How would you describe a follower of Jesus Christ? Think about this for a moment. What adjectives or phrases would you use to describe someone who deeply loves Christ and who readily follows Him wherever He may lead?
Is it someone who is loving to all people, including one’s enemies? Someone who is kind and gracious in word and deed, and who overlooks the slander of others? Someone who has strong beliefs and has found something worth dying for? Is it someone who has found the “pearl of great price,” a treasure so priceless that they are willing to sell everything they have and to do whatever it takes to obtain this spiritual treasure? Is it someone who finds great joy and sincere meaning in serving others in a sacrificial way, or someone who fears nothing, neither death nor any of the uncertainties that life can bring, and trusts completely in God? Is it someone who places their life in Christ even before their own life, and who will say, as the Virgin Mary did, “Here I am the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your will?” In other words, one who prays every day, “Your will be done, not mine, but Your will be done.” Many of these phrases should describe a follower of Jesus Christ, and this type of witness might even inspire others in the world to at least inquire about who this man Jesus is, and what is this faith called Orthodox Christianity.
Well, in his letter to the Christians in Corinth, which we just heard in the Epistle reading today, the Apostle Paul describes the life of an apostle, the ultimate follower of Christ, in a very different way. He says the apostles are “last of all, sentenced to death, a spectacle to the world, fools for Christ’s sake; we are weak, we are held in disrepute, we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad, buffeted, homeless, we labor working with our own hands, we are the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all.”
Wow! What a horrible description! These are surely NOT words that one would use to try and inspire people to follow Christ. Who would want to become a Christian if they heard that a life in Christ entailed all this suffering?!?
And yet, Saint Paul wasn’t trying to convince people to follow Christ with this description, he simply was stating the reality of what the first apostles faced. Life was difficult and challenging. There were dangers all around them. Many people ridiculed them, rejected them, and even persecuted them. To follow Christ meant that you could be killed for your faith. And truth be told, Saint Paul ended his life by being beheaded. Saint Peter was crucified upside down. And eleven of the twelve disciples died martyric deaths in various ways. Only Saint John the Evangelist lived to an old age, and even he endured exile and persecution.
So why did these men stay faithful followers of Christ? Why would anyone endure the ill treatment that Saint Paul described, and why wouldn’t the early apostles simply deny Christ, reject Jesus as the Son of God, and embrace a life acceptable to society, a life where they could pursue temporal pleasures? And who else would want to become a follower of Jesus if the job description seemed so bleak?
Well, history shows that despite all the dangers, risks and suffering, Christianity not only survived, but continued to grow and grow as more and more people willingly embraced this faith and lifestyle, they accepted a life of self-denial and carrying the Cross. Obviously, there must be something much more to following Christ than only suffering and death. The early Christians discovered a reason, a calling, a purpose, a vision that superseded even the fear of deprivation, suffering, and death.
Maybe it was because the first Christians didn’t see following Christ as a life of misery and suffering and ultimate death. Imagine, after Saint Paul describes the life of an apostle in the way described above, he then goes on to say, “I urge you, imitate me!” In other words, “Follow my way of life and you will discover the meaning and purpose of life!” And he shares his secret that motivates him, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us… Even though the outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (Rom 8:18, 2 Cor 4:16-17)
An authentic life in Christ helps one discover a life of ultimate meaning and purpose. A life of hope and strength. A life of joy and peace. A life of divine love and rich community. A life which takes away any fear and replaces it with an assurance that God is with us, always. A life of eternal glory.
We all must be careful and open our eyes and hearts to realize that our life is not about pursuing comfort and wealth and prestige and power. These are superficial and temporary realities that quickly vanish. These earthly promises are surely enticing and they tempt many to dedicate their lives to pursuing such paths of comfort, wealth, prestige, and power. In fact, many will do whatever it takes, betraying the divine character that is within us, in pursuit of these earthly goals. Yet, the deepest and richest life is about so much more – it’s about love and integrity, community and fellowship, joy and inner happiness, service and self-denial; it’s about deep and eternal meaning and purpose.
Life is a mystery, yet the people who find true happiness, who find authentic inner peace and contentment, who discover the ultimate meaning and purpose of life are those who are not fooled by the temptations of the world but who do whatever it takes to connect with their Creator, to love their fellow human being, and to follow God’s will. Saint Paul realized, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
A life in Christ offers us a life of transfiguration, a journey of constant renewal, where “we behold the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18)
This is why Saint Paul proclaimed, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil 1:21) In Christ, he says, “I have learned to be content in whatever state I am… for I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:11,13)
There can be no higher calling which gives any greater satisfaction in life than “loving God with all our heart, our soul, our mind and our strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.” The world may not understand us when we try to live an authentic life in Christ – a life where we live for others, serve others, sacrifice for others, love others. The world may not understand, as St. Paul described in today’s epistle, how we respond to the evil of the world – “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to placate.” We offer our lives for God and for others, yet in the process, we discover what the ultimate meaning of life is all about – a life that will bring us contentment and happiness here and now, as well as definitive joy, peace, and love for all eternity.
“Therefore, imitate me,” St. Paul challenges us, “As I imitate Christ.”