Every year on the feast of All Saints of America we hear in the Gospel reading of Christ calling the disciples to follow Him. Even though this Gospel is technically not the reading for All Saints of America (it is, rather, the lectionary reading for this Sunday) it is, still, rather appropriate. For the American saints, unlike those of other lands, are mostly a group who quite literally left their homelands to “follow Christ” to America.
"Following Christ,” in many segments of American Christianity, has become a cliché, a phrase with no real meaning. I say this not to judge but rather to simply point out that in our world "following Christ" means practically nothing. A person can use this phrase to identify themselves as a Christian but the phrase says almost nothing about the beliefs or practices of the person using it except that they are somehow, in some vague way, a believer in Jesus. To use the phrase this way, however, is to make it well nigh meaningless.
If we are to recover any meaning from the call of Christ -“follow Me!” - we must take a step back from its popular use as a simple synonym for “Christian” and realize that it has a more primary aspect. You see, for the disciples to take the step to follow Christ meant that they had to first step away from something else. St Matthew makes explicit mention of this first step: “He said to them, ‘Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ They immediately left their nets and followed Him.” The essential first step is to leave their nets and only then could they follow Christ.
This all-important first step “away from” is what the fathers call“renunciation”, and there is no real Christianity without it but a Christianity in name only. This is why in St John Climacus' famous book The Ladder of Divine Ascent Step 1 is titled Renunciation. Likewise the justly famous work by St Dorotheos of Gaza begins with a chapter on renunciation.
This is the reason that in the Mystery of Baptism the catechumen is first turned toward the west and instructed to renounce the devil and to spit on him before he can unite himself to Christ. He must, in other words, first renounce before he can pronounce. To follow Christ as He called the disciples to follow Him leads to a radical dislocation of our life, a separation between everything we have known and everything that is going to be. And the turning point, the crisis in the middle of that disruption and dislocation, is specifically Jesus Christ.
Without this dislocation and radical turning, what the fathers call renunciation, we fool ourselves if we tell ourselves that we are following Christ. We are rather playing at a game, toying with religion as one might with a new hobby. And much as one might pick through the detritus of our consumer culture at a garage sale, sorting through the flotsam and jetsam of a family's abandoned hobbies, so is much of what we call in America today Christianity the sad leftovers of a hobby religion. It claims to follow Christ but it has left nothing behind, renounced not a thing.
It is important to understand that this - renunciation - is where Christian life begins. “Follow me” is the first commandment of Christ, the beginning, and without this renunciation there is no beginning and thus no real Christian life.
In the Gospels there are many people who are curious about Christ and have opinions about Him, watching Him from near or far, but who have left nothing to follow Him. They are called the crowd. They are not disciples - followers - because their opinions and beliefs have cost them nothing. They have left nothing, renounced nothing, and are thus spectators to the Divine drama, not participants in it.
As we celebrate the feast of All Saints of America today we must not only honor those who left all to follow Christ to America but we must be those who also have renounced all to follow Him. An “American Christianity” that has become so comfortable with the world that it seeks wealth and money and material well-being as primary blessings is a false teaching. We must be, rather, on the path of St Herman and St Innocent and all those who, having lost everything to gain Christ, have found in Him the treasure greater than all the world: the riches of the Kingdom of Heaven.
With love in Christ, Fr John