In 1519, just over 400 years ago, the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez led a small invasion force of only 700 men from Cuba to Mexico for the purpose of conquering the powerful and blood-thirsty Aztec empire. After establishing a base that eventually became the city of Vera Cruz, Cortez took a radical step: he deliberately set fire to his fleet of eleven ships, demonstrating to his men that there was now no possibility of retreat; they had to advance and conquer, or die (Michael P. Green, 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, p. 71). A sense of commitment is necessary if great or worthwhile things are to be accomplished. The famous 19th century British missionary Dr. David Livingstone devoted his life to spreading the Gospel deep in the jungles of Africa. He was contacted by a mission society in Britain who wrote, “Have you found a good road to where you are? If so, we want to send other men to join you.” Livingstone replied, “If you have men who will come only if there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come even if there is no road at all” (Green, p. 72).
We can choose to take the easy way as we go through life, and many people do that—but it’s not really an option for Christians. Following Jesus involves some degree of sacrifice—and sacrifice is possible if we have the right priorities. In 1978 three Americans lifted off from the state of Maine in a large helium balloon, intending to cross the Atlantic Ocean and arrive in Paris. It took six days to make the crossing, but as they approached the French coast, the balloon began sinking because it had lost most of its buoyancy. It was necessary for the crew to throw overboard not just the weights serving as ballast, but also tape recorders, radios, sleeping bags, chairs, the cooler containing all their food, and most of their water. The balloon finally did finally arrive in Paris—but it never would have reached its destination without these sacrifices (Green, p. 70). The three balloonists were successful because they had the proper priorities and kept their goal firmly in mind. So it must be for us as disciples of Jesus. Truly being citizens of His Kingdom requires a real and lasting commitment on our part—and only if we persevere in following Him is Heaven assured.
Have you ever started some sort of self-improvement project—whether learning a new language, going on a diet, beginning an exercise program, or anything like that—only to give up when it proved to be harder than expected? I think many of us past a certain age can relate to that. Failing to persevere probably isn’t too big a deal in regard to most things—but that certainly isn’t true when it comes to Christian discipleship. St. Paul (Gal 5:1, 13-18) tells us that Christ set us free from sin by dying on the Cross—and so we must not submit again to the yoke of slavery, meaning the false, sinful values of this world. Instead, we must persevere in living a life of grace, even to the point of showing the same degree of commitment demonstrated by the farmer Elisha (1 Kings 19:16, 19-21). When the prophet Elijah called him, he immediately slaughtered his oxen and burned the plowing equipment; because it would be financially impossible to replace these things, he proved his willingness to leave forever his former way of life in the service of God. In the Gospel of Luke (9:51-62), Our Lord warned potential disciples that following Him wouldn’t always be easy or convenient, and a casual commitment would not be enough. Those who are called to share the Gospel must make doing so their highest priority. Jesus is very demanding—but also very understanding and forgiving, as shown by the incident with James and John. When the two disciples wanted heavenly fire to come down and destroy an unfriendly Samaritan village—an attitude completely contrary to everything their Master was teaching and doing—the Lord rebuked them, but He didn’t condemn them or expel them from His company. Except for the Virgin Mary, every follower of Jesus has failed at one time or another, usually quite frequently; what matters is a willingness to ask forgiveness, learn from our mistakes, and continue the journey.
At the Easter Vigil each year, in Catholic churches around the world, catechumens are baptized and formally received into the Church—an experience of great joy and satisfaction for them and their sponsors and families. Their catechists or teachers usually warn them, however, that the spiritual high or excitement they feel at first won’t last; they will inevitably come back down to earth, sooner or later experiencing such things as doubt, disappointment, confusion, boredom, and perhaps even some degree of spiritual emptiness. All this doesn’t mean the new Catholics have weak faith or have done anything wrong; because of human sinfulness and the imperfect world in which we live, a spiritual letdown from time to time is a normal part of discipleship. Knowing this truth makes it easier for the newest members of the Church to persevere in their faith.
The same thing is also true for each of us. God’s initial plan was that all His children would know, love, and serve Him in perfect peace and happiness while here on earth before eventually and easily entering Heaven. Original sin ruined this design. Because Jesus died to save us, we can still one day enter Heaven—but the process of getting there now involves a certain amount of suffering, hardship, and sacrifice. If we give up our faith, we risk losing everything, and can easily end up miserable—both in this world and especially in the next. If, however, we persevere in following Jesus, we will eventually enter His Kingdom, and we’ll discover that all our efforts and sacrifices were well worth it. Because we have only a vague idea of what Heaven is really like, this promise can be hard to remember, trust, or believe—but it is true; we have Our Lord’s word on this.
Because of our human weakness, we cannot be faithful disciples solely through our own efforts; we need God’s assistance—and this help is always available to us through prayer, Scripture, and the Church’s sacraments. Only the Lord’s grace can help us make a true commitment to following Jesus, endure whatever sacrifices are necessary, and persevere regardless of the cost. Every citizen of Heaven is living proof that this is so; they successfully completed their spiritually journey through life, and with the Lord’s help, so can we. Jesus invites us to follow Him; let us answer His call.