Preaching in 3-D

When watching a film in 3-D, today’s movie-goers must wear a special set of glasses that gives perspective and depth to their viewing experience and, as a result, makes what they see seem much more realistic. If they take those glasses off, their eyes revert back to the hum-drum world of two-dimensional film, and their movie experience is substantially diminished. In a similar way, today’s preachers are called to view their ministry through a particular set of lenses that bring out the depth and underlying purpose of what they are doing and makes their preaching much more effective.

To preach in “3-D” today means to emphasize: (1) following Christ — Discipleship, (2) submitting to Christ’s teachings — Discipline, and (3) implementing Christ’s teachings in everyday life — Decision). When preaching about the Christian moral life, today’s preachers must remind their listeners of these three underlying challenges: Discipleship, Discipline and Decision.

Discipleship

Christianity is all about the call to discipleship, the sequela Christi. When Jesus began his public life, His first action was to gather around him a group of followers: “Follow me,” He said to Simon and his brother Andrew and to James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John, “and I will make you fishers of men” (Mk 1:16-20). When they heard this call, they immediately dropped their nets and followed Him.

When preaching the moral life, it is important to impress upon our listeners that Jesus continues to gather disciples and call them to follow him. This means dropping everything, sometimes even those things we value most and which pertain to our lifestyle and livelihood. It means letting go of all that is familiar and trusting our lives and livelihoods to Jesus.

We must impress upon our listeners that the call to discipleship is not some quaint Gospel story, but an urgent call to change our hearts, our way of thinking and our way of life. We need to challenge our listeners with Jesus’ call to discipleship. We need to ask them to ask themselves if they truly consider themselves disciples of Christ.

There is an old saying that asks, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Well, would there be? That is a fair question. Preachers need to challenge their hearers in this way.

For Catholics, following Christ today means recognizing His ongoing presence in His Mystical Body, the Church, which has been authorized by Christ and inspired by His Spirit to continue His preaching and teaching ministry in the world today. This means not only listening to the Church leaders in their teaching regarding faith and morals, but also embracing a particular view about our basic human makeup, that is to say a Christian anthropology that respects the dignity of life, the complementary nature of the sexes, a notion of freedom tied to objective truth rather than the subjective and relativistic whims of the individual, and an understanding that what we do in this life shapes our character, our very souls, and has an impact on our eternal destiny.

In short, being a disciple of Christ today means listening to and following our Church’s official teachings and embracing a particular understanding of what it means to be human and to act deliberately and freely as a human being in the world today. Needless to say, all this requires discipline.

Discipline

The word “discipline” is closely related to the words “disciple” and “discipleship.” They come from the same Latin root, disciplina, meaning “instruction” or teaching.” A “disciple” is someone who follows a particular “instruction” or “teaching,” a particular “discipline” which comes from an experienced teacher or master.

A Christian disciple is someone who follows the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is someone who seeks to follow Him by walking in His footsteps. This does not mean a blind imitation of the way Jesus lived some 2,000 years ago, but as St. Paul tells the Church in Colossae, a stripping off of the old self and a putting on of the new (Col 3:9-10).

It means clothing oneself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. It means bearing with and forgiving one another just as the Lord Jesus has forgiven us. Above all, it means clothing oneself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony so that the peace of Christ might rule in one’s heart (Col 3:12-15).

The early Christians were called “followers of the Way” (Acts 9:2). As preachers, we need to ask our listeners if they have remained faithful followers of the Way, or if they have somehow lost their way and, if so, how they can find their way back.

The early third-century writer Tertullian once said “the seed of the Church is the blood of the martyrs” (Apologeticum, Chap. 50). The word “martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness.” Many of the early Christians gave witness to the truth of Jesus Christ and were willing to die for their faith rather than worship false gods. When the age of persecution came to an end, a new kind of martyrdom arose in the life of Christian asceticism as embraced by the desert fathers and the early monastic movement.

Today, Christians give witness by following the way of Jesus Christ as expressed in the concrete demands of the moral life. This is no easy path. As Jesus himself reminds us, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Mt 7:13-14).

The discipline of Christian discipleship means following our Lord and Master Jesus Christ. We do this by training our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our very souls to follow His teaching in the nitty-gritty decisions of daily life. St. Paul reminds us that athletes exercise self-control in the hope of winning a crown that will one day fade. Christians, in turn, are called to do it in order to win one that will never fade (1 Cor 9:25).

