You note that Jesus, in sending out his apostles at the end of our gospel today, sends them out to make disciples. Not converts, not Catholics, not church attenders, not even followers of Jesus, but disciples.
What is the difference?
The distinction lies in the level of commitment to Jesus involved. You can be a convert, or a Catholic, or a church attender, you can even be a follower of Jesus, but a disciple is on a whole level of commitment and dedication from all these. A disciple is one who is, as we say, “all in”. He or she is not a “fair weather follower”, who ebbs and flows in their commitment to their faith, depending on whose company they are in, or on which circumstances they are in. They are not ashamed to wear a crucifix, or have a holy picture at work, or religious symbols in the home. They are not ashamed to share their faith, even when it may bring them ridicule or other adverse reactions. They adhere to the whole of their faith, not just the bits they tend to agree with, or the bits that are popular and acceptable to the world.
They are not cafeteria Christians.
They are willing, as St Paul says in our second reading, to share in Jesus’ sufferings, and not just bask in his glory – and those sufferings can, and will, involve persecution and rejection, from the world and even those of our own family and loved ones.
So which kind are you, brothers and sisters, which kind am I – a convert, a Catholic, a church attender, a follower – or a full-on disciple of Jesus?
I was really moved by reading recently that the actor Steve McQueen had become a “born-again” Christian six months before he died of cancer. I didn’t know that of him. I initially thought, somewhat cynically, that he became a Christian, when he discovered he had cancer, and was hoping for a miracle. But, in fact, it turned out that he accepted Jesus into his life before that. He intended to announce his conversion to the world, but his illness intervened before he could do that. I can only imagine the backlash, and the rejections, and the loss of favour he would have received publicly, had he done so as he fully intended to do. When he discovered he had cancer, he contacted Billy Graham and asked if he would come and see him. Billy Graham did meet with him, and talked to him, and came away thinking, “I went to minister to him, and he ended up ministering to me!”– such was the strength of McQueen’s faith in Jesus, in the midst of his dreadful disease. Would you be able to hang onto your faith in such circumstances, brothers and sisters, would I? It is situations and circumstances like these which reveal the strength and depth of our faith in God.
I learned that, before he became a Christian, Steve McQueen was involved in a search for his father, who had abandoned him and his family early on. As a friend of his insightfully remarked: ”Steve was on a search, not just for his earthly father, but for his heavenly Father.“ McQueen never got to meet with his earthly father, who died before he could find him, but he sure got to meet with his heavenly father, didn’t he? And he was able to cry out from his spirit to God: ”Abba! Father!” as we are able to do, who have become disciples of Jesus. Because, as St Hilary once wrote, Jesus came into the world to lead us to his own Father. God had become so remote in Jesus’ time, even among his fellow Jews, because the religious leaders of the time, the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, had surrounded God with all sorts of rules and regulations, and made him appear a figure of judgement and arbitrariness. And Jesus came to redeem that picture of God, and show him to be a person of compassion and love instead. The religious leaders made faith in God a matter of religion, as we leaders are so prone to do. Jesus made faith in God a matter of relationship instead. He even told his disciples, when they asked him for tips on how to pray: ”When you pray, pray like this: “Abba”. You have to know that this word “Abba” is such an intimate word for “Father”. It would be used by children to address their earthly fathers, much like children today may say “dad” or “daddy”. Ordinary Jews, such as the first apostles were, would never have dared to address God in such a personal, intimate , way, if Jesus had not encouraged them so to do. To be able to cry out “Abba” in such a way means that you have come to experience the true Fatherhood of God. It means, like a carefree child, you can leap into the world, without fear, as St Paul says in our second reading today, because you know that your Abba Daddy will always be there to catch you.
Which experience of fatherhood have you had growing up, brothers and sisters, one of freedom and trust, or one of fear and distrust – because that will colourvery much how you relate to God as Father?
It is experience of God, it is relationship with God, that Jesus came to bring us into – the same experience of, and relationship with, God that he enjoyed always. Jesus did that, and does that, for us, by inviting us to have a personal experience and relationship with himself first, because , as he told St Philip, at the Last Supper,
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father . . . for I am in the Father and the Father is in me.“John 14:9,11
I was speaking last week about the fact that, when we are baptized, God comes to dwell in us personally, intimately, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But so many of us have never experienced that kind of closeness, intimacy, and love from God, often because we as leaders, as teachers, as pastors, as parents, have never taught that such a thing was possible – we have done what the religious leaders of Jesus‘ day did – surrounded God with a lot of laws, of do’s and don’t’s, of proper and non-proper ways to approach God to seek his favour. God doesn’t want any of that. He wants to say to us: “I want you to approach me as “Abba”, as your Daddy, as your Dad. I want you to know that you don’t need an appointment to meet with me. You can always come to me, no matter what has happened to you, no matter how guilty you feel. I am not going to jump down your throat. I am never too busy or too important , that I don’t want to hear from you, to see you, to talk to you. Whatever matters in your life matters to me as well, because you are my beloved son, beloved daughter, with whom I am so absorbed, that I can never take my eyes off you.”
The trouble for so many of us Catholics, is that , while the Church has done a good job of sacramentalizing us, and catechizing us, she has done a bad job of “evangelizing “ us, in other words, of revealing God to us as Personal – in fact, as so Personal that He is actually more than one Person, He is Three Persons, Father, Son and Spirit, continually in relationship with one another, experiencing each other as love, giving to, and receiving from, each other. If you have never experienced such a degree of relationship with any one, much less your earthly parent, I want to pray for you now, inviting God to make himself known to you as he wants to, not as you have been told he is. You can go ahead and close your eyes right now, and say “yes” to this prayer – that’s what “Amen“ really means you know. Steve McQueen became a born-again Christian when he attended a church for the first time in his life (a friend took him there) and when the pastor prayed a similar sort of prayer as I am going to, he said a silent ‘yes” to God in his heart, and everything changed for him. He might have been seeking an earthly father to love him, he found instead the heavenly Father, who had been seeking Steve all his life to love him and father him for all eternity. And so can you! Let us pray:
”Jesus, bring me to know and love you, and your heavenly Father, in the depth of my heart.
Pour into me this love in all its fullness, through your holy Spirit, who pours God’s love continually into my heart.
Let me be possessed by that Spirit, that he may lead me into a personal relationship of life and love with the Father and with you, Jesus.
Holy Spirit, reveal the Father to me, as Abba, as my heavenly Father, so that I can bear witness in my spirit that I am a child of God, and heir to all the treasures of heaven, my eternal home and destiny.”