Beyond Fans and Followers

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a popular sermon title

Are you a fan or a follower? Quite a few Christian preachers and teachers (including Catholic ones) have used these images as the basis for helping us move beyond merely liking Jesus, to actually following Him. And that’s a good thing. But one particular passage of Scripture gives us unique insight into precisely what kind of followers God desires us to be.

Coming back into Jewish territory after performing powerful deeds among the Gentiles, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd. So surrounded, he actually stays right by the sea, where he’d come across by boat (Mark 5:21). Jesus heads off to respond to the desperate pleas of Jairus, a synagogue official whose daughter is gravely ill. At this point, we see that this isn’t just a crowd of fans, they are followers (vs. 24). They follow Jesus and even press in upon him! Yet during this movement, a woman from within the band of followers makes her way up to Jesus–and touches his garment (vs. 27).

Just imagine the scene, how difficult it would have been for this one follower to push her way through an in-motion crowd of followers, to get to one person–Jesus–the person the entire group was following. Physically, it’d be tough to follow Jesus directly from among this moving crowd. But this woman also suffered from hemorrhaging bleeding. She wasn’t even physically well. On top of this, to the rest of the Jewish followers, she would have been considered ritually impure or unclean for having this medical condition. They would not want her near them at all, lest any of them be “infected” by her impurity. Imagine the disapproving looks, or even those who use their bags, cloaks, or walking sticks to keep her back. And yet, she makes it to Jesus!

None of us aims to be just a fan of Jesus. We want to be followers. But following is complex, why? Because we’re inevitably part of a crowd, part of a community–we have to interact with others, get close to them, and follow Jesus together. In church life, it’s possible to happily exist among the crowd of followers, but never make that decisive move to reach out to Jesus with the faith that He can heal, forgive, or transform whatever it is in our own life.

Why do we stay passive as followers? Maybe it’s our own pride, we struggle to admit that we can’t do it on our own, we can’t earn our way to heaven, we need Jesus to heal us personally. Or maybe it’s that we want to appear “normal”–not “too Christian” or “too holy” for a “regular parish” (whatever that is!). Maybe we’re comfortable as a follower, just moving along with the crowd, and don’t think Jesus would respond to us; we don’t want to “bother” Jesus by touching his cloak.

This woman is saved by her faith. She leaves in peace, cured, and called daughter by Jesus.

This is what awaits any one of us, any person who comes to Jesus in faith. God does not reject any one who comes to Him.

Don’t just follow. Be transformed by the power of Jesus.

a version of this post also appears at http://www.newevangelizers.com

Jesus in Your Story

Our eight-day countdown to Christmas begins today—in the fog of a rather long and obscure family tree.

But don’t be dismayed. Don’t skip today’s Gospel reading. The glorious mystery of Jesus’ identity begins to unfold in this genealogy. It starts with the summary in the very first line—Jesus Christ is “son of David, son of Abraham.” To name Jesus as the son of David is to declare that he is God’s own and nothing less than the true king of God’s chosen people, Israel.

But that’s not all. Jesus is also the “son of Abraham”—the heir to Abraham, who responded to God and was blessed to become the founding ancestor of God’s people, Israel. Jesus fulfills God’s covenant with Abraham—because of his obedience, “all the nations of the earth will find blessing.”

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Donald Jackson, Matthew Frontispiece: The Genealogy of Christ
We are being introduced to grand claims about this Jesus. But then Matthew brings it down to our level. The bulk of what follows is dedicated to recounting the human history of Jesus. And it’s not always so high and mighty, predictable and orderly, or even dignified. We hear of Tamar, who disguises herself as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law; Ruth, a non-Israelite woman who seizes her own destiny by boldly presenting herself to Boaz, a powerful Israelite; and others whose lives are rather messy and oh-so-human.

And this is why the birth of Jesus matters for each of us. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of everything promised to David and Abraham. Yet not merely in the abstract—he enters the human story in his very own family tree.

Has Jesus entered your story? As we near the culmination of our Advent watch, today is a good time to invite him in. Jesus is ready to take on your past, and remain with us, transforming us, today and always.

See the Gospel text and prayers at: FaithND (where this post originally appeared)

The Christian in Christian Leaders

“If, therefore, those called to office and leadership roles in the church remain content merely to organize and manage the internal affairs of the church, they are leaving a vacuum exactly where there ought to be vibrant, pulsating life.

Of course Christian leaders need to be trained and equipped for management, for running of the organization. The church will no thrive by performing in a bumbling, amateur fashion and hoping that piety and goodwill will make up for incompetence.

But how much more should a Christian minister be a serious professional when it comes to grappling with scripture and discovering how it enables him or her, in preaching, teaching, prayer, and pastoral work, to engage with the huge issues that confront us as a society and as individuals.”

