July 27, 2010

The Challenge of Discipleship

It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master.  (Matt. 10:25)
     All talk of individual liberty not withstanding, each of us is servant to a master; our freedom lies in choosing the master we wish to serve: God or mammon. Under the constant pressure to conform to the ways of the world, many unwittingly choose to serve the latter, whether it be in the form of material prosperity, intellectual pursuit, culture, the opinion of the Jones's, pleasure, a particular ideology, the health and shape of one's body... As Orthodox Christians we claim to serve Christ as our Master, to be His disciples, the chosen people of the New Israel. If this claim is to be more than idle boasting, we must learn what it means to follow Jesus Christ Who said that "not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord. shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven" (Matt. 7:21).

    We have become adversely affected by the general lack of seriousness in today's society. This causes us to take for granted our salvation, our membership in the Body of Christ. In such a state of spiritual laxity, how can we presume to speak of being Christ’s disciples? Have we ever seriously considered the meaning of discipleship?

    The relation of a disciple to his master is one of obedience. The supreme example here is Christ Himself Who said: "I seek not Mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent Me" (John 5:30). Increasingly today, we are taught to demand our rights. If someone tells us what to do, first we want to know by what right he tells us. Even then, our pride urges us to do things "our way". The result is anarchy, separation from God and danger to our souls. The virtue of obedience repels this worldly attitude and safeguards the soul. St. John Climacus says that obedience is the tomb of self-will and a cure for pride. Without obedience and the cutting off of self-will there can be no discipleship.

    We must, therefore, strive to learn obedience to God and His holy Church. If this duty imposed by God sounds difficult or confining--the duty to obey His holy laws and abide in His Ark of Salvation, the Church--we should realize that we gain great benefit by doing so. First, we are relieved of responsibility for deciding how to live. how to act; this has been established by God and is taught by the Church. Secondly, through obedience to the counsels of a spiritual father we gain soul-profiting insight from someone who can see us as we are. Thirdly, obedience brings internal peace--so noticeably absent in the dissensions of a life ruled by self-will. Finally, it is the precursor of that guardian of all virtue, humility.

    Humility is a necessary condition for discipleship. The Lord instructs these who wish to follow Him: "Learn of Me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matt. 11:29). This is a challenge indeed, for ours has become a very prideful society. Quarrels, bitterness, animosity, jealousy, a high incidence of divorce—do these not find their roots in pride? Its converse is humility which, as Abba Dorotheus says, is like a mortar cementing together all other virtues. In the sayings of the Holy Fathers we read: "As it is impossible to construct a ship without nails, so there is no hope of being saved without humility."

     Our Master Jesus Christ came not to be served but to serve, and just as the disciple is not greater than his Master, we must also place ourselves in the position of being servants--to our Lord Jesus Christ, to His holy Church, to our families, and to our neighbor. Being a true servant requires that we deny our "self" which the prideful attitude of the world works so hard to inflate. This call to give up the self is much more serious than we care to admit. Did not our Lord say: "Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be My disciple"?

    Together with serving, humility expresses itself in the readiness to forgive. Our Lord demands this of His disciples to such an extent that He repeats this commandment more than any other. Yet it is also the hardest to keep. Weighed down by the remembrance of wrongs, we have no strength to put away our quarrels in the family, the parish, or among our acquaintances. How then can we expect to fulfill the Apostle's command to bear one another's burdens'? But is this not the responsibility of a servant, a disciple? Not only to bear his burdens, but also to wash his feet. 

By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, that ye love tree another. (John 13:35) 

     The Fathers consistently speak of the need to acquire divine virtues if one is to be a true disciple of Christ. We have touched briefly upon the need for obedience and for humility. What shall we now say about that chief virtue, love? Our God is the God of love, and His disciples must acquire His love, a love very different from the sensual, often selfish love broadcast by the world. We may be outwardly obedient, we may be full of the knowledge of the Scriptures, but without love we are, as St. Paul tells us, no more than tinkling brass and our labors are in vain. Here we must admit our utter impoverishment and beg God to soften our hearts that we may acquire this most perfect mark of a true disciple.

      Finally, in the example of Christ's disciples we see untiring labor and zeal in spreading the Gospel. We are especially reminded of this as we approach the Feast of the Apostles. We should take every opportunity to spread the Word of Truth, to bring to thirsting souls the living waters of salvation which Christ offered the Samaritan woman at the well. This does not necessarily mean we stand on street corners hawking our wares. St. Seraphim of Sarov tells us to acquire tke Spirit of peace and thousands around us will be saved. And let us not be discouraged if our efforts seem unfruitful. Our task is to sow the good seed; the Lord is the reaper of the harvest.

     May we be inspired to meet the challenge of discipleship. This demands concentrated and ceaseless labors, an estrangement from the world and a denial of our very "self". But what has the world to offer which can compare in any way to the love and grace of God, to peace of heart and eternal joy? May we run the race in such a way as to be accepted into that cloud of witnesses, Christ's true disciples, and to be clothed together with them in robes made white in the blood of the Lamb.

Fr. Joseph Sunderland
Orthodox America: http://www.roca.org/OA/49/49a.htm

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