In a recent interview, Dr. Edward Sri, professor of theology and Scripture, and vice president of mission discussed his most recent book, Into His Likeness: Be Transformed as a Disciple of Christ (Ignatius Press-Augustine Institute, 2017).
Your book explores discipleship and what it means to live like a true disciple of Christ. Why is this an important topic for Catholics today?
This is a theme that Pope Francis, the U.S. Bishops Conference, and many dioceses and parishes have been emphasizing: the importance of living as an intentional disciple. But what exactly does this mean? And what does it look like in everyday life? That’s what I try to unpack in the book. I hope to give readers a practical vision and roadmap for following Jesus as a disciple.
Living as a disciple involves much more than going through the motions of our faith—believing the right things, showing up for Mass, throwing money in the basket. Discipleship is also much more than being an enthusiastic “rah-rah Catholic” who goes to Catholic conferences, listens to Catholic podcasts, attends three small group studies, and volunteers at the parish. A disciple ponders what’s going on on the inside? Am I really growing in holiness? Am I each day earnestly striving to think, act, and live more like Christ? Am I experiencing the transformation Christ desires for me? Jesus wants us to be more than fans. He wants us to follow him with all our heart as a disciple.
So, what does discipleship actually look like?
If I had to pick one biblical word that really gets to the heart of discipleship, it would be the word “imitation.” If you were a disciple following a rabbi in first-century Judaism, you would strive not just to master the rabbi’s teaching, but also to imitate the rabbi’s whole way of life. I think the biblical image of discipleship presents it for Catholics in a really dynamic, personable, engaging way, something that the average Joe can relate to. Paul says in first Corinthians 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Following him means much more than just identifying on a survey: “Yep. I’m a Catholic.” The real question is, am I really growing in my imitation of Christ? Do other people see Christ in me? Do I take on his virtues, his gentleness, his mercy, his compassion, his sacrificial love, do I emulate those in my life? Do I think as he does? Do I see things as he sees them? Do I value the things of this world only to the extent he would value them? These are big questions! We can go through the motions of the Faith, but what’s happening on the inside? What’s going on in my interior life? Am I ever more taking on the qualities of Christ?
So, it’s really about growing in holiness?
Yes, but for some people, holiness is a vague word. How do I know I’m growing in holiness? There’s not a “holiness thermometer” I can take to track my progress-“Oh, I grew in 15 degrees of holiness this week. I’m really getting good at the spiritual life!” No, but discipleship can help shed light on this, for the goal of the Christian life is to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29)-to imitate Christ. Are you regularly encountering Jesus in prayer, in the sacraments, in the people in your life, in his revelation? Do you make it a priority each day to live like our Rabbi, Jesus Christ? Are you seeking to be transformed “into his likeness,” as Saint Paul says, “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18)? That’s what we’re made for-we’re made to be transformed in Christ. But at the same time, we realize the many ways we fall short-our weaknesses and sins. We look at our lives right now, and we realize we have a long way to go. How do we get from here to there? From A to B? That’s what discipleship is all about.
In recent years, we’re hearing about discipleship a lot more in the Church, but the theme of discipleship has been around for a long time, hasn’t it?
Yes, it’s beautiful that we’re talking about discipleship; we’re creatively trying to think about what it means. But often each individual, organization, or parish has its own view of discipleship. Wouldn’t it be even more wonderful if we rooted discipleship in Scripture and the Tradition, presenting a unified message to parish leaders, to the laity? I think that the biblical theme of discipleship is so important for our times that I don’t want it to be just another Catholic buzzword. Imagine if we were all on the same page, singing from the same song sheet. The impact this could have! That’s the idea of this book—to ground the theme of discipleship in God’s Word, the wisdom of the saints and the Church’s vision for evangelization and catechesis, and ponder how it applies to families, parishes, and individuals today.
I loved the portion of the book that reflects upon Saint Mother Teresa and her plea with her sisters to come to a true encounter with Jesus. Tell me a bit more about that.
