Lent is a great time for us to refocus our lives on what is most important, to turn away from worldly concerns and come back to the Lord with our whole hearts. Lent is about discipleship, about discovering a way of following the Lord in a new and more intense manner. In past Lents, I have preached about repentance from sin, the battle against temptation, fasting and spiritual disciple – subjects we traditionally associate with Lent. This year, though, I want to do something different. This year, I am going to focus, in a series of sermons throughout the season of Lent, on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and why being Jesus’s disciples brings us joy.
Now, joy might seem like an ironic theme for Lent. This is the season of the year when our worship of God is the most subdued. We fast from the joyful acclamation of “Alleluia,” from joyful organ music, from all sorts of things that bring us pleasure. The Mass is imbued with silence and austerity, as are, hopefully, our lives outside of church as well. So why focus on joy? Think back to what our Lord told us on Ash Wednesday: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.” In the culture of our Lord’s day, anointing one’s head with oil was something done on a special occasion, on a day of joy. The oil used to do so was expensive and reserved for times of great celebration.
The silence and the austerity of Lent should lead to joy because they lead to an encounter with the living God, who is the cause of our true joy. This is what being a disciple of our Lord is all about – a loving and joyful encounter with the God who made us and sustains us. Through this series of sermons on joyful discipleship, we are going to explore: 1) What it means to be a joyful disciple of Jesus. 2) What are the rewards promised to His disciples. 3) The zeal and fearlessness that discipleship brings. 4) How to find joy amidst suffering and leave the darkness behind in order to follow Christ, and 5) Why we need to be disciples not later, but now.
So let’s start at the beginning: What does it mean to be Jesus’s disciple, and how does that lead to joy? For discipleship, the beginning is really Baptism. That is why the Church points us to the importance of recalling our Baptism as we begin this Lenten journey. In the first reading, we saw Noah and his family receiving God’s covenant never again to destroy the earth with a flood – a sign of Baptism. For the ancient Christians, Baptism was a central focus of Lent because of the catechumens preparing for Baptism at Easter. They would have had a very visible presence, sitting together at Mass until they left following the sermon, not to be present for the enacting of the Holy Sacrifice until their initiation at the Easter Vigil. Thinking about these catechumens preparing for Baptism at Easter gives each of us an opportunity to put ourselves in their shoes (or sandals, as the case might have been), and to intensify our preparations for Easter just as they did.
St. Paul told us in today’s epistle that Noah and his family’s 40 days on the ark prefigures the Baptism with the waters of the flood. The waters of the flood washed sin away from the earth, and the waters of Baptism wiped away our sins. We often think about “Noah’s Ark,” and we can lose sight of the fact that he was there with his family, with a community. Noah was not on the ark by himself with a bunch of animals! God wills that each of us should be saved through Baptism not just on our own, but in the context of the Church. Disciples of Jesus are not “lone wolves.” They care deeply about each and desire that their brothers and sisters in Christ achieve their eternal destiny of spending forever with Christ in Heaven. The true Christian is not content to be saved on his own, but wants to bring others to salvation as well.
Communities of true Christian disciples are naturally joyful communities. I am reminded of this reality every time I visit the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration in Mishawaka. I remember the first time I went there when I was about to begin seminary. I kept thinking, “Why is everyone here so happy?” I mean, it was almost creepy! What I did not realize, though, is that the joy of being a disciple of Christ was constantly radiating from each of these sisters, and being magnified as it reached out and inspired the hearts of the other sisters to grow in love for Christ as well. Something similar happens when a lamp is placed in front of a mirror: All of a sudden, it gives even more light to the room.
That is the kind of joyful discipleship we should desire for this community of disciples as well, our parish. We should make it our goal that visitors would come here and wonder, “Why are these people so happy?” We should desire to radiate the sort of Christian joy that inspires others to a greater joy as well, just like those holy sisters.
Joyful communities naturally want to grow, and grow they do. After Noah and his family left the ark, they spread out over the whole world. Sharing that joy of following Christ is what we would call making disciples. This is the essential mission of the Church: to make disciples of Christ, and then help them to reach the heights of holiness, to become saints.
