Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

It’s an amazing thing. Jesus getting down on his hands and knees, begging to wash the feet of his disciples, the night before he died. It is the eternal posture for God before humanity. So out of sync, it seems, with what the Master of Creation and the Creator of the Universe should be about. Unlike the gods of mythology — the tyrannical deities about which one reads in the annals of Roman, Greek and Teutonic folklore — the real God is very different.
God assumes the position of a slave in order to plead with humanity to accept the gift of redeeming love. Yes, we know, as St. John tells us, that God is love, but are we willing to accept it? Are we ready for that unconditional love that invites us to accept being accepted just as and where we are? Who could refuse such an offer — unless we are afraid that God will not leave us just as we are, but offer to change us?

That’s the tough part for most of us, I think. We are very content with friends who will not judge us, who will meet us where we are and will not expect us to change. Many people say that what they most want to see from the Church is a church of welcome, that opens its doors to anyone and everyone. It may not be your experience, but it is not common practice to ask for a green pass or some other identity card in order to enter a Catholic church. As Pope Francis has often said, we are more of a field hospital for sinners than a museum for saints. This is certainly good news for anyone who is looking for relief and healing and is not feeling all together. Am I willing, however, to accept that I may need someone to help me, that I have not yet arrived at the point where my life should be, that I bear scars or wounds that need healing?

Another way to ask this question is that if God is so humble as to stoop down to the level of our sinful existence — if we have the honesty to admit we are sinners — should we not be humble enough to admit that we need God’s love and forgiveness to have the heart and mind of Jesus, who is inviting us to have just that. Yes, Jesus indeed meets us where we are, no matter how low we have descended, but as a true friend he does not want to leave us where we are.

This is the crux of discipleship, where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. It is one thing to accept that Jesus has come to us, to be with us, to give us himself for our salvation. It is another thing to accept the cost of being a disciple: to follow him and to allow our minds and hearts to be changed so that they mirror the heart and mind of Jesus himself. 

To be a disciple is to be changed, transformed from ways of thinking and living that do not reflect the heart and mind of Jesus Christ. We know that Jesus warned that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus certainly meets us where we are, but he does not want to leave us there. Why? Because Jesus knows and loves us better than we know or anyone else knows ourselves. He sees our gifts, our talents and our potential in a way that we can hardly imagine and has a plan and vision for what we can become that really reflects the image of God in us.

So much pressure is placed on people today to define who they are, what their true identity is. Often enough, people assume that what they feel is who they really are or, even worse, what others expect them to be. Unfortunately, this is a very shortsighted way to see ourselves. Feelings can change so often and quickly, especially when clouded by emotionally charged demands and social factors such as peer-group pressure. Jesus never enslaves us, laying burdens upon us to conform to cultural or politically popular expectations. When he promises us the freedom of being “sons and daughters of God,” he is giving us eternal life, which includes not only the world, but heaven tacked on as well.

“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest …” (Mt 11:28).

Yes, the “burden” that Jesus places upon us is much lighter than the loads of our sins that we often cling to and carry on our backs, sometimes even unknowingly. Patterns of cynicism, distrust and prejudice can creep into individuals and social structures that can blind or shorten our sight and stunt our spiritual growth. Perhaps none can be so stifling than the inability or unwillingness to let go of resentment.

Jesus is never resentful. If anyone had a claim on avenging his personal rights that were violated and vindicating his honor, it was he. Pure and innocent, free of sin, he was condemned as a criminal and put to death in the most horrible way imaginable, through crucifixion. If there is one passage in all of scripture that best affirms his divinity, even as his death on the cross exposes his full humanity — Jesus really died, for the Romans were masters of execution! — it is those startling words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).

If we are to be disciples of Jesus, to bear the light “burden” of adopting the mind and heart of Christ, which is to live the Beatitudes which Jesus taught us, we need to do the same. Extending forgiveness to those who have wounded and offended us is certainly not the way of the world. While we each expect this of God and often of one another, it is not something that comes easily for most. Yet it is absolutely essential if we are to have the spiritual wings light enough to carry us on the currents of God’s grace that lift us up from our enslavement to the world.

“Let go and let God” is a motto of the 12-step programs that encourages people caught in addictive patterns to take the step forward that will set them free of past behavior that is holding them down. Each of us must identify and own up to those toxic patterns that inhibit us on our spiritual journey. A review of the Beatitudes, which are the commandments as Jesus taught them, may be a good way to begin an examination of our conscience, to have a better insight into where we are and how we need God’s grace to take the next step.

Jesus stands before each of us to lift us up so we can see our lives beyond the limited horizon of fear, habit and sin, whether they be our own or those that others have inflicted upon us. Our Lord is all about restoration: returning us to our original innocence and setting us free to be who we really are called by God to be: nothing less than human images of divine love and reflectors of the light of God’s goodness. The aura of sanctity is something promised to everyone who wants to be a disciple of Jesus, who only asks us to follow him. Love can never be forced or imposed; it can only be offered and received with gratitude — and divine love yet? What a gift!