Following in His Footsteps

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Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Congress is in recess, so elected officials are home from Washington these days getting an earful from their constituents. The president is knee-deep in the crisis of the moment—Syria. But to be fair, there’s really nothing new about it. Egypt is on the back burner for the time being, not that it is any less urgent or important a crisis. But then again, neither are Iraq and Afghanistan, or immigration, or healthcare, or the economy, or the debt ceiling. But back to Syria. I’m not saying I know the right answer. I’m not saying there’s even a right answer. There could be several right answers, for all we know. But I am confident the gospel of Jesus Christ has something to say to us about this crisis, as well as all the others that trouble us. Yet even among Christian believers, there is such a disparity of opinions and strongly-held convictions, probably because not everyone who calls themselves a Christian truly understands what even that means, especially when practicing the faith becomes unpopular, uncomfortable, or presents some other unforeseen challenges.

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The decision a Christian makes to believe in Jesus Christ and his gospel is not supposed to be an easy choice nor an obvious choice. If it was easy or obvious, we would all arrive at the same conclusions. We would dispel all doubts effortlessly. And we will always voluntarily and gladly fulfill God’s will. Yet we know that is often not the case. Instead we struggle with living our faith in the real world. Thankfully, we have available to us the tools we need to more clearly focus our Christian discipleship. We listen to the Word of God proclaimed and preached. We come together in worship. We take time to study the writings of mystics and missionaries, the teachings of popes and theologians. We reflect deeply on our own life experiences. We share and listen to the wisdom and insights of fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith. And we bring our deepest cares and struggles to prayer. Yet no matter how good we are at all these, we will still struggle. Eventually we realize that we need to explore even more seriously what we say we believe. We need to dig deeper into our hearts to remove the obstacles we often place in the way of God’s goodness. We need to grow in even greater likeness to Jesus Christ; rejecting selfishness and darkness and death; humbly embracing the sweetness of God’s will, the radiance of God’s light, and the richness of God’s life.

The passage from the Book of Wisdom honestly acknowledges how challenging it is sometimes to grasp even earthly matters—why bad things happen to good people, why people do bad things to each other, why otherwise good people sometimes fail to live by their nobler convictions and instead surrender to their selfish appetites and petty rivalries. It can be discouraging sometimes as we struggle to do our best and we witness others around us behave in ways completely unreasonable and unchristian. So we might ask—why do we continue pursuing truth and goodness? Why bother living a life of humility, patience, sacrifice, and self-restraint, while people unconcerned with God’s will or their neighbor’s welfare get filthy rich, have lots of fun, and cheat, lie, and steal with impunity?

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We read from Paul’s letter to Philemon, a fellow Christian who was dealing with a little household crisis. Philemon had a slave, Onesimus, who had run away, probably stealing something of value on his way out the door. But the slave had found refuge with Paul, and while in his company, he turned his life around and became a Christian. Despite wishing to keep him close while he was himself in prison, Paul decided it was time to send him home. The slave rightfully belonged to his master. But Paul wasn’t trying to challenge the issue of slavery. Rather, he challenged Philemon to take back and reconcile with one who had offended him, and raise a slave to the status of a brother. Being a Christian sometimes comes at a steep price. Being a Christian always has real consequences in our very real lives.

Then Jesus announced how anyone who wished to follow him must hate their family, their possessions, and their very own lives. He was teaching how choosing him and the Gospel must be our highest priority, that it should be worth to us more than our relationships, our property, or even our very lives. He was preparing his listeners for the very real consequences of following him. He then uses two parables to describe how we should prepare for the demands of Christian discipleship. Those in the business of building things know to sit down and calculate the cost of a project before getting started. Those contemplating military action should also know to sit down, plot out a viable strategy, and embrace with conviction the true and total cost of the conflict.

The desire to follow Jesus Christ is indeed a most serious endeavor. It demands careful prayer and reflection, realistic long-range planning, and heartfelt dedication and commitment. It is not a decision you just fall into like choosing a wine to go with your entrée. It is not a decision you make carelessly knowing you can call it quits when the going gets tough. It is not a decision you make if you desire a life of comfort and ease, if you expect everything to be predictable and sensible at all times, or if you think you won’t ever find Jesus’ teachings sometimes mysterious and demanding.

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He tells us in no uncertain terms, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” And whenever we look up, we see his body bruised and bloody, and nailed to a cross. Do we still think following Jesus is supposed to be easy? But there is help available so that we live our discipleship with passion and integrity. We look to the heroes of our faith–the saints, our elders, and those who possess wisdom from walking the journey faithfully. Although the choice to follow Jesus belongs to each person alone, we are also fellow pilgrims on the same journey. We will always live our lives in the shadow of the cross, but with the cross Jesus has gained eternal life for us. So, come learn what it really means to follow Jesus, what it really means to carry our cross and come after him, what it really means to be a Christian, and truly and sincerely intend what we say we believe.

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Rolo B Castillo © 2013