We use the word disciple a lot, but do we know what it really means? What images does that word conjure up?
When you hear the word disciple, do you maybe picture a man with a beard, sandals, and a cloak traveling along a dusty road somewhere, intent on preaching to the masses? Or do you see maybe a college-age person handing out Bibles in some third-world village? Or do you perhaps picture a group of students listening intently to the instruction and guidance of a respected teacher?
When we consider the word disciple, have we stopped to reflect upon the fact that we’re all called to be one?
From 11 to 1.3 billion
In Matthew 28:16-20, sometimes known as “The Great Commission,” we read:
“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
What Jesus started with eleven ordinary and mainly uneducated men has continued to thrive to this very day. According to a report from 2016, it is estimated that there are close to 1.3 billion Catholics in the world. That’s quite a large number of disciples!
But how did the original eleven manage to do it? At that point in history, they didn’t have anything written down yet – no instruction manual to follow. In the beginning, the task ahead must have seemed daunting to them. To learn about how the early Church got started, before they were even known as Christians, we need to go back to the Acts of the Apostles.
In the beginning
In Acts 2:42-47, we read:
“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
We need to keep in mind that this was after the apostles had already received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Following that momentous event, they began to fervently preach the Good News, adding to the “about three thousand” converts on Pentecost.
The Church continued to grow, as we know from Acts, and more disciples were added. Acts 9:31 tells us “The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the holy Spirit it grew in numbers.”
But then the persecutions started. Many disciples of Christ were imprisoned, beaten, and killed for their belief in Christ. Of the original Apostles, John was the only one to not die a martyr’s death.
Now, we could think, “But it was such a long time ago. Christians don’t have it nearly as bad today.” According to a report from a January 2017 issue of The Christian Post, over 900,000 Christians have been martyred in the last 10 years. In 2016 alone, it was estimated that a Christian was being killed every six minutes.
In another report, put out by Christianity Today, close to 70 million Christians have been martyred since the time of Jesus. Putting this into perspective, that’s more than the entire population of either France (67.2 million) or Thailand (69 million). And that’s nearly a fifth of the United States (327.3 million).
With such concerning statistics, it’s understandable that someone might be a little cautious about becoming Christian.
When persecution and suffering strikes, we have to remember Christ’s message in John 16:33. “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage. I have conquered the world.” And we could also take encouragement from St. Paul in Acts 14:22, when he said, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”
Last but not least, we have to remember that we’re never alone in the struggle. What the early disciples did 2,000 years ago is still being done today: We’re still coming together at Mass; we’re supporting one another through various Catholic Charities; we pray and care for each other; and we submit ourselves daily to Christ.
Pray for our youth
In the parish I belong to, Immaculate Heart of Mary, as part of Mission Territory, our summer teen program, we are teaching the kids about the work of the early Christians, how the Catholic Church got started, and how we’re each called to go out and make disciples.
For the first half of our 10-week program, we’ve been using a video series called T3: The Sword and the Keys. Essentially, it’s a Bible study that focuses on the Acts of the Apostles. During each session, we have ample time for discussions to help these young Catholics reflect upon their own lives and how they can open themselves up more to the call that God has placed on each of their lives.
We’re three weeks into Mission Territory, and, much like the early Church, we keep adding to our numbers with each session. Originally, we started with sixteen. Now, we’re up to nineteen.
Clearly our young people are trying to find their place in this world, both locally, in their church, and as citizens. Hopefully, by the end of the summer, these teens will have a better appreciation and understanding of the Catholic Church and it’s universal call to make disciples.
Please pray for the young people in today’s society. So many are being lured away by the empty promises that the world says will satisfy them. Others have walked away because they no longer find the Church to be relevant. Pray for those who haven’t even heard of Jesus; that they will soon discover the beauty of being His disciple. Pray that they will resist worldly things and hold fast to their Catholic faith. Pray that we’ll continue to have youths who are on fire for their Catholic faith.