Is 8:23-9:3; 1Cor 1:10-13, 17; Mt 4:12-23.
“From that time on, Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
When I asked a close relative of mine what her plans were for the new year, she answered me, “I don’t know why but I sense that God is inviting me to make my relationship with Him my priority from this time on. I just feel that I need to put God alone in the center of my life.” She does not know why she is experiencing a call to deeper conversion but she is ready to respond to it.
Why do we experience those moments when we feel that we want a deeper and more authentic life with God? Is it because we are tired and sick of our sinful or mediocre lives? Is it because we are suffering the devastating effects of our sinful choices? Or is it because we want the peace of soul that we know we get only from true conversation back to God? These self-focused reasons are good in themselves but they alone cannot move us to true ongoing conversion.
Jesus reveals to us the real reason why we are experiencing this constant impulse to conversion and the reason we should respond appropriately. We experience this call to deeper conversion because God, whose kingdom is now present to us in Jesus Christ, is always inviting us to deeper conversion. Jesus inaugurated His public ministry with this urgent invitation that stems from the presence of His kingdom with us, “From that time on, Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Because the kingdom of heaven is near in Christ, God is always drawing us into a right relationship with Him in Jesus Christ. Without the access to the grace of the Holy Spirit that we enjoy in this kingdom, we cannot obey the call of Jesus to deeper conversion, “The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”(CCC 1989). By the power of this same Spirit, God is detaching us from sin, reconciling us with Himself, and communicating to us a true participation in the very holiness of Jesus Christ.
In short, God in Christ Jesus is always laboring to free us from enslavement to sin and whatever kills our freedom. He is laboring to bring us to become more like His Son, Jesus Christ. This is why we keep experiencing that prompting to repentance from sin and selfish living. In the kingdom of heaven, we have access to all the graces that we need. Thus, we have no reason to stop responding to the call for deeper conversion.
Without responding to this call to deeper conversion, we cannot respond to the greater demands of discipleship. It is not a coincidence that Jesus calls all to conversion first, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near,” before He called His first disciples to follow Him, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (See Mt 4:12-23). He, first of all, called them to leave their occupation, fish, net, boat, hired workers, father. Later, He would invite them to let go of their own lives, “Whoever does not renounce all that He has cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:33). He would also later invite them to embrace suffering for Him, “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38). The freedom needed to respond to the ever greater demands of discipleship comes from ongoing conversion.
One good sign that we are truly on the path of conversion is that we begin to see, value, and pursue things the way that God wants us to do. God’s gifts are given to us for use in building up the Church, the body of Christ, in the likeness of Christ, “And His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and to the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:11-13).
However, the Corinthian community was bitterly divided because they began to see the gifts and vocations as a means of division and disunity instead of seeing them as means of spiritual growth and unity. St. Paul had to remind them that they were very different from the attitude of Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, “Is Christ divided?”(1Cor 1:13) The body of Christ cannot be divided when Christ the Head is not divided. Their division showed their need for deeper conversion. It is not enough to become a member of the Church without striving to become like Christ the Head. They too had to respond to the greater demands of discipleship through ongoing conversion.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, when we ignore this call to conversion, we cannot see our vocations and its demands the way that God sees them. We see only struggles and difficulties in the Christian life and vocation. We see God’s commandments as a burden that we must be delivered from. We see ourselves as failures and not as saints in the making. Our gifts become a burden to us and are no longer a sign of God’s love for us. We cannot see the beauty of being called to follow Christ, to belong to Him, and to communicate His life to others through our words and actions.
Every Christian vocation is a call to discipleship. In Jesus Christ, the demands of discipleship increase steadily because Jesus wants all from us and will never settle for less. It is so easy for many of us to become disillusioned in our vocations because we feel the demands unbearable for our weak and fragile natures. We can frustratingly declare about our vocation, “This is not what I expected. I want out now.” Sadly, we see many failed and abandoned commitments in the Catholic priesthood, religious life, and married life.
The solution is not to give in to discouragement, throw in the towel and abandon our commitments. The proper answer is to be more attentive and responsive to the constant call to deeper conversion and do so for the right reason – in Jesus Christ, the kingdom is near and He is drawing us to Him. We respond to this call always because we know that it is only by doing so that we can experience the liberating and empowering graces of the kingdom of heaven now. It is only by this grace that we can respond to the great demands of our vocations.
Nowhere is the kingdom of heaven more present to us than in the Eucharist, where Christ is present with us in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. This is where He begins to tug at our hearts and inspire us to deeper conversion. Let our conversion be urgent and total. Let it be ongoing and lifelong. Let it be directed to God and His ways of acting and choosing. Let it be decisive no matter what the past has been.
When our conversion is alive and deeper mainly because the kingdom of heaven is near, we can follow Jesus Christ faithfully no matter the demands of discipleship.
Glory to Jesus! Honor to Mary!