Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. Canon Donna Joy

Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

I wonder what any one of us might consider to be the most important decision we ever made.

Perhaps it was the decision to get married or to not get married, to have children or which school to send our children to, to move from one part of the world to another, to buy or build a house, or to change jobs. What do you consider to be the most important decisions you have made throughout the course of your lifetime?

Luke’s gospel this morning shows Jesus talking about the most important decision we can ever make; that is, the decision to become followers of Christ. Unfortunately, as the church has evolved over time this has become interpreted as making a decision to ‘go to church,’ but this is not exactly what Jesus is talking about. Of course, in order to truly become a follow of Christ we are mandated to do this in the company of other followers of Christ (that is, the church), but ‘going to church’ is simply one important and necessary component when it comes to becoming a follower of Christ.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that this decision is made in different ways for various people. Some people can actually remember a specific day and place when this decision was made. Others, like me, may have grown into it. Some may not have ever actually made that decision. Within the Anglican tradition, I suspect, many of us were baptised as babies or young children because that was our family’s tradition. And we grew up going to Sunday School and to church.

Often within this tradition we may not view our role as ‘followers of Christ’ as a decision. Instead, we view our membership, involvement and participation in church as primarily living a good and respectable life. But when we read what Jesus says about following him, we have to realize that it means much more than that.

Jesus says that this decision is SO important it may even cause us to ‘hate’ our families and even our own life! It’s important to know that the word that has been translated as ‘hate’ does not mean what it means in our everyday use of the word. It means that we place a kind if distance between ourselves and the thing or person we may otherwise view as our MOST IMPORTANT relationship or thing.   It means having a preference for something else. So, in this case, Jesus asks us – commands us really - to place HIM before even our families and our own selves; to place HIM before anything and everything else. If there is a decision to be made and that decision means we must make a choice between Jesus and our families, then, if we consider ourselves followers of Jesus, Jesus comes first!

Jesus then makes the point that it is important to know and consider the implications/responsibilities that go along with becoming his followers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose prolific writings speak about the perfect freedom he discovered and experienced as he sacrificed his life in his attempts to overthrow the Hitler regime writes: “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” For Bonhoeffer, his decision to follow Christ’s way and Christ’s teachings came first. He was, in the end, executed as punishment for his attempts.

Bonhoeffer’s embodiment of this message is a profound example for us all. For him the implications of this decision were clear, but as he lived into the sacrifices he made and the ultimate sacrifice he eventually made, it seems he never wavered. And indeed, Jesus reminds us that when there are important decisions to be made, we are wise if we think through the implications. He uses a couple of illustrations.

If we’re going to build a tower for our farm – or a house – or anything else, we estimate very carefully the plans and the cost. Or if a king wanted to go to war, he would first check and make sure he had enough soldiers and other resources with which to fight. If he didn’t, he’d have to negotiate a treaty in another way. Jesus says that if we are going to decide to follow him, we need to first think it through and see if we are truly willing to give him everything – time, talents, and treasure. We must weigh this up against the benefits. And so many, many people over the past 2000 years and across the world have weighed it up and decided that the benefits are far greater than even this cost. The sacrifices made as followers of Christ lead to the greatest joy.

Following Jesus is a decision that will impact every part of our lives; it is a decision that must never be taken lightly. And once we have made that decision, we are inevitably faced with other decisions that will be hard to make. Paul’s letter to Philemon gives us a good example of what this might look like.

Paul, having chosen to become a follower of Christ, is in prison in Rome (for having chosen to follow Jesus rather that the unjust laws of the land). He comes across a runaway slave named Onesimus. In those times if a slave ran away, his master had the right to do whatever he liked with that slave, even to have him killed. And the Roman law said that anyone helping a runaway slave was subject to the same penalty. Onesimus (presumably with Paul’s guidance) has made a decision to become a follower of Jesus and apparently has become a right-hand man for Paul in prison. Paul is personally acquainted with Philemon, the man who owns Onesimus and knows him to be a follower of Christ; one of Paul’s own converts.

This is a wonderful example Jesus’ disciples making Him the most important priority in their lives, allowing nothing else to come first / Jesus’ disciples choosing him first: Onesimus: risking his own life to be a faithful disciple… (Onesimus could keep running, and possibly never get caught. But he is so committed to faithfully following Jesus he allows Paul to write to his owner, therefore exposing his whereabouts, therefore placing him in potentially great danger)… Paul himself, imprisoned because he has challenged religious and political authorities in order to follow the Way, the teachings of Jesus; and now openly confessing to harboring Onesimus, a runaway slave, so that he may be free to be a disciple of Jesus.

And now, Paul is writing a very shrewd letter to Philemon, urging him to put aside the laws that give him authority to harm Onesimus, or even have him killed. In other words, urging Philemon, a follower of Jesus, to put the ways and teaching of Jesus before the laws of the land. Urging him to save this runaway slave’s life (that is, to grant him the saving love of Christ) rather than destroy him or end his life. And he appeals to Philemon’s understanding that all Christians are equal in the sight of God so that Onesimus, the slave, is as much a brother to Philemon as Paul himself.

When Philemon receives the letter, he will have a decision to make. Will he act as the law demands and have Onesimus executed? Not to do so may cause him to lose the respect of his peers in his own broader society or maybe his family. But Paul has reminded him that he now has a greater loyalty than to his family and his peers. What is more important to Philemon; his reputation or his relationship with Christ?

For all of them the big question is: can I trust Jesus to care for me in this difficult situation? Will my role as a follower of Christ be the primary motivator for this decision? The questions these people need to work through are not unlike some of the day-to-day questions we face from time to time. We may know what the popular thing is to do, what is the culturally acceptable thing, but sometimes that might not be what Jesus would ask of us.

Being a follower of Jesus often isn’t easy. But to follow Jesus is to know that our relationship with Him is more important than anything else. To follow Jesus is to follow him to the cross – that place where we are all made equal. Think about how powerful that is, how comforting and yet at the same time challenging. Comforting because when any one of us feels small or insignificant we are reminded that in Jesus, with Him on the cross, there is no one on the face of the earth who is more important than any one of us. Challenging, because when any one of us dares to see ourselves in an elevated position over and above another we are reminded that no one is less important than anyone else.

Being a follower of Jesus often isn’t easy, but at the end of the day it is the decision – the only decision – that will truly set us free.