–N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 138-139

When Jesus Saw You

Jesus calls the first disciples…

Come. Follow.  

Collectively as Christians, most of us recall  these words from Scripture well. A pivotal moment in the lives of the disciples in Galilee, and yet a moment that transcends history, extending to each and every one of us, who at some point encountered and then made a fundamental, life-changing decision that opened a new horizon in our lives (Deus Caritas Est, para. 1).

Mark the Evangelist offers us a brief description of Jesus’ actions before he calls his disciples, setting the scene this way:

“As he [Jesus] passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea.” (Mk 1:16)

While this sounds rather mundane, pause and really imagine the scene: Jesus is walking along the waterfront, moving at a normal pace. He sees Simon and Andrew from afar, and Jesus continues to watch them as he proceeds along, and gradually the two men come into closer view. Jesus saw them.

Now imagine when Jesus first called you. As Jesus the Risen Christ watched you–before even speaking to you, into your heart–what did Jesus see?

What was your life like as Christ watched you? Were there areas in need of healing? Did you have questions about the meaning of life, about God? Did you live based on values that would ultimately lead away from happiness? What did you look like, when Jesus saw you, as he did thousands of years ago, Simon and Andrew?

Most importantly, what does it mean that Jesus then called you (regardless of what Jesus saw at the time)?

What a miracle this moment of call was and is for each of us! Something beyond human comprehension or explanation. We often reflect on ways our churches can be more “seeker-sensitive” and oriented toward the outsider (and this is good); yet, “seeker” also applies to God. God is the ultimate Seeker.

Praying with Mark 1:16 to reflect on where you were in life when Jesus called you is a great way to start preparing your own personal testimony. As Josh Canning writes over at Canadian Catholic, the very first step of developing one’s testimony is recognizing and naming your back story. Canning writes:

So you made a decision at one point to turn away from a life driven by self-interest and follow Jesus with sincere faith and trust. What was going on before that decision? What was your life focused on? Why? Looking back, how/when did you realize that this was not completely satisfying?

Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that your life when Jesus called you was full of debauchery, criminal behavior, etc. My life looked pretty good from the outside (and even to me! I was a happy kid!)–good grades, active in church, responsible high school student, etc.–but what was Jesus seeing in you, when he called you? For me, Jesus saw a successful, civic-minded, moral teenager who was alas uninterested and unaware of things eternal and focused on worldly achievement and service.

But Jesus looked at me. He saw me. And even after seeing me, Jesus called me. And this call of the Lord–this is a life-changing call. Thanks be to God 🙂

Where were you? What did Jesus see? Consider your own backstory as the first step to sharing your own testimony with joy and gratitude!

Bonus from the 3:15 Project: Check out Fr. John Riccardo, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, MI, as he explains why being ready to share our stories is so important.

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When to Not Imitate Jesus

As disciples of Jesus, we seek to follow Jesus–to be like him as much as possible while on earth. This conformity to Christ is a foretaste of future glory, when, as John writes, “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Yet today’s Gospel (Lk 6:6-11) offers an example of Jesus that we can’t follow. Something we shouldn’t imitate or even attempt! Here’s the setting: Jesus is teaching in a synagogue, where a man with a “withered” hand is present. Scribes and Pharisees are watching Jesus closely to see what he will do–will Jesus heal on the sabbath?

Jesus engages in demonstration (healing the man) and careful dialogue with the onlookers. These actions and words are deliberately provocative. Designed to elicit a response. And what kind of response? Well, it could be a response of radical conversion, of a new openness, of definitive life-change. On the other hand, it could be a response of anger, of circling the wagons, of increased frustration or outrage. Jesus indeed takes a situation that could have entrapped him and turns it into a question that “traps” the scribes and Pharisees, “is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?”

As modern day disciples, we could look at this example and think to ourselves, That’s right! I need to think up questions that “trap” and provoke in a way that leads to rage on the part of those I converse with!

But, this would miss an absolutely important detail. A critical, humbling detail that reminds us that while Jesus is fully divine, we are simply human. Before the “trap” of this episode occurs, Luke the Evangelist explains that Jesus “realized their intentions.” Jesus knew the intentions of those who questioned him. Jesus completely understood their response and ramifications.

But us? No. We do not know the intentions of those we converse with. Of those we meet in the public square. Of those we interact with online. Of those who enter our churches.

Unlike Jesus, we are not in the position to know the intentions of others–their deepest motivations, longings, hurts, and (sometimes) hidden or emerging relationship with God. We can guess a little, but at best this is merely an assumption, especially if we haven’t developed a genuine relationship with the person.

