Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Discipleship and Suffering

Twenty Fourth Ordinary Sunday Year B

Occasionally, you hear a Catholic exclaim in exasperation, usually after his personal demands have been rejected, “this is the reason why so many Catholics leave the Church.” The claim suggests that people are leaving because Christianity is just too tough, its ideals too lofty to attain, or its challenges too demanding for the average person. It is based on the assumption that if we were to lower the bar, then not only would everyone stay with the Church, but it would also attract and draw the many to the Church. But I would like to suggest otherwise. People are leaving, yes, but it’s not because Christianity is too hard. Rather it’s because we have dumbed down religion to where it has little meaning. No, if people do leave the Church, it’s not because its teachings and demands are unrealistic. Rather, it is because we have bought into the lie that Christianity can be a breeze, a comfortable and trouble free walk in the park, a religion that promises benefits in the here and now. We have chosen a faith that has nothing or little to do with the cross.

In today’s gospel, we hear the apostle’s report to Jesus of the peoples’ perception of him, a perception that is based on an expectation that religion is something easy. They were searching for a “Messiah” that would meet their needs. Jesus would eventually fall short of those expectations. But in paradoxical way, Jesus actually exceeds those expectations – he’s more than a prophet or a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah and St John the Baptist. St Peter is the only disciple to recognise and declare that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. However, immediately following this confession, Peter would shift from exemplary witness to denounced tempter. This is because when Jesus revealed his identity, he made it clear that it was intertwined with the sacrifice of the cross. Having announced the path that he had chosen, the fate that lay before him, Peter acts as a tempter, offering Jesus an alternative and less costly path just as Satan had done in the wilderness.

Many would have been puzzled by Jesus’ condemnation of Peter, immediately after Peter’s confession of faith. Many of us can sympathise with Peter’s predicament and we all know he meant well. Our immediate knee-jerk reaction would have been similar to his – we would have pleaded with our loved ones to cease from their folly. But the passage raises a more disturbing question - was Jesus’ suffering, and by extension, is a disciple’s suffering, truly necessary?  In one way, one can say that suffering is not necessary. That is to say, God did not require Jesus nor does God require his disciples to suffer. Rather, suffering seems to be an inevitable effect of faithfulness that puts a disciple on a course, more often than not, running counter to the prevailing attitudes and actions of the larger world. The words of Jesus, “if any want to become my followers,” reminds us that discipleship is not a journey of obligation, is not a necessary road but a chosen path. It’s always a choice, a choice offered to all, but few have taken.

One of the most influential Christian writers of the twentieth century who chose the path of costly discipleship was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian who lived during the Nazi era who resisted the “nazification” of the Lutheran Church under Hitler and eventually paid the price for his resistance with martyrdom. When his peers acceded to pressure and control of the State, Bonhoeffer resolutely held on to his beliefs. One of Bonhoeffer’s earliest books was his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, entitled The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer’s view of discipleship was stark: ‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die’.

He begins his book on Christian discipleship by speaking of costly grace in contrast to cheap grace. According to Bonhoeffer, “cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance….Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate”. The Christianity of cheap grace is the Christianity which is remorselessly nice, it makes no demands on its followers, its ideals are never too lofty, and its commandments are never too tough.  It promises painless shortcuts to salvation, a promise which is actually a lie.

What of costly grace? This grace takes the form of a call to follow Jesus to the cross. There is no short cut. Bonhoeffer explains that “grace is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him.” This decision to follow Christ, according to Bonhoeffer, ultimately leads to two types of suffering, a suffering that sunders and a suffering that reconciles. “The first suffering we must experience is the call that sunders our ties to this world. This is the death of the old human being in the encounter with Jesus Christ… The cross is not the horrible end of a pious, happy life, but stands rather at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Every call of Christ leads to death.” This is the truth spoken by St Paul to the Romans, “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Rom 14:8)

The second form of suffering that arises from following Christ is relational in nature. That very sacrifice and suffering of Christ is reconciliatory or as Bonhoeffer asserts, “only Christ’s own suffering is the suffering of reconciliation.” Discipleship is never experienced in isolation but is enjoyed and must be experienced in community. That means that in giving up one set of relationships belonging to an old life we discover the new life brings with it new relationships, the redeemed community of the Church. Through Christ, in Christ and with Christ, we begin to bear the burden of each other, or rather it is a burden which Christ bears for us, and so it is no longer impossibly heavy to bear, because it is one that is never borne alone.

Bonhoeffer issues this warning that we should be wise not to ignore. “Thus those who merely hate tribulation, renunciation, distress, defamation, imprisonment in their own lives, no matter how grandiosely they may otherwise speak about the cross, these people in reality hate the cross of Jesus and have not found peace with God. But those who love the cross of Jesus Christ, those who have genuinely found peace in it, now begin to love even the tribulations in their lives, and ultimately will be able to say with scripture, “We also boast in our sufferings.”

In short, discipleship has always been about carrying a cross. But it is a cross that is carried willingly and gladly with much joy thrown in. This is therefore the difference between bearing a burden, and taking up a cross. Many of us have burdens we have to carry though life about which we have no choice, whether they are physical illnesses, unhappy relationships, or anything else. But the cross taken up willingly and freely is no longer any and every kind of suffering but the instrument of our redemption. The cross must be, like Our Lord’s, the price of nonconformity to the world and its counter values. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost. It is a path that leads to liberation, to communion and finally to salvation!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.