It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ [Jesus]. (Philippians 3:12)
As Christians, we are in possession of the greatest “story” in the world. In fact, it is the one and true story of the world. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the great story, the adventure that all other adventures point to or derive from.
Too often we box our faith into a religious category. We think about our faith as defining our “religious identity” and quarantine it from the rest of life. But being a Christian—being a disciple of Jesus—is much more than a religious identity; it is much more than a set of beliefs, liturgical practices, or moral convictions (though these are essential). Becoming a Christian means recognizing that Jesus Christ defines the story of the whole world.
When we become followers of Jesus, we are drawn into the true story that encompasses all other stories. There are no half measures here. The call to discipleship makes a claim on our whole lives, not just the “religious” part.
Consider the first followers of Jesus as we meet them in the pages of the Gospels—Peter, Andrew, James, and John. When they encountered Jesus, their lives were turned completely upside down. Becoming Jesus’ disciple was not just a matter of taking on a new moral code or reading a certain holy book or attending a set of religious services. For these first disciples, it meant reshaping their whole lives around this person they had encountered. It meant becoming part of a new community of people. Nothing was the same.
Here we need to be credible witnesses ourselves. All aspects of our lives—marriage, family, job, career, recreation, possessions, friendships—need to be configured around the person and teaching of Jesus. We don’t have to do everything perfectly—no one does that. But if we seek to live this way—to configure all our “loves” around Christ—then our words will carry impact. We can’t call people into a life of discipleship if we are not living this life ourselves.
When we call people to follow Jesus with their whole lives—with nothing held back—many respond with genuine faith, zeal, and joy. We see this happening powerfully among the generational cohort called millennials. Of course, it is not our words that persuade them: it is the power of Christ’s own words and his call that reaches their hearts.
When people make a full response by offering their whole lives to Christ, a paradigm shift occurs. They move from thinking about Jesus and religion in terms of something they do, on their own terms, to seeing themselves caught up by Jesus into a great adventure not of their own making. The terms change. I am no longer crafting my own religious identity; I have been claimed and called by another. My will is still fully involved, but I am no longer in charge of the process. Now my task is to respond (or not) to the call of Jesus with all that this implies.
People have a desire, a hunger even, to be caught up in a truly meaningful narrative. They sense that their lives have meaning, and they grope to find what this purpose might be. If and when they sadly conclude that their lives have no clear meaning, they lose heart and meander into activities that distract them or that hide the apparent meaninglessness of their existence.
Why are modern audiences entranced by superhero movies? Why was a whole generation of young people mesmerized by Harry Potter and his momentous struggle against a dark and powerful foe?
In these stories there is abundant adventure and excitement, but even more, there is a purpose and a reason for struggling and fighting for what is right. Something big is at stake—usually the ongoing existence of the free world! How the characters respond makes a huge difference. All of us have a natural hunger to find a meaningful narrative that guides us through the challenges of life.
But a steady diet of superhero movies will not give purpose to our lives. Reading about Harry Potter defeating Lord Voldemort or about Frodo and Sam struggling to defeat Sauron cannot give meaning to our own existence. These adventures can stir our imagination and implant a desire for a noble life, but they can’t give actual purpose to our lives.
Only the gospel of Jesus Christ—and this alone—offers a narrative that we can truly enter and there find meaning for our lives. When we recognize that we have been caught up in the great narrative of the gospel—that it has come knocking at our door—we grasp our faith in a new way. If we open the door, we can set out on a path of lifelong discipleship.
There is no precise map for the path of discipleship, no trail that is the same for all. Each of us will walk a unique road—led by the Spirit, led by the providential hand of our Father in heaven.
We know that discipleship is meant to be lifelong: we never stop growing as disciples, never stop walking on the track marked out for us. The apostle Paul speaks to this: “It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ [Jesus]” (Philippians 3:12).
We too are called to “press on” to the end of our course. There is no exact blueprint, but when we are walking a path and come to a crossroads, we have a decision to make. Which way will I take from here? What is the best route to get me to my destination? Should I continue straight on or turn to the right or the left? Or should I turn back and return by the way I came?
We can’t avoid discipleship crossroads. We have to face them and pray for the grace to continue on the path of costly discipleship.
This is an excerpt from Called to Christian Joy and Maturity by Gordon C. DeMarais and Daniel A. Keating (The Word Among Us Press, 2021), available at www.wau.org/books.