Sometimes, in a society where conversation and dialogue can seem like a “battle,” it can be easy for us to make an idol of “winning” a conversation, making “an example” of those who disagree with us, or trapping others in a way that is less than charitable. Yet this is a dangerous path for us to take!

Unlike Jesus, we never know the full intentions of another. What presents itself as aggressive questioning of our Christian faith may really be a hidden wound or genuine curiosity. A question that comes across wrong or rudely may not be fully intended that way. As evangelizers, we must take the route of greatest charity, of greatest openness to the possibility that God is ready to work in those we meet.

Right now.

Even in the midst of an uncomfortable conversation or a debate that makes us feel a little defensive.

As we evangelize, let us remember this simple truth–Jesus knows the intentions of all. We do not. May the Holy Spirit grant us the wisdom and charity to speak and act accordingly.

a version of this post also appears at NewEvangelizers.com

Gambling to Faith in Jesus

Exploring if and/or how faith in Jesus Christ can be certain matters for catechesis, disciple-making, and evangelization as a whole. Certainty is related to confidence. If the “Good News” isn’t confidently known as something good with certainty, then why share it at all?

A few weeks ago I dropped in on Part 3 of an annual series by Ron Bolster entitled “Philosophy for Catechists” as part of the St. John Bosco Conference for Catechists at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Prof. Bolster picked up these practical questions of confidence and certainty from a philosophical angle to consider how we (in real life) come to know people and things that are beyond our finite human experience.

And the reality is this: most of the things we know and accept we haven’t witnessed; we believe on the testimony of someone else (a textbook writer, Wikipedia editor, etc.).

What does this bit of philosophy (epistemology, to be precise) have to do with evangelization?

As Bolster noted, sometimes, before a person has the encounter with God themselves, they have to “gamble” on the testimony of others.

Practically, a person trusts the real experience of someone else–takes a gamble–in order to take their own personal step further in life. Big implication? Witness matters. Your witness, my witness, our witness together just may be the stuff worthy of someone else taking a “gamble” on.

And these gambles can be successive. Have ripple effects. Take for example, Jesus’ midday conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4:7-39). Jesus and the woman engage in weighty conversation. It’s a probing conversation that’s even a little pointedly blunt at times as they go back-and-forth with tensions between Jews and Samaritans, misunderstanding of Jesus’ directions, etc.

And it ends as seemingly abruptly as it begins, as the woman declares: I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed; when he comes, he will tell us everything” and Jesus responds “I am he, the one who is speaking with you” (4:25-26).  And that’s it. Over. The disciples return in amazement that Jesus is even talking to a woman, and without further recorded conversation, she heads back to the village. 

How certain is she walking back to her village? How confident is she in the person she has encountered?

Our Evangelist John gives us a glimpse in verse 29 as we see the woman’s message to her fellow villagers: “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?”

So that’s it. How certain is she? How confident?

She’s certain enough to tell others “come see.” She’s confident enough to report what Jesus has done, “told me everything I have done.” And yet, she’s not sure about Jesus’ ultimate identity, seemingly wondering aloud, “could he possibly be the Messiah?”

The Samaritan woman is taking a gamble on Jesus as testimony to God the Father. Jesus’ actions and words–his witness–have given her enough to go a step further, even though she’s not yet at the point of running around telling everyone for certain that she’s found the Messiah (outside the village at a well, and oh-by-the-way he’s the rare Jew who talks to Samaritans).

Her gamble is in Jesus. That Jesus is divine, though she does not fully understand in this moment.

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“Ripples” (Flickr) CC-BY-SA-2.0

And what happens? A ripple effect. The villagers leave the town in the afternoon heat and come out to see Jesus. The villagers have now taken their own gamble on the woman’s gamble.  This gamble-on-a-gamble leads them to Jesus, where they can experience their own encounters with Jesus and know him as a person.

As John concludes:

When the Samaritans came to him [Jesus], they invited him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. Many more began to believe in him because of his word, and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” (4:41-42)

Now that each knows with confidence, they do not need to rely on their gamble, or the woman’s gamble. Now each has encountered Jesus and with certainty (CCC para. 157) and can declare “we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

As evangelists, catechists, and disciple-makers, let us remember this: those beautiful declarations of faith? They started with a gamble on the testimony of another. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to make us more and more gamble-worthy as witnesses each and every day.

A version of this post also appears at NewEvangelizers.com

On Giving the Zebedee Family a Hard Time

By virtue of baptism, we are joined to Jesus Christ–and thus, supernaturally joined to all other baptized-believers. It’s a powerful reality! But, this truth can often be hard to see behind the human struggles we have when it comes to relating to each other and Jesus in our earthly existence.

