Editor’s note — Bishop Paprocki’s column is condensed from his homily given at the Prayer Service for the Opening of the Preliminary Phase of our Diocesan Synod. The full text is available at www.dio.org/bishop/speeches-and-homilies.html.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
One of my favorite movies is Shadowlands, the 1993 film about the British author and Oxford University scholar C.S. Lewis, starring one of my favorite actors, Anthony Hopkins, who played the part of Lewis. After I saw that movie for the first time in the theater, I rented the video and did something that I had never done before and have never done since: I watched the video in my living room with a note pad and jotted down quotes from the profound theological insights that were being spoken by the character of Lewis in the movie, which was based on his real life experiences dealing with the terminal illness of his wife Joy, who was dying of cancer.
Lewis was not always a Christian. Although he was baptized as an infant, as a young adult he lived as an atheist for several years before embracing the practice of Christianity at the age of 32 largely through the influence of his fellow novelist and Oxford University colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings.
During the Second World War, Lewis gave a series of radio talks on BBC, which he eventually developed into a theological book called Mere Christianity, in which he intended to describe the common ground of faith shared by the various Christian Churches and denominations, aiming to explain the fundamental teachings of Christianity.
There are several passages of that book that are good for us to consider as we begin the preliminary phase of the diocesan synod. In the first passage that I would like to quote, Lewis asks if it is not true that the popular idea of Christianity is simply this: “that Jesus Christ was a great moral teacher and if only we took his advice we might be able to establish a better social order and avoid another war? Now, mind you, that is quite true. But it tells you much less about the whole truth of Christianity and it has no practical importance at all. … If Christianity means only one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the past four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference. But as soon as you look at any real Christian writings, you find that they are talking about something quite different from the popular religion. … Christianity seems to be telling us about another world, about something behind the world that we can touch and see. ... Now the whole point of Christianity which gives us the greatest shock is the statement that by attaching ourselves to Christ, we can become ‘sons of God.’”
Lewis is emphasizing that the goal of Christianity is not just to make us nice people who are very nice to each other. Rather, we are called to become something or someone entirely new, entirely different.
The diocesan synod that we will be celebrating this year will not only be historic; it will also be life-changing. It will be historic because this will be our diocese’s first synod in over half a century, and only the fourth in the 164-year history of our diocese. It will be life-changing because our diocese will be asked to become something new and we as individuals will be asked to become someone new, not ruptured from the past, but growing organically from what we were to what we are called to be, as a caterpillar becomes a butterfly and the contents of an egg become a full-grown bird flying aloft.
This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, which is the main theme of what our diocesan synod will be looking at and discussing during this year in the months ahead. When Jesus invited a rich young man to be his disciple, Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matt. 19:21). That might initially sound attractive, but when we start to think about what we currently have and do not yet know what Christ’s promise holds in store for us, it is not surprising that a common and natural reaction is resistance. In fact, the very next verse from St. Matthew’s Gospel says, “When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions” (Matt. 19:22).
The process of becoming a true disciple of Jesus Christ is a surrender of oneself to the higher power of God. Why should anyone do so? Because as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9), and the essence of being saved is a life far better than we could ever imagine, and that new life will last forever. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).
When we finally understand this true meaning of discipleship, we can see the connection between discipleship and what we call stewardship, that is, the discovery that we are mere stewards or custodians of God’s creation.
After the Disciples had spent some time with each other and presumably gotten to know each other better, Jesus asked them a key question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). This is the question that Jesus asks of every one of his disciples, including us. St. Peter answered on behalf of all of the disciples, not just those who were with him at the time, but also for all of us as well: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). But that answer was not immediately obvious to people then, nor is it immediately obvious to people today. Being a true disciple of Jesus Christ does not happen until a person believes, as St. Peter did, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. However, coming to that realization and belief takes time, so we should not expect people who are unfamiliar with Jesus to come to that conclusion very quickly.
In our efforts to call people to discipleship, we should follow the example of Jesus and the Apostles. In the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel, two Disciples followed Jesus and asked him, “Where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come, and you will see” (John 1:39). Still in the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel, just a few verses later, Jesus says to Philip, “Follow me.” Philip then finds Nathanael and tells him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” But Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see” (John 1:43-46).
To anyone who is wondering what our diocesan synod is all about or what to expect, I would give the same answer given by Jesus and his Apostles: “Come and see.”
May God give us this grace. Amen.