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Twenty-Third Sunday of the Year

Facing the Challenge

Jesus has had his disagreements with learned scribes and Pharisees along the way to Jerusalem, while the unlearned crowds are still enthusiastically behind him. He speaks to them not to destroy their zeal, but to temper it with something more characteristic of his opponents. The crowds did not know what this road to Jerusalem meant for Jesus, nor did they know what following after him really means. Jesus wants to inform their zeal with a dose of learned realism, warning them that anyone who does not bear the cross and follow after him cannot be his disciple.

Jesus is in some way already bearing his cross as he makes his way to Jerusalem, and he will carry it physically on Good Friday to his place of execution. There he will defeat evil by submitting himself to the worst evil can do, and overcoming it. All that - and its consequence for those who follow - is encapsulated in his words 'Whoever does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.'

We too are in conflict with sin, with Christ at our head, and we too may have to bear the brunt of what opposition to our faith can still do. The crowds had no idea of anything like this, supposing that Jesus was going to win a war on behalf of their race, their nation, its structures of family, blood and clan. But Jesus tells them that if they follow him, they must hate their own family. This stark way of speaking, characteristic of Jesus's language and times, tells the crowds that, when the time comes to choose, we must put God and his Christ before everything we hold dear, even the very things we expect God and Jesus to preserve.

And, finally, Jesus advises us all to think over the cost of discipleship. If the crowds were actually going to war, the only intelligent thing to do would be to assess the odds of winning before risking everything. Don't start building a tower until you know you can get it finished, or you'll only deserve mockery! A virtue of good thinking must indeed apply to the whole of our faith.

So where do we stand today? We need the zeal of the crowds and the learning of the scribes and Pharisees. We need to have thought over the challenge of discipleship in a time when it is taxing, when we more and more feel a relentless opposition towards our faith and religion, sometimes in the name of science and good thinking, attacks that are more militant, more planned, more zealous - and that sometimes seem justified.

The worst thing we can do in this situation is to lose our zeal for the Gospel of Christ. It might be tempting to carry on our religion in an unintelligent way. We could declare that you can't argue for the existence of God anyway, treat religion as something only emotional, something about our feelings separated from thinking and in a world of its own, see religion and science as so far apart that religion can be insulated and protected from science.

Even if we could muster up enthusiasm for such a religion, it would be to maintain it without real thinking. Religion and science may be distinct, but it is false to imagine that they have always been or are necessarily in conflict. In fact, our whole scientific tradition in the West is the fruit of faith in creation, and draws so much from Christian philosophy and theology. Science and religion ultimately belong together peacefully in the same world.

So we cannot withdraw from the challenges our culture presents us with today. We cannot withdraw from thinking about faith. Others have shifted our culture against faith; it is not impossible that we too can shift the culture once again, if we are prepared to be both zealous and thoughtful. It means that we must put Christ first, be ready to suffer and to risk occasional defeats, even if we know that the truth is ultimately victorious.

And Christ will win. He has counted the cost. He has faced our worst enemies and conquered. We must not be afraid to share his sufferings, so as to share his victory. But we need to take stock of what we must do and what it might cost. Or we shall only deserve to be mocked. 

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