Discipleship is a two-way street. On one side, and most importantly, there is an invitation extended by God in Jesus to become disciples of the one who is “the way, the truth, and the life.” This is immensely good news. But that invitation comes with an RSVP. We need to respond to the call to discipleship with a firm act of our wills.
When Jesus was calling disciples, those who came to him and were baptized were mostly adults. They heard his teaching, they became aware of his call to become his disciples, and they made the decision to take upon themselves the yoke of the Lord and to be numbered among those who had committed themselves to following him.
Let us consider a few people who would not have been Jesus’ disciples. A man happens upon Jesus as he is preaching in the village. He finds the teaching interesting and moving, and he goes away thinking that he might want to look into what Jesus said sometime. A woman sees Jesus and witnesses miraculous healings. She gets excited about it and follows him around for a while as he goes from town to town because it gives her hope and lifts her spirits. A scholar of the Jewish Law hears Jesus interpreting the Old Testament, and he is intrigued and wants to engage Jesus in conversation about his ideas on recent developments in rabbinic scholarship. All of these people find Jesus attractive and compelling in some way, and any of them might eventually become a disciple. But none of them have taken the necessary step to do it.
What is that step? How do I go from being an interested observer to becoming a disciple? There is a mystery of grace involved here, a gift of God that can never be fully grasped. Nevertheless, we have our part to play. In my encounter with the person of Jesus, I first come to realize that Jesus is God himself united to humanity. I come to see that my life is a moment-by-moment gift from him and I am completely dependent upon him for everything. I come to the further recognition that Jesus is the answer to all my questions and that he holds the key to the purpose of my life, and that his love for me and his desire for my happiness are truths upon which I can stake the whole of my life. Then, helped all along by the grace of God, I take the step into discipleship. I make an act of the will. I renounce any personal claim to my life as my own, I acknowledge Jesus the Lord of my life, and I set myself to follow him as my Teacher and Guide.
We may be getting to know Jesus. We may hang around him a good deal. We may find him interesting, intriguing, or admirable. We may regularly come along to Church and hear what he has to say. All this can be a good start. But it is not discipleship.
The act of will may take place in one specific moment, as it seemed to do for St. Paul. It may be a growing assent that draws our minds and hearts over a long period of time, as happens with many who grow up in a Christian home. Whether we can point to a specific moment when we renounced the illusion of our independence and placed ourselves in the hands of God or not, the end result should be the same. Since the early days of the Church, Christians have baptized their young children, rightly thinking that the grace of removing the guilt of original sin and the gift of divine life in the Holy Spirit were blessings too great to keep from them as they were growing up. That has meant that the decision to be a disciple needs to come later. The Church has devised ways for baptized Christians to come into the fullness of adult discipleship. The sacrament of Confirmation has often played a role, and retreats, days of recollection, camps, and bible studies can all serve as ways to draw us to a willing determination to be a disciple.
Today there are many Christians who seem to be in a state of uncertainty concerning discipleship. They have been brought up in the faith, they have been influenced by it, and they know a lot about it. They call themselves Christians, they have an interest in their faith, and they often attend church. They admire Jesus and try to live as good people. However, they have never gotten to the point of discipleship. They have never relinquished claim on their lives and acknowledged Jesus as their Lord, their Teacher, and their Master. They are happy enough to treat with God, to hear what he may have to say, and to consider various possibilities he might suggest. They are happy to look for help from him when they are in a scrape. But they are careful to maintain a certain independence. They set conditions and limits around what their faith may or may not cost them. They negotiate rather than love and obey. They do not belong to Christ, because they still belong essentially to themselves.
An analogy to marriage may be of help here. A man and a woman can relate to each other in many different ways. They may just be friends. They may be dating. They may be madly in love with each other. They may be seriously courting one another and considering marriage. If they want to enter marriage, however, they need to take a further step. They need to say to one another with an act of their wills, “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.” Until they do that, whatever connection they may have, however they may feel about each other, they are not married. They have not given themselves away. Something similar is true with discipleship. We may be getting to know Jesus. We may hang around him a good deal. We may find him interesting, intriguing, or admirable. We may regularly come along to Church and hear what he has to say. All this can be a good start. But it is not discipleship.
To be a disciple is to say with St. Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
It can be a good exercise for Christians to ask this question of themselves honestly: Am I a disciple of Jesus Christ? Have I given my life entirely to him, with no conditions, no escape clauses, no reservations, no “prenup” specifications? Is he my Lord and my King, or is he only an occasional counselor whose advice I take or leave as I see fit?
As we ask that question, let us remember the extraordinary promises Jesus makes to his disciples: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me, and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27). “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!” (Matthew 25:34).
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The Call to Conversion
God loves us in the midst of whatever our sins or imperfections may be, and he does not withhold his love from us. It is precisely from this love that the call to conversion arises.