The Cross and True Discipleship
Writing about a prominent televangelist, I once half-jokingly observed that the “only” topics the preacher in question never discussed for fear of offending his listeners were “Jesus, sin, salvation, hell, Cross, Satan, and the Final Judgment.”
Although some televangelists are associated with “conservative” forms of Christianity, their pandering and sensational versions of pseudo-Christianity are similar in content—or lack of content—to the theologically liberal Christianity described seventy years ago by Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr. He dryly described the mushy message of Christianity-lite in this way: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
The appeal of this spirituality without reference to sin, salvation, hell, and the Cross is understandable, even if the use of the term “Christian” to describe it is indefensible. Scripture, not to mention Tradition, contradicts such “easy believism” and “cheap grace,” to borrow a term from another Protestant author, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered by Nazis for refusing to renounce his belief in Jesus Christ. Every Christian who has died rather than reject Jesus as Savior and Lord gives concrete witness to the words spoken by Jesus in today’s Gospel: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
This passage from Luke’s Gospel is difficult, even unnerving. St. Augustine wrote that Jesus’ statement about hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters seems contradictory, not the least because Jesus elsewhere exhorts His followers to love their enemies. So now He demands that they hate family and friends? How should this be understood? Much like His shocking command to tear out an eye “ that causes you to sin” (Matt. 5:29), Jesus’ command to “hate” one’s family is not about emotions—He is not telling His disciples to feel hatred or disdain for those we do and should love—but with right relationships and priorities.
Those who follow Christ have entered into a new family and participate in the life of the Kingdom of God. To put anything before the King, including our own life, indicates that we are not as committed as we should be. “Christ is the center of all Christian life,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The bond with him takes precedence over all other bonds, familial or social” (par. 1618). When our love for the Master is our top priority, then we are able to love family, friends, neighbors, and even our enemies with a godly and sacrificial love.
This teaching would have been especially troubling to most first-century Jews, who placed a high value on strong family ties and derived much of their sense of belonging, both in social and religious terms, from their ethnicity. But as Jesus made increasingly evident, the new covenant and the new family of God have no use for social or ethnic distinctions. “There is neither Jew nor Greek,” wrote Paul to the Galatians, “there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
Today’s reading from Paul’s short letter to Philemon regarding the runaway slave Onesimus is a demonstration of the love that Christians should have for one another. The Apostle is unable to overturn the institution of slavery, but he asks Philemon to no longer consider Onesimus a slave, but a brother in the Lord.
Paul, along with the other apostles, is an example of true discipleship. Although he could have been a respected and established rabbi, he counted that position to be worthless in the light of following Jesus. Instead of social respect, he took up the cross that was given to him and endured persecution, beatings, and, finally, martyrdom. Possessing talent and abilities that could have brought financial comfort, he renounced possessions so he could preach the fullness of the Gospel. Paul was not a televangelist, but a true evangelist who did not avoid the difficult words of Jesus, but heard them, loved them, and lived them.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 9, 2007, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper in a slightly different form.) End QUOTED