Discipleship means giving priority to Jesus, his saving plan
In this week’s interview, communication manager David Hazen speaks with Archbishop George J. Lucas about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
Q: The first priority in the pastoral priority plan for the archdiocese is creating a culture of encountering Jesus and equipping disciples. What do you picture, Archbishop, when we use the word ‘disciple’?
That’s an important question. It’s another way of asking, "What distinguishes a disciple of Jesus from everybody else?"
I think about the original disciples who were called by Jesus himself. The first thing we notice is that disciples are called by Jesus – it’s his initiative. He sees something in you and me, and other disciples that he decides he wants to bring into the heart of his saving mission, which becomes the mission of the church. It’s a great thing for a disciple to realize that he or she has been called by Jesus for his own good reasons. We may think we’re not worthy, but Jesus, the risen Son of God, has called disciples.
In the Gospels, we see that the disciples got to spend more time with Jesus than other people did. They enjoyed meals together, they prayed together. He would take them apart from the rest of the crowd, from their families, from their work, and invite them to do what friends do: spend time together.
So the first characteristic of a disciple is that he or she is invited to this personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus communicates to his disciples that he wants to be part of our lives.
Coupled with this, we see that the first disciples had to leave something behind in order to respond to Jesus’ invitation. Their priorities had to change in terms of their understanding of God’s plan for the world, but also in terms of how they spent their time and energy. More of it was to be given to Jesus and his saving plan, and less to the plans that they themselves would have devised.
A second essential part of discipleship is to be sent out. We see that happen clearly for the first time on Pentecost as it’s described in the Acts of the Apostles. There are other places in the Gospels where Jesus sends his disciples out and they come back and recount their experiences. So they’re still very much attached to being with him, which we always must be, but they go out and they have some successes and some failures, and some confusions.
But we see on the day of Pentecost that when the Holy Spirit comes upon the first apostles and disciples, they go right out the door and they begin to share their experience of Jesus with others in a more public way. And the experience is kind of astounding to them, I imagine, because as soon as they start sharing their knowledge and love of Jesus, people start believing.
So the witness of the disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is effective, and it makes it possible for others to believe, even though they’ve never seen Jesus face to face in this world like those first disciples did.
Q: As you’ve said, we know Christ sends us out today to share the faith with others. But often when we encounter our family, friends and co-workers today, we sense that we’re not up to the task. What does it mean to be truly equipped or to equip other people?
We can look again to the first disciples. We can imagine them hearing from Jesus, whom they were coming to believe in as the Son of God. We can also imagine them saying, "I hear what Jesus is asking me. He wants me to go out and share my faith with others, and I want to do it because I know he’s asking me, but I don’t feel like I’m up to it."
So he told them not to be afraid, and that when the Holy Spirit came upon them, they would have everything they needed. So they were equipped first, because they did know Jesus and they were witnesses to his preaching and miracles. Many of them were on the receiving end of his mercy, and they were witnesses to the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was the Holy Spirit that made it possible for them to take that knowledge and turn it into a witness – that is, to equip them to share that with others.
We are not in exactly the same position because we haven’t seen Jesus face to face. We haven’t heard his teaching and witnessed his miracles in the same way, but Jesus tells us the same thing: "You’ve come to know me. You’ve allowed me into your life, and I’m asking you to go out and to be my disciples truly – not secret disciples, but disciples who are to witness to me in public, and I’m giving you the gift of the Holy Spirit to make that possible.
While our experience may not be quite the same as on that first Pentecost, the same powerful Holy Spirit that was given to those first disciples is given to us. We need to put our trust in the power of that gift. But it’s up to us in the church in our time to help one another to find the tools and have the courage to be what Pope Francis calls missionary disciples.
Q: What encouragement can you offer us as we face the challenges and temptations that come when we try to embrace this missionary identity?
We can give in to a sense of inadequacy and think we have to wait until we get to some level of "being equipped" before we really can witness our faith to others. We have to take Jesus at his word that he loves us, he’s called us, and if he wants us to be his disciples and his friends, then he is equipping us to witness our faith to others.
So why are we doing it? I think it’s helpful to understand our motivation. We can overcome our fear if we remind ourselves that evangelization is rooted in two loves. First is our love for Jesus, and the love that he has for us. We can’t really be effective disciples and effective evangelizers if we haven’t experienced the love of Jesus and his forgiveness. In the church there are many opportunities for us to experience that personally in our own prayer and in the celebration of the sacraments. If we think we’re being called to be disciples, then we need to spend the time with Jesus that disciples spend so that we can be convinced of his love.
The second love is love of neighbor. If we have this great gift of a relationship with Jesus, and if we acknowledge that he is our Savior and that he’s saving us, then we will want to share that with others for their sake.
Then, we will see what happens. Jesus has given us the parable of the sower. I think it should be an encouragement to all of us that we try to share the faith. We sow the seed everywhere we can, and sometimes it takes root. Being sent out to evangelize is not necessarily being sent out to accomplish something. Rather, we are sent out to offer something – Someone, really – as a gift, and ultimately it’s the Lord’s work. If through our efforts and our instrumentality somebody hears the invitation of Jesus, they’ll be able to respond to him, and then we can give them all the encouragement that is within us to give.
Our culture is very task-oriented, so we’re tempted to see evangelization as a project. We tend to think it will take a certain amount of time, and it will touch a certain number of people, and that we’ll see our success. That really is not the nature of the church. Our many institutions and organizations can be effective tools of evangelization, but the ones that have been effective in the past may not necessarily be those we need moving forward. We have to be wise and prudent in discerning that.
We ought to remember that we’re not just trying to fill up the pews. We’re not just trying to make our parishes bigger, or stabilize them in terms of numbers and income. I’m not opposed to numbers and income, of course, but that really is not the task that Jesus is giving us right now.
He’s asking us to go out and share our knowledge and love of him with others in a personal way, and to leave the outcome to him and the Holy Spirit working through us. The Lord’s promises and the power of the Holy Spirit are still effective after all these centuries, and my confidence is that if we do what the Lord is asking of us, and we do it generously, freely, with a real love for those whom we are encountering, that it will bear fruit in the Lord’s design.