In our day and age, the impulse to ignore the difficult teachings of Jesus is a strong one. We much prefer the Jesus who says to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” But once we hear the summons of Jesus to “love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who abuse us”, our tune changes. “Um, Jesus…listen. I don’t mean to be rude, but…I’m not sure this is the most effective sales pitch.” Certainly I can’t be the only one who has ever had this kind of internal dialogue. The back and forth…the quiet voice in our heads that rationalizes avoiding his uncomfortable demands on the premise that they aren’t realistic or achievable. And we might be able to get away with these kind of theological gymnastics, the bracketing of these hard teachings as ‘unachievably idealistic’, were it not for the Saints who have gone before us, and the way their lives witness to the absolute possibility of transformation and holiness in this very life.
Just think, for a moment, about the inglorious beginnings of the disciples that were closest to Jesus. Rough, coarse fisherman, hailing from the wrong side of the tracks, as it were. These were men who lived with Jesus, who ate with him, who knew him intimately, and yet they seemed wholly unable to grasp the deep significance of most of his teachings. And from this often unsavory lot sprang Peter. “Upon this rock I will build my church,” said Jesus to Peter. Yet when faced with death himself, Peter chose to deny the very Lord he once confessed to be “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Think about Mary Magdalene. Though people throughout history have incorrectly labeled her a prostitute, the Biblical witness to her early life doesn’t paint a much rosier picture than that of a prostitute. We read in the Gospel of Luke that she was once filled to the brim with demons. Seven to be exact. Seven demons took up residence inside of her mind, body, and soul, and it was only through the power of Jesus Christ that she was able to break free.
And think about Francis of Assisi, whose beginnings are perhaps the most inglorious of them all. The son of a prosperous silk merchant, Francis lived a life of entitlement, reveling in the riches of his father. The excitement of wealth eventually wore off, and Francis sought a life of adventure fighting battles in the service of his homeland. But he failed as a soldier, and so he returned home to the revelry of his former days, a life of revelry that eventually resulted in crippling illness and a broken spirit.
But, thank God their stories don’t end there. Something happened to each of them. Something deep within their bones…something took root within each of these people that forever changed the courses of their lives…and forever changed history, too. They refused to stay the same. They refused to allow their humanness to weigh them down. They heard the voice of Jesus calling, and they answered him with everything they had.
Peter, that rough fisherman from Galilee, met the Risen Lord on a lakeshore and was restored and reinvigorated in his life of discipleship. “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? Then feed my sheep.” The man who once denied Jesus three times was restored and reinvigorated, his life never being the same again. The same man who once denied Jesus would soon be preaching to thousands on the Day of Pentecost. The same man who once denied Jesus would eventually become the bishop of Rome, whose legacy the Pope carries on to this day. The same man who once denied Jesus out of the fear of death would one day die a martyr’s death himself. Oh, St. Peter, pray for us.
Mary Magdalene, that once broken-down and demon possessed woman, met the Risen Lord near his garden tomb. Crippled by grief, she went to tend his broken body, not knowing that he had burst forth from the tomb. The woman who was once filled with such overwhelming darkness became the first person to see the Risen Lord on that first Easter morning. And she then became the first person commissioned to proclaim the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection. For good reason, she is called the Apostle to the Apostles, because Jesus’ closest friends heard of his resurrection only because of her proclamation, her preaching. And the world still reverberates with the sound of that first Easter sermon. Oh, St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.
Francis, that entitled son of a merchant, that failed soldier, that wayward and lost soul, met the Risen Lord in a mystical vision, whereby the words of the Lord came to him: “Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Though he first took that to mean a building fallen into disrepair, it’s clear that without the witness of Francis, the Church Worldwide would be more broken and ineffective than it is today. The young man who was once swallowed up by a passion for worldly possessions met the Risen Lord, and came to embrace poverty and a love of the poor as a means of following that radical, though difficult, way of Jesus. When the way of life Francis embraced came into conflict with his family, and in the midst of being publically tried for ‘disobedience’ by his father before the Bishop of Assisi, Francis stripped himself of all that his father had given him and declared, “I have only one father, and he is in heaven.” Francis illustrated to the world that it is truly possible to come out from under the soul-crushing weight of wealth and frivolity, following the way of Jesus who embraced the poor and the downtrodden. Oh, St. Francis, pray for us.
The lives of these three people, and the lives of the saints too numerous to name, challenge our assumptions about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Facing circumstances and life choices that were often far more difficult than what we experience in our contexts, these women and men did not hold the tough words and demands of discipleship at an arm’s length, idealizing them to the point of irrelevance. Rather, they let the words of Jesus seep down into their bones, proving to those who would come after them, people like us, that the way of Jesus, as difficult and demanding as it may be, can literally change the course of human history.
My sisters and brothers, there is no guarantee that any of us will ever be considered saints in the way these people are. But on the flip side, there is literally nothing holding us back from following Jesus in such a way that we are transformed and the world around us is healed. Sure, none of us are guaranteed to be listed on any calendar of saints, but truly, there is also nothing stopping us from living in such a way that maybe, just maybe, you'll be considered a saint one day, too. What’s that phrase, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Aim high my brothers and sisters. This Christian business is just no fun when we sell ourselves short.
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church on November 6, 2016. The texts were Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38.