Note: While this article was written from a Roman Catholic perspective, the material can be beneficial for Christians from other traditions as well. – ed.
We have a short saying we frequently use to capture the heart of lifelong discipleship: “All of my life, for the rest of my life.” Jesus has called us to offer all of ourselves (not just part) for the rest of our lives (not just for a season). Christ didn’t call his followers only for a special intensive period of time. He didn’t invite people to give a generous portion of time during their youth so that they could pursue their own goals and dreams thereafter. He called people for the duration of their lives.
We live in a world of constant flux. Attention spans have shrunk, and people want to keep their options open. Living a comfortable and pain-free life is a high priority for most of us. If things get hard or even unpleasant, we want to make a change and make it right away. Lifelong vocations – marriage and celibacy – which require us to persevere through periods of challenge, frequently suffer breakdowns in this climate.
In many respects, ours is not a heroic age. While we may need to make accommodations in the way that we make disciples in this social climate, it’s important that we help people hear a countercultural call to radical discipleship. Once again, Jesus’ practice of reaching out and calling people provides a pattern for us. There is a profound paradox in how he did this.
On the one hand, Jesus shocked the people of his day by reaching out to tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and even demoniacs. He offered a radical welcome to those who were on the margins – to the poor and downtrodden. He spoke to these people about the kingdom of God and encouraged them to trust in the provision of their Father in heaven. He healed multitudes, not because they were worthy, but because they were in need. Jesus was ready to unleash the power of the kingdom of God on their behalf. He offered a radical welcome to all.
On the other hand, Jesus shocked his contemporaries by placing the highest and most uncompromising demands on those who would be his disciples. Anyone who loved even father or mother more than Jesus was not worthy to be in his cohort (see Matthew 10:37). He told his followers that they had to lose their lives if they were to find and save their lives. He pointed them to the cross as the way to follow in imitation of him (see Matthew 16:24, for example).
Many people found Jesus’ words too difficult, and they turned away. But Jesus didn’t water down his demands. He continued to offer a radical call to discipleship. Was Jesus presenting an inconsistent message, offering a radical welcome along with radical demands?
Today we tend to set these two “radical” approaches in opposition to one another, and then we choose the one that we think most exemplifies the gospel. Some people conclude that if we are meant to give a radical welcome to everyone, then we cannot place any demands on them or call them to a transformed life; we just accept them as they are and leave it at that. Others are inclined to think that if we are to call people to radical discipleship, then we can’t welcome all comers, most of whom are plainly unprepared for this calling.
But Jesus did both. He welcomed all who would listen, and he healed them unconditionally. He also demanded change – “Go, and do not sin again” (John 8:11). And at the right time, he called his followers to wholehearted discipleship.
In a cultural climate such as ours, with many people wounded and ill-equipped for a high call, we must offer an unconditional, radical welcome that invites people to encounter Jesus and find healing in him. But if we are to remain faithful to the gospel, we must also call people to receive the grace of God and be transformed in mind, heart, and practice. Admittedly, combining a radical welcome with a radical call to discipleship is not easy; we need to find ways to present both without compromising either. And the two are consistent with one another, for those who are forgiven much are often best equipped to love much and to respond with generous hearts (see Luke 7:47).
Witness, Narrative, and Story
Pope Paul VI captured something critical for understanding our present time: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers it is because they are witnesses.” 106Pope Francis has said much the same thing: “Today too, people prefer to listen to witnesses.”107 What do they mean?
People today are ready to listen to those who live what they teach and who speak from their own experience. Human beings have always loved stories and narratives, but today the preference for learning by story is especially strong. Teaching remains essential, and we abandon it at our peril; but we will be much more effective communicators of the gospel if we provide ample testimony – concrete and authentic narratives of our experience – to surround and embody the teaching we give.
Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.
For many years in our student outreaches, we have offered seminars that provide an intensive presentation of the gospel to help people encounter Christ. 108 Time and again, students say that the plain and unadorned testimonies of their peers have the most Impact on them – more than the well-prepared presentations given by our best speakers. Teaching and testimony go hand in hand, but it is frequently testimony that opens hearts and minds most effectively to the gospel. And when people are moved by the speakers, it is usually because these speakers also give testimony to how the teaching has impacted their lives.
