In the fall of 1979, Stephen was a typical 17 year old man with big dreams for his future. With the hope of one day owning his own company, he had begun applying to colleges to study business and finance.
However, one evening, all that changed. Turning on the television to watch the news, he was mesmerized by the coverage of Pope John Paul II’s trip to the United States. The image of the Holy Father waving to the crowds which had gathered along the side of the road to watch him pass by caused something to stir in his heart. All of a sudden, he began to cry uncontrollably.
For the next few weeks, he could not get the images of the saintly pope out of his mind. Even when he tried to focus on his studies or on applying to colleges, all he could think of was the smile on Pope Saint John Paul II’s face.
After receiving communion the following Sunday, it became clear to Stephen what he must do. He must give up his plans to enter business school and instead enter the seminary to be a priest. Though his family and friends thought he had lost his mind, he enrolled in the seminary the following Fall and was ordained a priest eight years later.
Looking back on his vocation to the priesthood, Fr. Stephen now understands that it was not because of Pope Saint John Paul II that he became a priest. Rather it was Jesus Christ who was calling out to him through the person of the Holy Father. Once Fr Stephen encountered our Risen Lord, his life would change. He realized he could not go back to his former way of life nor could he continue his plans for the future. Now that he had experienced the love of God, there was no turning back. He would have to walk the path that Jesus had now traced out for him.
In today’s gospel, we see much the same situation. Peter, Andrew, James and John were all fishermen. Since they were children, they would go out to the shores of the Sea of Galilee to fish. They did not know any other life. However, once Jesus called them, they abandoned it all to follow Him. We can only imagine how charismatic and magnetic our Lord was to compel them to turn their backs on the only life they had ever known. But they did because, like Fr. Stephen, once they had met Jesus, there was no turning back. The only choice they had was to follow Him, even though they had no idea where it would all lead.
Throughout the gospels, we see Jesus going out to meet people where they are at. In today’s gospel, we read how He went throughout the region of Galilee to preach the good news and heal the sick. Other times, we read that He even went to areas which Jews normally avoided like Samaria. All this because He wanted to invite people personally to follow Him and give them an up-close experience of the Father’s love. It was this personal experience more than anything He preached or any good deed He performed which explains why so many people followed Him. They literally fell in love with Jesus after meeting Him.
In its essence, then, Christianity is a personal relationship with Jesus, the Risen Son of God, who knows us and loves us. Every moral teaching, every doctrine, every ritual revolves around helping us to know and love Him in return. Like Fr. Stephen, and like those first disciples, we will discover that, once we truly meet Jesus, everything in our lives will change.
Of course, Jesus no longer walks among us as He did two thousand years ago. We do not see Him face-to-face as those first disciples did. However, we still can have a very real and loving friendship with our Risen Lord.
The first way we can have a relationship with Jesus is by reading the Scriptures. The Bible is like a love letter written to all of God’s people. In its pages, we learn about our Heavenly Father’s mercy. We hear the stories of our ancestors who struggled to live their faith and died to pass it down to us. Because it is God’s word, it is His voice we hear whenever we read it or hear it proclaimed in Mass. The more we read, study and pray over the Scriptures, the more we will understand the heart of God. And the more we understand the heart of God, the more we will love Him.
The second way we can have a relationship with Jesus is through the Sacraments. Every sacrament is a visible sign of the invisible love of God. In Baptism, we experience the very real love of our Heavenly Father who makes us His sons and daughters. Through the Sacrament of Confession, we experience God’s merciful love as we hear the words, “Your sins are forgiven”. And, in a most marvelous way, we become united to Jesus Himself whenever we receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. There is no more intimate and personal relationship than uniting our heart and soul to the heart and soul of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
Finally, we can have a relationship with Jesus through our neighbor. When we show love to one another we are experiencing God in a very real way because He is love. Jesus tells us very plainly that whatever we do to the least of our sisters and brothers we do to Him. So, whenever we reach out our hands to someone in need, we are encountering Jesus. If we really want to know and love Jesus we have to do it through the poor whether that poor person is a beggar on the street or a rich person in a lavish but lonely mansion. If Jesus seems distant, it is most likely because we have not been looking for Him in our needy brothers and sisters.
Christianity is a life-changing experience with Jesus Christ. Once we have truly met Him, our lives will never be the same. Sometimes that meeting with Jesus is dramatic and memorable like the experience that Fr. Stephen and the first disciples had. Most often, however, that meeting is less dramatic, taking place in the ordinary, mundane moments of our day. If we nourish our relationship with our Risen Lord by reading Scripture, frequenting the Sacraments and showing merciful love to others we will see a change. Not only that, we will begin to affect a change in others. Once we make the love of God our first priority, that love will begin to radiate out into the world as a great light to so many who only experience darkness. Then, the Kingdom of God will truly be in our midst.