During Advent, we pray about our call to be disciples. But what does “discipleship” mean?
One of the most accessible and enjoyable Jesuit writers of the 20th century was a priest named Mark Link. Father Link wrote numerous books, and he’s well known for his short, pithy anecdotes that express truth in a simple way.
In his 1993 book, “Challenge,” Father Link tells the story of two brothers, Clarence and Robert, who had committed their lives to Jesus when they were young. Clarence grew up to become a political activist, Robert an attorney.
“One day Clarence asked Robert for some legal help in a civil rights matter,” writes Father Link. “Robert refused, saying it could hurt his political future.”
What about Robert’s commitment to Jesus?
“Robert said, ‘I do follow Jesus, but I’m not going to get crucified like he was.'”
To which Clarence replied, “Robert, you are not a follower of Jesus; you are only a fan.”
This story gives me pause. Of course I admire Jesus and hope that his teachings make an impact in my life. But am I a disciple? Or merely a fan? Is there a line I won’t cross?
I’ve just read Jon Meacham’s brilliant book about John Lewis, the civil rights activist who died this year at age 80.
In “His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope,” Meacham introduces us to a man who heard Jesus’ invitation from a young age. He was just a little kid when he decided to be a preacher, and his first audience was the chickens he fed daily. When his mom killed one of his congregation for supper, Lewis would refuse to eat.
This childhood experience didn’t lead to vegetarianism, but it did lead to a Baptist seminary after high school, and eventually to what Mother Teresa of Kolkata described in her own life as “a call within a call.”
Lewis entered seminary in 1957, just as the South was still reeling from — and resisting — the school integration decreed by the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Board of Education. Lewis had grown up in an environment of racism — white robed klansmen walked the streets, lynchings stalked the countryside.
He saw the abuse heaped on students brave enough to integrate public schools and made his decision to pursue nonviolent protest against a violent system. He modeled this decision on the Gospel. For him, the Gospel was a social gospel.
When we remember Lewis as a respected member of Congress, where he spent the last years of his life, we forget the many beatings he took. We forget the times he was drug from lunch counters and refused service. We forget the mobs that gathered outside the buses that he and other Freedom Riders rode to integrate travel. We forget the decision Lewis made to board one of those buses after a firebombing destroyed another.
Lewis’ skull was fractured at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Yet his commitment to nonviolence and love was unwavering.
“One test of a saint,” writes Meacham, “is the willingness to suffer and die for others. Which Lewis was willing to do — again and again and again.”
Discipleship calls us to be, somehow, indifferent to our own life, even if it’s just in the small opportunities we have each day to give generously of ourselves.
On Dec. 2, we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the killing of the four Catholic churchwomen in El Salvador, another example of people who were “all in” for Jesus. Remembering their discipleship, and Lewis’, is a good way to honor Advent.