There’s a quote I give in the book on page 79 from Mother Teresa, who tells her sisters— these are the amazing sisters who gave up everything to serve the poorest of the poor around the world!—and she tells them: “I worry some of you have not really met Jesus— one-to-one— you and Jesus alone. We may spend time in the chapel, but have you seen with the eyes of your soul how he looks at you with love? Do you really know the living Jesus – not from books, but from being with him in your heart? Have you heard the living words he speaks to you?”
She’s pleading with these heroic, saintly sisters to renew their encounter with Jesus or even perhaps to encounter his love for the first time. God is love. And he is madly in love with us. Mother Teresa marveled over this. Many of the great saints couldn’t fathom how much God wants our love and attention. He thirsts for us, Mother Teresa often said. Once we come to experience God’s thirst for us—the experience of “I am loved” by God and I didn’t do anything to deserve it—that moment changes everything. In our utilitarian age, many people grow up thinking they have to earn love—they have to perform well, accomplish, act a certain way to keep people certain family members happy, keep up a certain image at work, with friends and on social media in order to earn love. But real love can’t be earned. It can only be received, and once I receive it from God, then the foundation for my life is no longer based on me and how well I perform, but on God’s love for me. Yet, if I’m not convinced of how much God loves me—as I am, with all my weaknesses and shortcomings—then I’m always turning to those other things as a crutch, and my heart is never at rest.
But what about when we struggle with sin and weakness and feel like we’re failing in our spiritual life?
Sometimes we’re tempted to be frustrated or discouraged: “I can’t believe I did that.” “I’ll never change.” But these thoughts are really focused on the self and not on God. Other times we just want to give up and stop trying—being a disciple is too hard. And other times we might be tempted to think we just need more will power, and we forget to turn to God for help. None of these paths work. Instead, we want to allow God to meet us as we really are—not where we’d like to be. We certainly must give our very best in pursuing the imitation of Christ, but we must also recognize how little that really is and come to God as we really are in that humble moment of “I’m sorry, Lord…. This is where I am. Help me. I need you…” It’s then that we have a transforming encounter with God’s love, mercy, and healing power. It’s then that God can begin to do his most profound work in our soul, changing us into his likeness. That’s one of the big sections in the book: the transformation Jesus wants to work in our souls through an encounter with his love.
The book also focuses on four key habits of a disciple: the commitment to prayer, fellowship, the sacraments, and Christ’s teachings. Why did you choose these four?
I want to be very clear on this. This is not Edward Sri’s idea. There are many creative ways one can present the habits of a disciple, but I think it best to ground discipleship in God’s Word. And God’s Word in Acts 2:42 specifically lists these as the four practices the disciples in the early Church devoted themselves to. They’re so important for our life as disciples that the Church has always turned to this verse, to these four practices, to sum up what the Catholic life is all about. Indeed, the four pillars of the Catechism are based on these four points.
First of all, I need to form my mind with the teachings of Christ, as passed on through the Apostles, the Bible, and the Church. Do I make faith formation a priority in my life?
Second, I need fellowship. The Christian life is not lived in isolation. I need brothers and sisters who are running after Christ with me. Fellowship is also about encountering Jesus in the people in my life each day: I have so many opportunities to grow in love with my wife, children, coworkers, friends, and especially the poor.
Thirdly, I need the sacraments. Acts 2:42 mentions the breaking of the bread, which reminds us of all the sacraments, where we encounter God’s grace, where he fills us with his very life.
And lastly, I need a daily prayer life. Not just saying prayers, but do I have quiet time every day for intimate conversation with Jesus? Do I do meditative prayer or lectio divina— moments where I’m in dialogue with Jesus and using Scripture or a Catholic devotional to help feed my conversation with the Lord?
Think of these four habits as ongoing encounter moments—moments when God encourages us, nudges us, invites us to repent of a certain sin, inspires us to forgive someone, calls us to be more patient, spurs us on to be more generous—in sum, to live more like Christ. These four habits are like logs we add to the fire to keep the fire of faith burning and growing in our lives.