To expand and broaden this point, let us consider our wider culture’s fascination with stories and narratives. The media that dominates our popular culture – video (movies) and music –communicate narrative and story with great power. Young and old alike migrate toward their favorite movies or television series. Many popular songs, both secular and Christian, tell stories that pull at the heart and stir the emotions. We live in a world where, for better or worse, people reach for stories – powerful, violent, funny, or heartrending. And these stories have an enormous ability to form minds and hearts.
As Christians, we are in possession of the greatest “story,” or narrative, in the world. In fact, it is the one and true story of the world. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the great story, the adventure that all other adventures point to or derive from.
Too often we box our faith into a religious category. We think about our faith as defining our “religious identity” and quarantine it from the rest of life. But being a Christian – being a disciple of Jesus – is much more than a religious identity; it is much more than a set of beliefs, liturgical practices, or moral convictions (though these are essential). Becoming a Christian means recognizing that Jesus Christ defines the story of the whole world.
When we become followers of Jesus, we are drawn into the true story that encompasses all other stories. There are no half measures here. The call to discipleship makes a claim on our whole lives, not just the “religious” part.
Consider the first followers of Jesus as we meet them in the pages of the Gospels – Peter, Andrew, James, and John. When they encountered Jesus, their lives were turned completely upside down. Becoming Jesus’ disciple was not just a matter of taking on a new moral code or reading a certain holy book or attending a set of religious services. For these first disciples, it meant reshaping their whole lives around this person they had encountered. It meant becoming part of a new community of people. Nothing was the same.
Becoming a Christian means recognizing that Jesus Christ defines the story of the whole world.
Here we need to be credible witnesses ourselves. All aspects of our lives – marriage, family, job, career, recreation, possessions, friendships – need to be configured around the person and teaching of Jesus. We don’t have to do everything perfectly – no one does that. But if we seek to live this way – to configure all our “loves” around Christ – then our words will carry impact. We can’t call people into a life of discipleship if we are not living this life ourselves.
When we call people to follow Jesus with their whole lives – with nothing held back-many respond with genuine faith, zeal, and joy. We see this happening powerfully among the generational cohort called millennials. Of course, it is not our words that persuade them: it is the power of Christ’s own words and his call that reaches their hearts.
When people make a full response by offering their whole their whole lives to Christ, a paradigm shift occurs. They move from thinking about Jesus and religion in terms of something they do, on their own terms, to seeing themselves caught up by Jesus into a great adventure not of their own making. The terms change. I am no longer crafting my own religious identity; I have been claimed and called by another. My will is still fully involved, but I am no longer in charge of the process. Now my task is to respond (or not) to the call of Jesus with all that this implies.
People have a desire, a hunger even, to be caught up in a truly meaningful narrative. They sense that their lives have meaning, and they grope to find what this purpose might be. If and when they sadly conclude that their lives have no clear meaning, they lose heart and meander into activities that distract them or that hide the apparent meaninglessness of their existence.
Why are modern audiences entranced by superhero movies? Why was a whole generation of young people mesmerized by Harry Potter and his momentous struggle against a dark and powerful foe?
In these stories there is abundant adventure and excitement, but even more, there is a purpose and a reason for struggling and fighting for what is right. Something big is at stake – usually the ongoing existence of the free world! How the characters respond makes a huge difference. All of us have a natural hunger to find a meaningful narrative that guides us through the challenges of life.
But a steady diet of superhero movies will not give purpose to our lives. Reading about Harry Potter defeating Lord Voldemort or about Frodo and Sam struggling to defeat Sauron cannot give meaning to our own existence. These adventures can stir our imagination and implant a desire for a noble life, but they can’t give actual purpose to our lives.
Only the gospel of Jesus Christ – and this alone – offers a narrative that we can truly enter and there find meaning for our lives. When we recognize that we have been caught up in the great narrative of the gospel – that it has come knocking at our door – we grasp our faith in a new way. If we open the door, we can set out on a path of lifelong discipleship. 109
This article © by Dan Keating is the 1st portion of a three-part series:
Part 2: Discipleship Crossroads
This article is adapted from the book Called to Christian Joy and Maturity by Daniel A. Keating and Gordy C. DeMarais, published in 2021 by The Word Among Us Press, Fredrick, Maryland, USA. Used with permission.
Top image credit: Photo of a man on the sunrise in high mountain, from Bigstock.com, © by Andrushko Galyna, stock photo ID: 13811567. Used with permission.