An Encouraging Thought
I want to tell you a story about a young man. I won’t tell you his name yet, but I promise you that you have heard it before. This young man was once a servant in the home of a wealthy man. He found his life difficult – not what he planned it to be, not what he wanted. There was too much suffering for him there, and he sought to take matters into his own hands. He ran away to make a “better life” for himself.
As can sometimes happen with desperate and somewhat misguided people, this young man fell on hard times and ended up being arrested and tossed into jail. It seemed a dead end.
However, in prison, he met an old man who changed his life by changing his perspective. He told him about Jesus Christ – a man of whom this young man had heard before, but who really hadn’t mattered in his life. He knew that Jesus had lived and died for what he taught – a life of self-giving and sacrifice, and a promise of eternal life through discipleship. This older man told the young man that it was through Christ that he could find true freedom, but first, something had to stop.
He had to stop running – running from the Cross.
The young man, by seeking to take matters into his own hands, by trying to clutch onto control of his destiny, was, in effect, ignoring this essential element of Christian faith and discipleship: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
The young man was released, with the condition that he return whence he came – back to the very place where he saw suffering and hardship. Back to the beginning. However, before he went, the old man who gave him hope and faith in Christ, sent him with a note to his boss – who himself was a disciple of Jesus. He told him of their shared faith, and what that faith calls them to be.
Friends, we have heard a piece of that note today – in our second reading. The young man is Onesimus; the old man in the jail is Paul; and the addressee of the letter is Philemon. Onesimus was a slave in the household of Philemon, whom Paul knew. In his letter, Paul reminds Philemon of the truth of the faith and how that truth calls us to treat one another. Additionally, though, we can draw from the letter another lesson – one directed to the one who bore that letter back to his patron. Paul is telling Onesimus – and us – that he cannot run from his problems, and he cannot run from the cross. True faith means embracing suffering and the cross for the sake of the kingdom of God. Our salvation and happiness do not come from taking matters into our own hands. It doesn’t come from our own cleverness or from hedging our bets. No. It comes from placing ourselves in God’s hands, accepting our cross, and following Jesus.
We all have these crosses. They come from our fears, our doubts, our limitations. Perhaps we have run from them – or ignored them – or rejected them completely. Today, we are reminded by God’s Word that the wisdom of God far surpasses our human categories (Who can know God’s counsel or who can conceive what the Lord indends?”). Perhaps this cross now is the confusion or difficulty in facing the future; maybe it’s an uncertain family situation; or an illness. Whatever it may be, humanly speaking, our faith helps us to recognize that through it all, God’s hand is at work, and from that we can gain hope – hope in suffering; hope beyond the cross.
In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” there is a scene between Frodo and Gandalf the wizard when they are in the depths of Moria, in the darkness. Frodo confides, “I wish that the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this ever happened.” His frustration and doubt are understandable to anyone who has to face difficulty and carry their cross. Gandalf, however, wisely shares a larger perspective with the little hobbit. “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the ring. In which case, you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”
We may not want to go through the difficult times and challenges that life can throw our way. We may even want to run away from them and find “something better.” But Jesus’ words today – hard as they may be – give us our Christian path to follow. It’s his path – a path he himself walked, trusting in God’s love and care for him, and it brought him to the resurrection. This path is offered to us as a gift, not a curse.
What did Onesimus’ path bring him? We don’t have any concrete evidence, but there is a reference in a letter from the second-century saint, Polycarp, to the Ephesians in which he refers to their beloved bishop, Onesimus. It’s an intriguing thought: the one-time slave, transformed by Paul’s preaching in prison, freed through Christian love by Philemon, himself leading and shepherding a community of believers to follow Jesus call to discipleship.
For us who must grapple with our crosses, the good news is that we are not left on our own to do so. Jesus helps us, strengthens us for that journey. He nourishes us with his Body and Blood and allows us to move forward in hope. There are other forces, indeed, at work than simply those of evil. There is God’s grace as well, supporting us on the way.
And that is an encouraging thought!