03 - To Be A Disciple of Jesus, Sept 15, 2019

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Galatians 2:16-20 (Sunday After Elevation of the Cross)

1 Corinthians 16:13-24

Mark 8:34-9:1 (Sunday After)

Matthew 21:33-42

“Whoever would be my disciple,” says the LORD. A disciple is a student. This morning, let’s consider: what does it mean to be a disciple of the LORD, a student of Jesus?

Last Sunday, in preparation for the Feast of the Cross that was yesterday, we read from St John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son into the world, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Note that eternal life is found by believing in Jesus Himself, not in some teaching that is distinguishable from Him, as though He were but a “messenger” or an “angel” (Hebrews 1:5-14) delivering a message of salvation that could be given by someone else, say a prophet or a philosopher. He Himself is the message. He is God incarnate; He is the Resurrection and the Life (Jn 11:25). We have eternal life only if we have Jesus Himself in us as the life we live.

Look at Him if you would be His student. He is God in the flesh! How can God come to be in the flesh (Jn 1:14)? What does that mean? We see Him dying in the flesh on the Cross. How can God die in the flesh? What foolishness is this that anyone who would be His disciple would want to study?

It’s “something completely different” to be a student of Jesus than it is, say, to be a student of Socrates. To be a student of Jesus is to descend with one’s mind into one’s heart, to come out from behind one’s ideas of God in order to descend into the scandalous reality of His Tomb, to leave words and human opinions behind in order to learn the meaning of God crucified in the flesh by living in the “not of this world” mystery of Christ’s death on the Cross.

There is much here for the disciple of Jesus to ponder. But, sooner or later, the pondering must give way to prayer, to talking directly to Jesus, not talking about Him; submitting myself to being judged by Him in prayer, not judging Him according to my ideas or those of others who only talk about Jesus. For, these are the blind leading the blind, the deaf talking to the deaf.

So, let us note that the LORD does not say: Let him who would be my disciple deny his opinions and ideas in order to accept mine. What the LORD says is: Let him deny himself and follow Me. See how the LORD’s teaching takes us at once beneath the surface of detached scientific, philosophical study of things and into immediate engagement with Him in the chamber of our heart where we simply are, where we live and where we die.

But, there is more to it even than this: see how the LORD wants from His disciples what love does. A lover denies himself in order to be with his beloved. A disciple of Jesus is one who loves Him—as He first loved us (1 Jn 4:19). A disciple of Jesus is one who wants to be with Him (Jn 15:4ff.), who wants to empty himself, or herself as He emptied Himself so that it is no longer he or she who lives, but Christ who lives in him or in her (Gal 2:20), as it was for the Theotokos.

How could one “matriculate” as a student into this “school of Jesus” without doing what He teaches us to do? For, Jesus’ teaching leads us directly into the mystery so that we don’t just talk about having eternal life. We actually have it. How does His teaching do that? By directing us to take up our cross in order to follow Him. Where to? Into His Tomb!

What is this foolish teaching? How do we “have eternal life” by losing our life in the death of Christ and being buried with Him in His Tomb (this is our baptism)? This is what His disciples are called to study not in order to have a teaching about eternal life, but in order actually to have eternal life.

Do I dare presume to offer a first lesson? Jesus Himself is the Resurrection and the Life. Not to have Jesus is not to have life (Jn 6:53; 15:5ff.). Not to have life, not to have Christ in you, is to be dead. To be dead is to be separated from God.

But, God is love (1 Jn 4:8 & 16). To be separated from God, then, to be dead, is to be separated from love; it is not to be with your dear loved one. Therefore, if we have lost a dear loved one to death, or if we can imagine such a loss, I think we have a sense of what it is to be dead, to be separated from God.

God, who is love, did not make us for such grief. He did not make death. He created the world for life. (Wisd 1:13-14) He created us to be immortal, in the image of His own eternity (Wisd 2:23). He created us not for grief but for joy, not to be separated from our dear loved ones but always to be with them.

But, even in this life, I think we know what it is to die. When someone we love hurts us because he or she will not deny him or herself for our sake; that is, in love for us, is not the anger and pain we feel such that we feel as though we have “died”? My point is that this is a taste of what it is to die! Death is ultimately separation from God, to be in a “place” where there is no love!

It is not some inaccessible, esoteric teaching: we know what “kills” love, we know what makes us feel dead even before we have “died”. Is it not some form of greed or covetousness or self-love, the opposite of “denying oneself”?

So, when the LORD who is God, “emptied” or “denied Himself” and clothed Himself in the garment of a servant, He was not talking about His love for the world, He was doing it. When He cried out on the Cross, “My God, my God! Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” might this be the moment He died? But, precisely in that moment when He was forsaken by His Father and died, He became absolutely one with us in our death, in our separation from the Father.

How can such a mystery be reduced to a “teaching” you talk about without losing the life that gives it its power? This mystery that no word, let alone all the books ever written could contain (Jn 21:25), would not be possible if God were not the Holy Trinity, and if the Man, Jesus, was not Himself God the Son incarnate. For, as Man, Jesus died and became one with us in our death and in our separation from God; but this same Jesus is God the Son, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. So, when Jesus died on the Cross and was found to have become absolutely one with us, separated with us from God, death, separation from God, was found to be filled with God; for, Jesus is Himself God the Son, who in His divine essence is one with the Father and who is Himself the Love of God incarnate.

My hope is that we would understand that the cross the LORD has His disciples voluntarily take up is not an abstract idea. It is very concrete. It is given to us in the concrete form of the Church’s ascetic disciplines of prayer and fasting and vigil. But, also, when we take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church as our cross for the sake of Christ, we are no longer talking about uniting ourselves to Christ; we are doing it. We are taking up our separation from God and filling it with God. Losing our life in the death of Christ so that we can find it in His Resurrection means that we are putting to death everything in us that separates us from the love of God. The root of that is self-love, greed, the opposite of self-denial. To deny ourselves, to fast and pray for the sake of Christ, is not to make an angry God less angry with us; it is to love Him who first loved us, to deny ourselves in love for Him who first denied Himself for our sake (Phil 2:5-11), to find our life in Him who first condescended to find His life in us (Gal 2:20). That is why we can love Him, that is why we can find our life in Him and have eternal life, have Him in us.

So, what we learn when we become disciples of Christ is the love of God that abides forever. In that love, even though we die, we live, for whether we live or die, we are always with Christ. We are never separated from Him, and if we are with Christ, we are with the Father in His Holy Spirit. To have eternal life in Christ, then, is to have eternal joy that no teaching can convey. The teaching can only show us where the Path is that would lead us into the joy that is found in the LORD’s Blessed and Life-creating Tomb. It is up to us, if we want to be disciples of Christ, to do what His teaching tells us to do: deny ourselves, take up our cross, follow Him and lose our life in His death that we may find it in His Resurrection. Love Him who first loved us. Amen! Glory to Jesus Christ!