Decision

We make decisions every day, some weighty and others very light. These choices tell us a lot about ourselves. They reveal who we are, what we are passionate about, what we like and dislike. They also tell us something about our attitudes toward life and death, the here-and-now and the hereafter, our notions of the secular and the sacred, and the meaning we place on existence itself.

In the final analysis, our daily decisions either matter or they don’t. They shape who we are or they are accidental to our human makeup. Catholics believe that our actions both flow from our being and then go back to help shape it. We believe they have an impact not only the world outside of us, but also on the world within us. They leave a permanent imprint on our souls.

Our actions are expressions of our selves that either move us along the Way of the Lord Jesus or away from it. Our actions either flow from our human nature or they do not. They lead us either along the narrow way that leads to life or along the broad path that leads to destruction.

How do we know where our actions will lead us? It is important for us to know that the Way of the Lord Jesus is imprinted in our hearts in the natural law and revealed to us in divine law. These laws are clear and incontestable. We do not make them up as we go along. They are given to us by God, and God helps us to interpret them through the gift of conscience, through the teaching of the Church and through the movement of His Holy Spirit in our hearts.

So what must we do? First, we must follow our conscience. Conscience is not a feeling or a passion for a particular point of view, but a practical judgment about the moral truth in a given situation. It confronts the natural law God has inscribed in our hearts and makes a deliberated judgment about its relevance and applicability in a given situation. Because we are weak human beings suffering from ignorance, weakness of will and unruly passions as a result of the Fall, our conscience can be mistaken, even numbed as a result of deeply rooted patterns of sinful behavior.

For this reason, conscience has been given the help of God’s law as revealed in the Scriptures, and of the Church magisterium which, guided by the Holy Spirit, clarifies the moral law through its teachings. In this respect, God’s law and the moral teachings of the Church are not opposed to conscience, but meant to serve it.

As preachers, we need to emphasize the importance of moral decision-making for the discipline of Christian discipleship. We can do so by pointing out that the decisions we make have a permanent effect on our character and help to shape our eternal destiny. For Catholics, the moral life is intimately related to the spiritual life; and the spiritual life to life eternal. To put it bluntly, discipleship means following a discipline or rule of life that involves making concrete decisions in harmony with the Way of the Lord Jesus.

Conclusion

Discipleship. Discipline. Decision. All three are necessary for understanding the Christian moral life. The point of it all is that our lives are not our own, but the Lord’s. We belong not to ourselves, but to the Lord. As the Apostle Paul himself reminds us, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

And as John Paul II reminds us in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor: “Through the moral life, faith becomes ‘confession,’ not only before God but also before men: it becomes witness” (No. 89). And again: “Although martyrdom represents the high point of the witness to moral truth, and one to which relatively few people are called, there is nonetheless a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice” (No. 93).

Such is the cost of discipleship, the cost of following the Way of the Lord Jesus by taking upon ourselves the discipline of discipleship and making manifest our love for the Lord in the concrete decisions of our every day lives. Following the discipline of Christ means seeking to embody in our lives the power of God’s love.

To be effective preachers of the Church’s teaching, we must take the words of John Paul II to heart when he says, “We must not be content merely to warn the faithful about the errors and dangers of certain ethical theories. We must first of all show the inviting splendor of that truth which is Jesus Christ himself” (No. 83).

To put it another way, we must emphasize that Truth is not an idea, or a principle, or an ethical theory, but first and foremost a person, Jesus Christ, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6), and that the moral life is one of the primary ways we can foster and sustain a dynamic, living relationship with that Truth.

Let us always remember to preach the Gospel in “3-D” by placing what we preach in the context of the call to discipleship, by emphasizing the need for living according to the discipline of discipleship, and by highlighting the need for concrete decisions about following the Way of the Lord Jesus in today’s world.

At the same time, let us also be realistic about what we can and cannot do in a single homily or sermon. It is impossible to be comprehensive and to cover all angles of any one subject. All we can do is give our parishioners some insight into how the Church’s teaching reflects the love of the heart of Christ. Let us remember that Our Lord’s deepest longing is to be born within our hearts and that it is His Spirit living within our hearts who empowers us to walk in His footsteps. TP 

FATHER BILLY, C.Ss.R., ordained a Redemptorist priest in 1980, he taught the history of moral theology and Christian spirituality at the Alphonsian Academy of Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University. In 2008 he was installed as the John Cardinal Krol Chair of Moral Theology as a scholar-in-residence at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. He also serves as the Karl Rahner Professor of Catholic Theology at the Graduate Theological Foundation in Mishawaka, Ind. He is the author of numerous books and articles, both popular and scholarly.