Today’s Gospel passage (Mt 20:20-28) provides a poignant example of how easily we can go wrong in relating to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

We hear in the Gospel of Matthew that the mother of James and John, sons of a man named Zebedee, comes to Jesus.

Now, if you’re already thinking negative, critical thoughts about the request she’s about to make (because you’ve heard the story before), well–stop. Because Matthew the Evangelist provides a striking detail. How does this mother approach Jesus? She comes to Jesus and “did him homage.” Homage. If that word sounds familiar to you in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, you’re correct! The magi (wise men) come and do Jesus homage at his birth. It reveals this woman’s great reverence, her knowledge of who Jesus is–she is not ashamed to bow down before him.

And then she makes her request. Not asking of her own needs, but asking something for her sons, that they sit at Jesus’ right and left in his Kingdom.

And what’s our instinct? For most of my life, it’s been to judge her. To look down on her. She doesn’t “get” Jesus’ model of servant hood. She’s arrogant about her family, maybe even selfish to ask such a thing. Do we sometimes think the same things of our brothers and sisters in Christ in our own day and age? Am I tempted to judge another’s striving to be close to Jesus so quickly?

Yet we see that Jesus’ response is not like ours. Jesus does not dismiss her. He does not rebuke her. And Jesus never dismisses us, either! Praise God 🙂 We can ask Jesus anything. Especially when we approach him as Lord, giving him homage. Jesus is ready for us. We need not hold back for fear of asking too much, for asking incredible things, or asking a “stupid” question.

Jesus states simply that she does “not know” what she’s asking, and then takes her deeper–presenting this mother and her sons with this probing question: Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink? They all reply to Jesus in the affirmative–we can.

What an amazing statement of faith on the part of this mother and her sons! To trust in Jesus enough to say yes–even if their knowledge is imperfect (as we see in Jesus’ full response).

Even with their misunderstandings, Jesus accepts their response of faith. In this we see just how open Jesus is to our yes moments. Even when we say “yes” and don’t fully understand. Even when we say “yes” to him after asking a question that others look down upon. Jesus faithfully offers us more. Offers us more of Himself to say yes to. And we see the role that community played here. Without the mother’s initial question, neither James nor John would be in the position to say yes to Jesus. And so it is the great mystery of the Body of Christ for us too, that our brothers and sisters in Christ sometimes function as James and John’s mother–asking a question on behalf of a group, lunging closer to God and thus pulling others with us.

But what are the responses of Jesus’ other disciples? For me this is the most poignant, illustrative line of the Gospel passage: “When the ten heard this [conversation], they became indignant at the two brothers.”

Ouch.

An oh-so-human response.

I mean, wouldn’t it be more logical to get angry at James and John’s mother for starting the conversation to begin with? Or even turn in frustration toward Jesus for inviting and accepting their response of “we can” rather than rebuking them?

But no, the disciples get angry at their fellow believers for making such an audacious request out of faith. A request that–of course–revealed great misunderstanding. But, a request that also revealed genuine commitment and ardent desire to follow Jesus.

Now, we might not be as forward about our anger or indignation as the other ten disciples were in this Gospel. But, pause and consider the last time you may have gotten indignant or angry at a fellow Christian for their prayer hopes, for their attempts to grow closer to Jesus, for their attempts to take risks for the Kingdom…

When we act indignant, and lessen our true bonds of charity with other believers, we’re losing focus on Jesus. As we saw in this Gospel, the ten others aren’t even paying attention to how Jesus acted or who Jesus is–no–they are simply angry at James and John for wanting to be close to Jesus, for saying “we can” to sacrificial holiness, to progress in discipleship. And this can happen to us too…instead of paying the Lord our own homage, we focus our energy on picking apart and judging the discipleship of others. Not wanting others to “get ahead” of us or grow beyond our preconceived notions of discipleship.

James, John, and their mother needed guidance, and Jesus was there to converse with them. Let us remember–as we live, play, pray, and work within the Body of Christ present to us in our daily lives–that Jesus is the center. We conform ourselves to Jesus’ lead and example.

Jesus does not push us away, but invites conversation with us in prayer–never judging us unfairly, but leading us into deeper truth. As brothers and sisters in Christ we should encourage each other, rather than compete or grow indignant with each other when it comes to seeking Jesus.

p.s. I find it quite interesting that Mark’s Gospel includes the same content about the other disciples’ indignation, even though Mark’s does not include the tidbit about Mama Zebedee asking the question to Jesus. In the collective memory of Jesus’ early followers, the reaction of others, rather than initial question/offense/inquiry, seems to be what “stuck” most clearly. Again–very convicting for us modern disciples! 🙂

A version of this post also appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com