The following homily was given by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde on September 9, the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, at St. Katharine Drexel Mission in Bull Run.
God's Word to us today, especially in the Gospel reading, puts squarely before us a very basic — fundamental — question. What does it mean to be a real disciple of Jesus Christ? There is no doubt that Jesus' words in today's Gospel are very direct, indeed, challenging. The first reading speaks about the need for wisdom in order to understand "what the Lord intends." St. Paul in his personal letter to Philemon, our second reading, tells him and us what real discipleship can demand of us.
Let us go back to the basic question. What does it mean to be a real disciple? Remember that at baptism, we began to be the disciples of Jesus Christ. We began a life-long process of discipleship and so of deepening our relationship with Jesus. A disciple is more than a follower, because the disciple must imitate the Master. So, Jesus is telling us that we cannot be distant followers; we can only be close disciples if we are to have a real relationship with Him. In telling us this, Jesus is equivalently pointing out that there is a cost to being a disciple. By using two stories in today's Gospel, Jesus illustrates clearly the following point: it would be foolish to undertake some enormous project, like constructing a tower or waging a battle, without considering the cost in order to see if one has sufficient means to complete the project. So, too, with being a disciple of Jesus. He is telling us: Consider carefully what being My disciple will mean; count the cost.
What is the cost? Jesus begins by saying: "If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." Are we, in fact, to hate our family or our own life? No. The word "hate" is a Hebrew way of saying "love less." So, to be Christ's disciple, we cannot love family members or ourselves more than we love the Lord. It is a matter of priorities, not absolutes. The cost of discipleship means putting Jesus first. He must be the first love of our hearts, the center of our lives. Then, through Him, we can and we will love others and ourselves well.
What is the cost of being a disciple? Jesus continues telling us: "Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple." The cross we carry has many forms; it varies for each of us. But, ultimately, the cross for each of us means sacrificing our own will to God's will. In fact, the one possession dearest to us is our desire to do what we want, our will. "Coming after me" means following Christ, not from afar, but close up, imitating Him in all we think, say and do.
Now, being a close disciple does not come naturally or easily, because we are all wounded by the effects of the first sin — what we call "original sin," and of our own personal sins. To be a disciple demands that we keep looking up to Jesus, seeking daily His grace which transforms us, and obeying what He tells us in the Scriptures and through the teachings of His Church.
Since this does not come naturally or easily, we need to ask for that true wisdom which the Lord so willingly will give us — the wisdom from the Holy Spirit, as the first reading reminds us.
Moreover, to be a disciple demands at times changing how we think and act because we must think and act in accord with the mind of Christ. In today's second reading, St. Paul is asking his friend Philemon, a disciple of the Lord, to see things differently. Evidently, Philemon's slave Onesimus had run away and had been later befriended by St. Paul. Because of the culture of those days, Philemon could treat Onesimus harshly or even kill him on his return. St. Paul is well aware of that as he sends Onesimus back to Philemon. What St. Paul does is to ask Philemon to see things differently, through the prism of being Christ's disciple. "Perhaps this is why he was away from you for awhile, that you might have him back forever, no longer a slave, but more than a slave, a brother beloved, especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord." There is no doubt: St. Paul is telling Philemon that the cost of being a disciple means a change of attitude and of action. What attitudes do we need to change if we are to be real disciples of Christ? How should we think differently? What do we need to do differently?
Yes, Jesus' words to us today are direct, stark, challenging. He tells us that there is a cost to being His disciples. But this same Jesus also tells us, over and over again, "Do not be afraid!" He does not ask us to be a disciple on our own power or in isolation. He Himself is with us, walking at our side, sharing our cross Himself, remaining among us, especially in the Holy Eucharist. He also unites us with one another through Him in the community of the Church, so that we can mutually support one another. He Himself tells us, "For man, it is impossible; but for God all things are possible" (Mt 19:26). The cost of discipleship is real, but even more real and strengthening is the love which Christ gives us, the love which Christ is. So, let us cling to Him, renew our commitment and remain His disciples, true, close and faithful to the end. Amen.