I’ve spoken before about the “stages” of faith development – how our initial conviction that “God exists” grows through practice to the realization that God loves us, to the community element of our faith, and finally to the missionary aspect of Christianity. These stages are not always lived or entered into by everyone. In fact, according to those who pay attention to such things – sociologists and religious observers – many Americans remain at a rather superficial level of this development of faith. They’ve even given a name to it. We may have encountered those who are “spiritual but not religious”; these researchers have called that sort of faith “moral therapeutic deism.”
Basically, this “unofficial religion” of American culture holds five main tenets:
1. God exists;
2. He is not terribly involved in my life unless I want Him;
3. God wants us to be good, “nice,” and fair to each other;
4. The main goal of life is to be happy; and
5. Good people go to heaven when they die (there really are no “bad” people).
If we are honest with ourselves, we might find that we are often caught up in this sort of religious experience. In fact, the world would be a rather nice place if everyone could subscribe to such a view, right?
Well, this is not what Jesus is looking for! He even says so today: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!” It’s burning Jesus to see so many people “asleep” in their faith – simply “getting by” with no real commitment to a concrete choice of life and loyalty. He is not looking for people to “get by” – or even to “get along.” Rather, He is looking for disciples; and He knows that this will not be easy, popular, or fun. In fact, it will mean division.
Christian discipleship is a call beyond the bare minimum – beyond coasting along with a mere label. Instead, it is a call to endurance. The sacred author of the Letter to the Hebrews knew this. After outlining a number of models of faith, the author challenges the audience with the example of Christ: “Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.”
In crying out today in the Gospel, Jesus is calling to you and me. We are supposed to be on fire for our faith as well – not just tacitly acknowledging that God exists or that we are supposed to be “nice” to other. We are called to be part of the “cloud of witnesses.” Like that French priest, Fr. Jacques Hamel, who was murdered by extremists while he celebrated Mass, we need to be prepared to offer our own witness to Christ – even when it is difficult – especially when it is difficult. This is the hardship of following Jesus – the cost of discipleship.
If we can move from the numb “moral therapeutic deism” of our culture to an awareness that God loves us personally – so much so that He gave His only Son as a sacrifice for our sins and opened heaven to those who walk as He did – then we begin the road of discipleship. This personal love demands a response; it cannot go unheeded or ignored. Jesus, in speaking as He does today, is demanding our response to Him; He is calling us to make a choice.
That choice is this: Does Jesus make a difference in your life or not? Are you ready to commit to a life of discipleship or to live as if God has no connection to us? Do we want to be on fire with the life that Jesus brings, or are we content to fizzle out in a culture that simply would rather us be silent and conform?
Personal love sets others on fire – it lets them know that the love is real. Jesus calls us today to shake off the sleepy conformity to a culture that would rather not hear about Him and to speak boldly about Him and our relationship with Him. Our faith is no sleepy matter. It is a flame that is set within us and must spread if it is to be of any value. Let the fire of Jesus’ love touch you again today; and let that fire spread wherever you go this week!