Our Lord’s first act of public ministry, as we see in the Gospel today, was to proclaim the Gospel of God. This has to be the first act of discipleship as well, to proclaim to others the joy we have found in following Christ. For the disciple, few things bring joy like watching another person discover Christ’s love. Have you ever been to a wedding where you had introduced the bride and groom? It is one of the best feelings in the world, knowing that you had a part in bringing about the great celebration in which all the guests are partaking. The person who introduced the bride and groom even takes on a minor celebrity status for the evening.
While I have been in the position that I just described (the groom was a fraternity brother I sponsored entering the Church, and the bride was my high school senior prom date), an even greater joy for me is getting to guide souls who are just getting to know Christ, or are learning to follow Him in new and deeper ways. When I was in college and in the years immediately following, I was able to help some of my friends (and even a professor!) along that journey into the Church. That is one of the reasons that my faith was able to grow in college, even though I was at a secular school that did not really support my faith: because I found the joy that comes from proclaiming the Gospel. Imagine the joy that you could experience in Heaven when you see there a good friend whom you have helped to grow in love for Christ, and you see her there experiencing the love of God in its celestial fullness. The joy of introducing a bride and groom cannot even compare.
This is an essential trait of discipleship: the naturally outward push of God’s love in our hearts. Sharing God’s love with the world and proclaiming the Gospel are not just for priests and religious! We are all called to be missionaries of joy, proclaiming the Gospel to all who will hear us.
At the same time, it is good for us to recognize that everyone expresses joy differently. Not everyone has to have an effusive, bubbly personality in order to be joyful. If that is not you, that is okay. Each of us can find his or her own way of expressing this joy. For some, it will come in a quieter way. The liturgy of Lent is instructive here. The austerity we experience is meant to push us deeper into meditation and prayer, which leads to a deep and abiding joy that is greater than mere exuberance. Those sisters who are so joyful spend at least an hour per day in silence, soaking in Christ’s love – that’s the secret to their joy.
The final place in which our Lord encourages us to find joy as His disciples today is in repentance. Thinking back to Baptism, its first and most important meaning is repentance from sins. For those early catechumens (and even some catechumens still today), this repentance had a deeply personal resonance as they brought to the baptismal font the personal sins of their lives, and it is even true for the children who are baptized before they gain the use of reason – and thus the ability to sin – when their original sin is forgiven through the waters of renewal. Baptism, St. Paul says today, is “an appeal to God for a clear conscience.”
I was driving through Fort Wayne this past week, and I went by the Diocesan office building downtown. The sign out front quoted the words of today’s Gospel: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” That is a strong message to be proclaiming to the general public driving by on a busy highway!
We proclaim that strong message not just because we want to straighten the world out, like an angry father who instructs his miscreant son to cut his own switch off the willow tree, but because we know that so many are missing out on the joy that comes from having a clear conscience.
Next Wednesday, Feb. 28, our Diocese is sponsoring an initiative that we do every Lent called, “The Light is On for You.” At every parish in the Diocese confessions will be available from 6 to 8 p.m. (here at St. John’s, because we have Mass at 6 p.m., it will start at 6:30 p.m.). Now, we already have a lot of confession times here at St. John’s (seven each week), so I thought about whether we really needed to participate in this. But let’s think about it this way, “The Light is on for You” is not just an opportunity for you to go to confession, but also the chance for you to invite someone else for confession. Those who stay away from God’s mercy (out of fear, or embarrassment, or whatever the reason) are missing out on the joy of a clear conscience, but you are also missing out on the joy of introducing someone to their soul’s truest friend: Christ. So invite the Catholics you know who have been away from the practice of the faith to confession.
However, it will not be enough merely to tell someone that she ought to go to confession. For people who have not done this in a while, it is a really intimidating experience. Share your experience of going to confession; talk about why it brings you joy through that clear conscience. Find your friend, neighbor, child, parent, whoever it is, a good examination of conscience and guide to confession in order to help them prepare. Offer to go together, and wait outside of the confessional praying for your friend. He will appreciate you even more than the bride and groom appreciate the person who made their introduction, because you will have helped him find something even better: eternal life.
Our Lord calls us today to the joy of authentic discipleship. He invites us to find joy in being a joyful community, repenting of our sins, and guiding others to an encounter with Him.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
St. John the Evangelist Church
I Sunday in Lent, A.D. MMXVIII