Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation,
A great crowd travels around with Jesus. In this crowd are the intellectually interested, the superstitiously curious; those hungry for bread and holiness; those thirsty for hope and some good news. Traveling with him are those who beg his healing touch, his soothing word. Some truly believe, some only half-believe but are willing to gamble. Still others are itching for a magic show; or eager for some violence, wait on the Romans to show up and give Jesus and his heretical cadre a good beating. Jesus knows their hearts, their minds. He knows their needs and their ambitions. He also know what it will take for any one of them to truly Follow his Way…as opposed merely traveling with him. Always intent on telling the truth, he turns to them and says, “If anyone comes to me without hating his [family and friends] and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple […] everyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” Disappointment, anger, frustration, fear, despair—all of these must surged out of the crowd and washed over our Lord as he stood there simply speaking the truth: nothing merely human—not wisdom or curiosity or desperate need—provides sufficient reason or support for picking up a cross and following Christ. Why then would anyone shoulder a cross and struggle behind a man condemned to a criminal’s death?
Paul writes to the Corinthians, confessing to them that when he came to them, “proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come [to you] with sublimity of words or of wisdom […] I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling […], not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power…” Exactly! Paul went to the Corinthians to show them God not to argue for God or to sway them to God with florid rhetoric. It was human wisdom that he sought to overthrow—the narrow, servile, belly-centered idolatry of the Self that held the Corinthians in slavery to sin. Paul understood as a matter of his own experience and history that no philosophy, no argument, no scholastic allegiance could persuade him to pick up voluntarily a cross and walk behind Jesus, the condemned rebel and King of the Jews. What Paul understood as a matter of his experience and history is that following Christ to his cross and beyond is a matter of “spirit and power,” a matter of finding yourself unfinished, incomplete and desiring, longing from the very roots of your being to be finished, to be completed. How can you be convinced to desire your completion? How can anyone persuade us to seek out our perfection, especially when our lack of perfection, the incompleteness of our lives is so obviously and painfully debilitating?
Why then would anyone shoulder a cross and struggle behind a man condemned to a criminal’s death? For the stark and perhaps terrifying reason that to do anything else leaves us barren, stunted, and wanting. Can you imagine needing to follow Christ? Needing to find yourself behind him? Is that need about intellectual assent? Is that need about cataloging propositional assertions of doctrine? No! Our need for Christ is the need of the starving for food, the need of the lonely for friends, the need of the imprisoned for hope. This is why Jesus seemly sets the bar so high to become his disciple…. not out of elitism or a desire to torment us, but rather out of what he knows to be the cost of satisfying—truly satiating—the gnawing emptiness that only he can fill.
It is his life, his death that quiets our need; his life, his death that feeds our broken lives what they need.