November 16 is the feast day of Saint Matthew, the evangelist. On this day, I call to mind another great saint, Antony of Egypt. At the end of his life, Antony is reported to have said to his disciples: “Live as though you were dying every day. Pay attention to yourselves and remember what I taught you.”
“Live as though you were dying every day.” It means, live with constant awareness of your mortality. This is not morbid advice, it’s an encouragement to appreciate the preciousness of every moment; live with an intense awareness of the present moment. This is how Jesus lived – and this is why he was always aware of who was around him and who needed his help. He saw where others didn’t see! He saw things clearly— unhindered by the clinging, egoistic mind. He saw the widow who was about to bury her only son. He “saw” the woman who touched his garment and was healed. And he saw Matthew, and what Matthew needed to do. “Follow me,” he told Matthew in our Gospel reading today, and Matthew immediately followed (Matthew 9:9).
At around eighteen or twenty years of age, Antony heard a text from the Gospel being read aloud: “If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give it to the poor… and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Antony felt the power of the words as if it had been spoken to him directly. Immediately, he got up and sold his possessions. He kept something to provide for his sister, and gave everything else to the poor. But this encounter with the Gospel did not free Antony entirely from his attachment to his former life. He heard another Gospel passage: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34). These Gospel words broke his resistance and freed him from all attachments. He left his old life forever and embarked on a journey that would take him deep into the heart of the desert, and deep into spiritual union with God.
“Come, follow me” means more than going with Jesus. It means learning from him, becoming like him; it means simplicity of life and being, cultivating silence in one’s inner life, withdrawal from busyness to engage God in prayer – and one doesn’t have to go into a desert or live alone in the forest or on a mountaintop to experience this inner peace and simplicity. One can have it right here, in the midst of life in Portland.
Following Jesus means taking over from him after the end of his life on earth. That’s what Matthew did, that’s what anyone who follows Jesus does! It means Jesus never being absent from the world – because there are always those who follow him; who represent him; who do or speak what he would do or say. Or, are there?
You see, the part that most followers of Jesus forget or intentionally ignore is that there is a price to pay. For most of us the price is not going to be the price Antony or Matthew paid. It might be losing the friendship of someone, it could be losing the love of a family member or even a spouse or parent. It could be giving up a good chunk of your income or savings. It could mean losing your job because you expose dishonesty or illegal practice. It could mean you’re arrested or imprisoned because you choose to work for peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers” is one of the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus (Matthew 5:9)
Flying back from Greece last Friday I had one of the most intense encounters I’ve ever had in my life. I sat next to a man whom I’ll call Jake, in obedience to his own wishes should I talk about him in a sermon. Jake works for the UN and had much to say about that organization and his own struggles with his work and personal life. When he found out I was a priest, the encounter turned into a confession of sorts – all right there on a Boeing 747. He had a window seat and I an aisle seat, and there was an empty seat between us, and that empty seat became a confessional. After a couple of hours of intense conversation and tears, he told me he would be leaving later in the week on a mission to West Africa, to be with UN teams working on the Ebola virus. I asked him if he was scared, and, in a tearful voice that I hope never to forget, he answered Yes. He was scared. And that was the turning point in our conversation.
We are all scared, in one way or other. But if Jesus has given you a deed to accomplish while following him, you press on despite your fears. And that’s what Jake was doing. He was a man of faith, a Christian. And he was scared about what he would be doing over the next several months and what dangers he might face. But he was flying to New York to receive his instructions from the bureaucrats at the UN. It is a blessing to be scared for the sake of something like that.
Inspired by my encounter with Jake and as I meditated upon the fear that I saw in him, I want to add another Beatitude to the ones that Jesus spoke in chapter 5 of Matthew. I want to say, “BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO ARE AFRAID WHILE FOLLOWING JESUS, FOR THEY SHALL NEVER LOSE THEIR WAY.” May you and I be blessed when we’re afraid on the road with Jesus.