Charismatic Conference – August 4, 2018
Feast of Saint John Vianney 

Today’s gospel presents us with a rather sobering story that may seem strangely out of place in a gathering like what we experience during these days of praise and thanksgiving.

Our attention in hearing this passage is likely focused upon John the Baptist and the unsettling and rather cavalier manner in which King Herod responds to the unbelievable request of Herodias and her daughter.  As a token of appreciation for the delightful dance performance of the young woman, Herod swears to “give her whatever she asks for.”  At the coaxing of her mother, she requests the “head of John the Baptist.”  Yet, as outrageous as the request and its consequences may have been, we ought not lose sight of the context for this scripture passage.

Herod is actually reflecting upon Jesus and the impact that he is having upon many of the people who reside in the territory over which he rules.  He wonders if this rabbi from Nazareth – this healer and worker of wonders – is actually John the Baptist, come back to life.  …  Herod’s musing about Jesus, his concern about Jesus’ relationship with the people whom Herod was oppressing, and his peculiar conclusions about Jesus’ relationship with John all lead to a flashback about how John died.

A major theme, then, in Saint Matthew’s story of John’s death is its function as a preview of Jesus’ eventual death.  Both John and Jesus are eventually rejected by political rulers and executed without cause and without legal formality being observed.  …  The task of burying each is left to their followers.  …  As John went, so Jesus will go.  …  And for many of the earliest Christians who would face opposition for their beliefs, the example given by John and Jesus would have been quite sobering.

In short, the fate of faithful prophets and their disciples who proclaimed the reign of God is well known and, more often than not, tragic.  …  Their stories begin long before John and Jesus, taking us back to Jeremiah, who speaks in our first reading today of the plots of many who sought to take his life in response to the truth that he proclaimed.  …  And their stories reach forward from the time of Jesus, through the centuries and into our very own day and age, don’t they?

I’d suggest, my sisters and brothers, that the stories of faithful prophets and their followers continue to be proclaimed whenever individuals exhibit a personal courage that leads them to be faithful to principles rooted in the truth of the Gospel message.  Such courage and fidelity is what we refer to as the cost of discipleship!

And we all would like to believe that we are willing to embrace that cost of discipleship and pay the price for the life and resurrection, the love and mercy that Jesus pours into our hearts, wouldn’t we?  …  But sometimes – even for the best of us – it’s not that easy, is it?  …  You know every bit as well as I, that while it takes little effort to proclaim who we are as a people in this great auditorium, it’s quite another thing to assert all that we believe and hold true when we leave through its doors.

Let’s be honest about it.  If I challenged us to stand up for our beliefs in Jesus right now, we’d all be on our feet, wouldn’t we?  But far too often, our human frailties can get the better of us and cause our legs to get weak and prevent us from standing up for what we believe.  …  We all want to be like Jeremiah – and John the Baptist – and ultimately Jesus – giving of our lives in a selfless manner to care for the burdened, to respect each and every life as made in God’s image and likeness, and to both proclaim and live lives of justice, mercy and peace.  …  But sometimes we get in the way, don’t we?  …  Don’t we?!

Not sure about that?  …  None of us want to sidestep the gospel mandate to follow in the footsteps of our Savior – but sometimes we do.  …  Still not sure?  …  Take a look at some of the “heroes” of our Christian faith.  …  Let’s start with Peter, who, as Jesus was walking to his death, denied knowing him, not once but three times.  …  And then there were James and John, two of Jesus’ closest followers.  All they were concerned about was whether they could have places of honor when Jesus came into his Kingdom.  And then they didn’t even have the courage to ask for this outrageous request.  Instead, do you recall what they did?  They got their mother to talk to Jesus about her sons.  …  And we could go on and on about faithful disciples who missed the mark and got in the way of all that Jesus has called us to embrace as his followers.

The context for responding to Jesus’ call to discipleship is ever so human.  The disciples – even the likes of Jeremiah and John the Baptist – didn’t always understand.  …  We’re no different.

We are called by Jesus to walk in his footsteps and to embrace the reality of the cross – just as he did – in order to serve those souls entrusted to our care – but sometimes WE get in the way.  …  Why do we get in the way?  …  I’ll tell you.  …  Intimately linked to the price – the cost of discipleship – is the realization, as St. Paul so often reminds us, that we, who are commissioned by the Lord, are indeed given a treasure – but one that we carry around in earthen vessels – these fragile, imperfect and often sinful shells that house our souls!

The fact that we know our shortcomings and frailties, however, doesn’t mean that we lack the Spirit in our hearts.  …  To the contrary, the ever present recognition of our limitations reminds us that any good that we do comes from the power of God – and not merely our grit and determination.

So, how do we mover forward?  …  The great Lutheran minister, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, in his seminal work, The Cost of Discipleship, offered these thoughts that speak to all of us, as we seek to balance the tension between a very human desire to live for ourselves with the gospel challenge to live for Christ.  …  Authentic discipleship is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us. Once more, all that self-denial can say is: “He leads the way, keep close to him.”  …  “He leads the way, keep close to him.” 

And how do we best keep close to the Lord?  …  Take a look at all that is being offered to you during these days:  opportunities for prayer – teachings on the Word of God and the life of the Spirit in Church – fellowship with brothers and sisters who remind us always that where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst – and the sacramental life of the Church, found particularly in the Sacrament of Penance, where we are given a way forward through the forgiveness of our sins, and of course, the Eucharist in and through which we are united with the very life of Jesus.

But there’s something else that keeps us close to Jesus, my friends – something else that, when present, assures us that we are on the way to living as Jesus calls us to live – that we are willing to pay the price for what it means to be authentic disciples.  …  Do you know what it is?  …  Let me give you a clue.


Do you recall the words of Pope Francis during his inaugural Mass, when he challenged us to see authentic power in the Church as being rooted in Jesus’ example of service of our sisters and brothers?  …  Those words mirror Jesus invitation to his disciples and to each of us.  …  Serve.  …  Give of your lives selflessly as Jesus did, if you seek to be his followers.

In his recent exhortation Gaudete et exultate – on the call to holiness in today’s world – Pope Francis reflects upon who and what we are called to be as disciples of Jesus.  Listen to his words,

To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious.  We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer.  That is not the case.  We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.  Are you called to the consecrated life?  Be holy by living out your commitment with joy.  Are you married?  Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church.  Do you work for a living?  Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters.  Are you a parent or grandparent?  Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus.  Are you in a position of authority?  Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.  …  Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness.  Let everything be open to God; turn to him in every situation.  Do not be dismayed, for you can do this in the power of the Holy Spirit, and holiness, in the end, is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life. 

So, my sisters and brothers, if we are wise enough to recognize the grace found within those words and embrace their challenge despite ourselves  …  and if we are humble enough to acknowledge other words of Saint Paul, where we willingly boast of our weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest upon us  …  we will surely find the way that the Lord has placed before us as his disciples.