and say. The journey will not be easy, but the Lord never promised his followers an easy path. Rather, he promised the cross, but in a very real way the cross becomes our only hope. Thus always live that hope in our daily walk as disciples of Jesus.
The Rev. Rick Gribble, CSC, will be giving a parish mission at Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Church in Bennington on Sunday, March 9, at 7 p.m. And Monday, March 10, at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.