Faith, Love, and Obedience: Marks of the True Disciple

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? Will Catholics Be “Left Behind”?, coeditor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the “Catholicism” and “Priest Prophet King” Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His new book Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021), is published by the Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to “Our Sunday Visitor” newspaper, “The Catholic Answer” magazine, “The Imaginative Conservative”, “The Catholic Herald”, “National Catholic Register”, “Chronicles”, and other publications.

'Communion of the Apostles' (1451-52) by Fra Angelico []

What is love without faith and commitment? A lie.

And it’s a popular lie, one sprouting wildly from the thin soil of undisciplined passions, feeding on the fast food of popular culture, which so often presents love as a matter of emotions and circumstances. These feelings are gauged on a scale of faux authenticity, with the highest order of love being that representing one’s selfish choice to be “true to himself.”

For example, a famous music star explained to Oprah a few years ago that he had to leave his first wife and marry his second wife because he couldn’t live “a lie”. What he meant, as he explained further, was that because he was “in love” with the second woman, so it couldn’t be right to be stuck in his first marriage.

The same approach is taken by many Catholics when it comes to certain Church teachings, most having to do with sexual morality, marriage, or life issues. “I love being Catholic,” seems to be their unspoken approach, “but I’m not always so keen on living or loving what the Church teaches.” For some people, being a Catholic is a birthright, not a call to discipleship; it becomes a matter of status, not one of taking a stand.

Today’s Gospel and Epistle were both written by St. John, the disciple “whom Jesus loved” (Jn 13:23), the lone apostle at the Crucifixion (Jn 19:25-27) who decades later spent his final years exiled on the rocky island of Patmos (Rev. 1:9). Both readings make the vital connection between faith, love, and obedience. Together, they show that the true disciple of Jesus is faithful and obedient because of his love for the Lord, while his love for Christ is rooted in a humble gratitude for the mercy and grace granted by the Holy Spirit.

Words alone do not demonstrate one’s love for God: “In this way, we know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments.” The strength and ability to obey the commandments of God come from the Holy Spirit and the gift of faith. Yes, we must accept it. And, yes, we must put it into practice. But all is grace, even while our freely chosen actions increase or corrode that divine gift.

The gift of divine sonship is ours through Jesus Christ and “through water and blood,” that is, through baptism and the sacrificial death on the Cross. Just as the Spirit moved over the face of the waters before creation (Gen 1:2), he moves over the waters of baptism, from which emerge the face of a new creation in Christ (cf. 2 Cor 5:17).

“The Son of God came not by water only, in order to cleanse us from our sins,” wrote St. Bede, “but also with the blood of his passion, by which he consecrates the sacrament of our baptism, giving his blood for us, redeeming us by his suffering and nourishing us with his sacraments so that we might be made fit for salvation.”

We are begotten by God through baptism, and we are nourished, as children of God, by the Eucharistic sacrifice. And all of this happens within the mystery of the Church, which “received the faith from the apostles and their disciples” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 173). As today’s Gospel reading reminds us, the Church is apostolic not because the apostles were perfect, but because they believed, they were chosen, they were ordained, and they were granted authority by the risen Lord.

Further, the founding and growth of the Church and the Kingdom are “symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of a crucified Jesus …” (Lumen Gentium, 3). Jesus loved the Church so much, he died for her; the New Adam loved his Bride so much, he died to bring her to life. Because when it comes to love, faith, and commitment, we are never asked to do something our Savior hasn’t already done perfectly—for us.