Homily: The Three Levels of Discipleship

   Today’s readings deal with a powerful reality from the Gospels, one that speaks to the very core of life and how the message of Jesus transforms our understanding of it. It tells of how our faith and our search for meaning helps us to cope with every stage, every phase of human experience. Jesus in the Gospel today asks the question “Who do people say that I am?”; and later He tells them. “The Son of Man must suffer greatly.. and be killed. ..If anyone wishes to come after me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me.”

   To look at life is to see three great struggles, three major phases in our human and spiritual journey: The struggle to get our lives together, the struggle to give our lives away and the third and most difficult struggle, that of radical discipleship  The struggle to give our deaths away.

   The struggle to get our lives together is the initial task in life. Beginning with our first breath, we struggle to find who we are, we search for an identity and to find fulfillment and peace there. We discover what we will call home, where we have parents, a family, and a place that’s ours.

   This period of our lives is intended by God and nature to be a secure time. We learn about ourselves, we seek to discover who we are, what we are capable of, what we can call ‘our own’. We are given values, we discover the values of others, and we learn which are the great values of life, the Words to Live By that shall continue to make life rich and worthwhile. We learn what it is to get and receive, it is a time of building up who and what we are. We learn what we have that is of value and worthwhile.

   It is not without its struggles and confusion. Through our lives as young adults, we explore and reach out, full of grandiose dreams, in search of a new home, one that we want to build for ourselves. Normally we do find our way home again. At a certain point, we land. We find ourselves ‘at home’ again, namely, with a place to live that’s our own, a job, a career, a vocation, a spouse, children, a mortgage, a series of responsibilities, and a certain status and identity.

   At that point, the fundamental struggle in our life changes, though it may take years for us to consciously realize and accept this. Our question then is no longer: “How do I get my life together?” Rather it becomes: “How do I give my life away more deeply, more generously, and more meaningfully?”  We enter the second phase of discipleship. and we struggle to give our lives away.  Most people reach this stage sometime during their twenties or thirties, though some take longer to cross that threshold, and some reach it even in their teenage years..

   The crossover is never pure and complete, the struggle for self-identity and private fulfillment never completely goes away; but, at a certain point, we begin to live more for others than for ourselves. A second kind of discipleship begins then and, for most of us, this will constitute the longest period of our lives. During all those years, our task in life is clear: How do I give my life away more purely, more generously? We give it away by being the responsible adults who run the homes, schools, churches, and businesses of the world. And we give it away by caring for and caring about the future of our children, our grandchildren our nieces and our nephews.

  And it is given away especially by our generous work as volunteers in our churches, our PTAs and little leagues, by our sacrifices and donations on behalf of the needs of our communities and our world, a never-ending plea for help and donations and time and commitment to save the world  –  or a little piece of it — in Jesus’ name. And there are the needs of aging parents and the tragedies and illnesses of friends and relatives, to which we are called – willingly or unwillingly — to give so much of ourselves to. It is a time that calls for generous and devoted discipleship, calling out of us all that those early years put into us..

    But this is not the final stage of our lives. We still must die; the most daunting task of all. And so our default line must shift yet one more time: There comes a point in our lives, when our real question is no longer: “What can I still do so that my life makes a contribution?” Rather the question becomes: “How can I now live so that my death will be an optimal blessing for my family, my church, and the world?”

   Radical discipleship and the struggle to give our deaths away is the final stage of life: As Christians, we believe that Jesus lived for us and that he died for us, that he gave us both his life and his death. But we often fail to distinguish that there are two clear and separate movements here: Jesus gave his life for us in one movement, and he gave his death for us in another. He gave his life for us through his activity, through his generative actions for us; and he gave his death through his passive openness, through absorbing in love the helplessness, the limitingness, the humiliations and the loneliness of dying.

   So, how do you want to die? Clinging helplessly to your belongings? Whining and complaining about your aches and pains? Flailing about in anger about the limitations on your freedom?   Like Jesus, we too are meant to give our lives away in generosity and selflessness, but we are also meant to leave this planet in such a way that our diminishment and death is our final, and perhaps greatest, gift to the world. Needless to say that is not easy. Walking in discipleship behind the master will require that we too will eventually sweat blood and feel “a stone’s throw” from everybody. This struggle, to give our deaths away, as we once gave our lives away, constitutes Radical discipleship. “If anyone wishes to come after me, they must take up their cross and follow me. For whoever loves life shall lose it, and whoever loses their life shall find it for life everlasting..

Fr. Ron Rolheiser OMI.





  1. Jessie

    Thu 20th Jun 2013 at 9:59 am

    Giving our deaths away…what a powerful concept–something I will be unpacking for a while, I think. I also love how this whole progression honors each level: that there is grace getting one’s life together, and grace in giving one’s life away, AND grace in giving one’s death away.

    One small note: Fr. Ron Rolheiser isn’t a Jesuit…he’s an OMI. 🙂

    • Cathy Raffaele

      Thu 20th Jun 2013 at 2:28 pm

      Jessie… thank you for your comment…correction was made…

      • Father Metzler

        Fri 21st Jun 2013 at 7:29 am

        Jesse, Thank you for your response. If you wish to read Fr. Ronheiser’s original reflection, go to liturgy.slu.edu and select June 23, 2013. Father’s piece is the second one, ‘In Exile’. Father Metzler

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