Nothing in life is free. Some things might be free to us, but someone has to pay the cost. The same is also true of relationships. Every relationship costs something. When a man and woman promise to be faithful to each other forever in marriage, they forsake all others in order to cling to their spouse. The others whom they forsake are part of the cost of marriage. They promise to sacrifice their own material comfort in order to welcome children into the world generously and to make their children a higher priority than themselves. Friendship too has a cost. If you want to develop a friendship with someone, you have to give up time that could be spent with someone else, or time that could be spend browsing social media or binge-watching Netflix or YouTube videos. Everything has a cost.
Why did God make things this way? Why do we have to be so limited? Why don’t we have an infinite amount of possibilities to do all of the good things that we would like to do? Simply, when there is no cost, we do not usually appreciate what we have.
Our relationship with Christ is no different. This is why He encourages us today to count the cost of our discipleship. He even tells us, “anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.” All our possessions? Really? We have to get rid of it all?
First, let’s recall that Christ does call some people to follow this command literally through the pow of poverty taken by male and female religious (sisters, brothers, monks, and nuns). These men and women, who have no material possessions of their own, live the Gospel radically through the evangelical counsel of poverty. There is a perfection to their way of live that most of us have not been called to embrace.
Why, then, would God not call all of us to live this commandment literally and so follow Him more perfectly through literal poverty (that is, the renunciation of all material possessions)? God is a master gardener, and we are the plants of his garden. A garden with a variety of plants is more beautiful than a garden of pure roses. If the garden consists simply in a large number of the most beautiful of flowers, it will actually be less beautiful than a well-balanced garden that has shrubberies, ground cover, and a variety of flowers. Each of these plants must live up to its own potential, must be as beautiful as it is possible for it to be, and then the garden can become the most beautiful garden possible.
Likewise, each one of us is very different and has a different vocation. But nevertheless, each of us is called to excel at the mission given to each one of us by the Lord. Renouncing all of one’s possessions for those called to the vow of poverty in the religious life means a literal lack of any ownership of material goods. For those of us who must live in the world, though, renunciation of all our possessions means something different. It means that we renounce anything that would come between us and God.
So think about this: What would you not be willing to part with if it came between you and true friendship with Christ? If you tended to stay up to late on Saturday nights watching TV or Netflix, and thus didn’t get to Holy Mass on Sunday morning, would you be willing to give up your shows? If your smartphone tempted you to commit sins of impurity or gossip or calumny, would you be willing to give up your smartphone? If your job placed such unreasonable demands on you as to prevent you from being a good mother or father, would you give up your job?
All of us need to count the cost of discipleship. If you have never given anything up in order to follow Christ, if your life is not different because of Him, can you really claim to be His disciple? A man who does not forsake all other women is not really married. A friend who does not show loyalty to his friends at the risk of displeasing others is not really a friend. And a disciple who does not count the cost is not really a disciple.
Our Lord wants us to count the cost of discipleship so that we might follow him freely. We hear St. Paul writing to his friend Philemon today: “But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary.” Just as Paul does not want to pressure his friend into releasing his slave from his service, but wants Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother rather than a slave out of love, so too does Christ want us freely to choose to be His disciples. When the Jews in the synagogue at Capernaum rejected Christ’s teaching that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood, He allowed them to walk away, because He knew that faith must be free, not forced.
Counting the cost can be scary. It means looking at our lives and seeing what we’d be willing to do without. It means honestly assessing where we are in our relationship with Christ. It might mean discovering that we are not as far along as we thought. But when you count the cost of being Christ’s disciple and freely choose to follow Him, renouncing all other things that could keep you from Him, incredible things will happen in your life.
We can see the power of counting the cost in the life of St. Edmund Campion. Campion was a brilliant young man who was admitted to Oxford University – the most prestigious academic university in the world – at age 15 in 1555. By the age of 28, he was a professor at Oxford. He even attracted the attention of Queen Elizabeth I as he became known as the brightest young star in all of England. The Church in England was in the process of breaking away from Rome and would soon see violent persecutions of Catholics. Campion chose loyalty to Queen over the Faith, and was ordained as an Anglican deacon.
However, it was not long before he realized that he was wrong, that the King or Queen could never have final authority over God’s Church. He escaped to France in order to continue studying for the priesthood, and walked barefoot to Rome to enter the newly-formed society of Jesus, the Jesuits. He was chosen for the Jesuit mission to England to bring wavering Catholics back to the true faith.
But there was a catch. Being caught as a Catholic priest in Elizabethan England, and especially as a Jesuit, meant almost certain torture and death. Years before, Campion had received a vision in which the Blessed Mother foretold his future martyrdom. He had also been present for the execution of one of the first martyrs killed for the Catholic faith by the English Protestants, John Storey. He was ready to count the cost. He landed in London and immediately set about not only encouraging and strengthening Catholics who were hesitating about the Faith because of government persecution, but even winning back Protestant Anglicans to the true fold.
It was not long before Campion was betrayed and turned over to prison. He was lead, though, to the house of a leading nobleman, where Queen Elizabeth herself pleaded with Campion to denounce the Catholic Church and swear allegiance to her instead. He would not. He requested the opportunity to prove himself, and without any chance to prepare his defense, without notes or resources, disputed for four hours with the Anglican clergy before many witnesses, and despite having no time for preparation, and being deprived of sleep, malnourished and dehydrated, won numerous men back to the Faith. Unable to defeat him on theological grounds, he was labeled a traitor to England and hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Campion was willing to count the cost, but he also knew to count the benefits of following Christ. He knew that giving up his own life in this world would win him a glorious reward in the next. He also knew that the souls in England who were falling away from the truth of Christ’s Church were in need of his help. It was not in vain. At his execution, a young man named Henry Walpole was standing by, and his white shirt became stained with Campion’s blood. Impressed by Campion’s courage, he too eventually became a Catholic, a Jesuit, and a martyr. Countless others were inspired by Campion and his brothers and conversions to the Catholic faith became abundant, even in the midst of brutal persecution. Many other learned to count the cost of discipleship and follow the Lord.
Edmund Campion could have had anything he wanted in this world. He was the greatest intellectual star of England (and before sports and Hollywood, that was a really big deal). He had power and prestige, and would have received numerous royal privileges and wealth. The Queen of England herself, one of the most powerful people in the world, begged him to turn his back on Christ’s Church. But he would not. He had counted the cost – and the reward! – and there was no turning back.
On his own, Edmund Campion would never have desired so great a destiny as martyrdom. Something, though, stirred within him. Something called out to his heart to make him desire something better out of life than an Oxford professorship, a seat in the House of Lords, or money and fame. We heard from the Book of Wisdom today, “Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.”
God Himself spoke to Campion, moved in his heart through the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit is moving inside of you today. He lives in you because of your Baptism and Confirmation. He wants to call you to something greater. Just as God had an incredible mission for St. Edmund Campion, a mission that brought him far greater joy than the world could offer both in this life and the next, so too does God have a mission for you. He wants you to count the cost of following Him and to choose freely to become His disciple.
Ask God to show you what is holding you back. Ask Him to show you what you have yet to renounce in order truly to be a disciple. And then ask Him for the grace that you need to let go of everything that is preventing you from giving your whole life over to Him. Count the cost – it will be worth it.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Sunday XXIII through the Year, A.D. MMXIX