What does it mean to be a disciple? This is the question that today’s Scripture readings invite us to ponder.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we see Paul and Barnabas as partners on mission: men on the move, traveling widely to spread the Gospel. Apprenticed to the very person of Jesus, they are committed to a way of life. From this narrative, we learn that being a disciple means telling the sacred story, encouraging each other, appointing leaders, and gathering as a community in prayer and fasting.
Paul and Barnabas did not sugarcoat this calling to follow Jesus. Instead, they named the reality of hardship and struggle, ever-present in the face of resistance and danger. How are WE, as followers of Christ, urged to persevere, to stay the course, not only in encountering outward resistance, but when wrestling with the resistance in our own hearts?
The vision of John in the Book of Revelation is a message of great hope and assurance for discipleship: we are not alone. God dwells with us, accompanies us. The Holy One, who wipes away every tear, transforms suffering and discouragement, and indeed, makes all things new.
God’s Creation did not happen only once in the beginning, to remain static for all time. Rather, God is creating here and now, continually, in an ongoing way. We need only look to the seasons of nature to see this ever-changing creative activity.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is offering his last will and testament; a scene that falls between the sharing of the Last Supper and footwashing, and the betrayal and arrest of Jesus. Knowing that his time is short, Jesus tenderly addresses the disciples as “My children.” He voices the one thing that was most important for them to hold onto, saying, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.”
Loving one’s neighbor was not new to these faithful Jews. What was new, was that this instruction was on the lips of Jesus, and he made it very personal, saying: “As I have loved you, so you should also love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” He was lifting up his own time on earth as their model for discipleship.
How had he loved them? This carpenter from Nazareth healed the sick, the blind, and the lame. He shared table fellowship with the hated tax collectors, and he forgave sinners. He fed the multitude, grieved with mourners, and raised the dead. He reached out to the least and the lost, and welcomed all with open arms. In the supreme act of servant love, he cradled and washed their dusty feet, and he sacrificed his life on the Cross, for them and for us.
What does it mean to be a disciple? When my mother died, a friend wrote, “You will keep her memory alive by living into her virtues.” It was the most consoling, and yet the most challenging thing anyone could have said. It was consoling because my mother had been a person of great virtue, and here was a concrete way to hold onto her legacy.
I could do the things she did, support the causes she held dear, but living into her virtues required more. It required me to be in a new way. It required me to live with greater intentionality, to live into the purity of my mother’s generous, Christ-like love. She received all without judgment, and this was mine to live into. Mom was the one who could forgive anything and ask for forgiveness. She was the one who reached out to those who were sidelined on the margins, and the one who lived social and religious tolerance from the core of her being. As she did, so must I.
What does it mean to be a disciple? It means that we must love one another with all that we are, because how we live into the love of Jesus is what defines us as his own. As receivers of that redemptive love, we are called to embody the love of Christ: to become a community of healing mercy, kindness, inclusion, compassion, and forgiveness.
Being a disciple means that we hold Jesus and each other close. It means that we hold, with confident trust, the truth that God can and does and will make all things new.
Melinda Brown Donovan
Since 1995, Melinda has worked in faith formation and parish ministry. Raised in the Presbyterian tradition, she chose to become Catholic as a young adult. Melinda holds an MA in Pastoral Ministry, with a concentration in Religious Education, as well as post-graduate certificates in Ecclesial Ministry and Spiritual Formation, all from Boston College. For ten years she served in various parish ministry positions within the Archdiocese of Boston, and began working for Boston College in 2006. Currently, she serves the School of Theology and Ministry (STM) as Associate Director for Continuing Education, coordinating a robust roster of on-campus events on current topics of theology and ministry, and working with non-credit online faith enrichment courses for STM Online: Crossroads. For many years, Melinda has worked as a practicum supervisor for Boston College’s Post-Master’s Certificate in Spiritual Formation, and as a spiritual director she has accompanied women and men for the past 17 years. A native of Colorado, Melinda and her husband are longtime residents of Massachusetts, and the parents of three adult children and three grandchildren.
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