September 8, 2019
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 18:1-11 Philemon 1-21 Luke 14:25-33
Today feels like a new beginning. Even though the new liturgical year starts on the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday after the Labour Day weekend does feel like the start of something new. School is back in, summer holidays are over, and we’re settling back into our routines. Many churches hold something like a “Rally Sunday” or some kind of “welcome back” event, even though the life of faith and worship has continued over the summer months. At St. Peter’s, plans are afoot for new learning in the Atrium and in adult Christian education. The Stewardship, Outreach, Worship Planning, and Parish Caring Ministries teams are looking forward to new ventures. Many of you are probably thinking about what kind of involvement you might be called to in the life of this parish in the coming program year – at least I hope you are. There’s a sense of energy, possibility, and hope. And yet, today’s readings present us with a serious challenge.
So, perhaps the title of this sermon should be, “Welcome back! It’s going to cost you.” How’s that for motivation?
These are tough texts, to be sure. There is no soft-pedalling the demands that are laid before us in the words from Jeremiah, Philemon, and Luke. It might help if we put them in the context of the theme of discipleship.
What does the life of faith look like? What does it mean to call ourselves disciples of Jesus and members of his Body? What does it mean to share in the building of God’s reign? What difference does it make, do we make? The Bible is not a book of rules, that, if we follow them correctly, will result in salvation. Nor is it simply a moral guide. The Gospel has something to say about the quality and character of Christian life. It matters; it makes a difference in the world – or it should. The Church and the Scriptures are there to help us figure out this business of being disciples.
The prophet Jeremiah is walking through the streets of Jerusalem and passes a pottery shop. He stops to watch as the potter throws a lump of clay onto the wheel and begins to turn it into something useful – a pot, a bowl, a jug or a drinking cup. But something goes wrong in the process; the vessel is spoiled. The potter squeezes the clay back into a lump and starts over, shaping the clay into another vessel “as seems good to him”. Here’s a key – the clay does not participate in the design process. It is the potter who reshapes and reworks the clay according to his plan, not what the clay might perceive as good.
Jeremiah looks at this common, everyday sight and sees a revelation of God’s plan and God’s nature. God invites the people to reflect on their relationship to the divine potter who, after all, has been working with clay since the beginning of creation. But notice that God’s actions depend on what the people will do. “I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation … turns from its evil, I will change my mind concerning the evil that I intended to bring on it.” Similarly, “I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight … I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.” God is ready to destroy, but if the people change their ways, God will change God’s mind. God “is shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.” A clear choice is laid before the people: turn! Repent, turn around, change your ways and return to living by God’s covenant. Is this a different way of thinking about God than we might be used to? God’s actions depend on the people’s actions. God waits to see what Israel will decide to do.
Like Israel, we are in a covenantal relationship with God. God desires to shape us into something beautiful and useful that will suit God’s plan. Who is “us”? Individual disciples? This parish community? The Anglican Church of Canada? The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? Yes. All of the above. Who must repent in order to re-form the lump of clay? And of what do we need to repent? What pulls us away from allowing God to shape and use us in God’s mission? No specific answers today, but a clear choice.
The letter to Philemon is interesting. It’s so short – only 25 verses in total – that if you were casually flipping through the Bible, you might miss it. It is also perhaps the most personal of all Paul’s letters, written to an individual, but with implications for the church centered in Philemon’s house. Onesimus and Aristarchus are mentioned in the letter to the Colossians, so it seems Philemon also lives there. Paul is writing from prison, most likely in Ephesus since it is not far from Colossae.
Through Paul’s exhortation to Philemon, we can piece together what has happened. Philemon became a Christian through Paul’s apostolic preaching – Paul states that Philemon owes him “even your own self” (verse 19). One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, has run away and made his way to Paul, and has become a Christian himself. In the Roman world, a runaway slave could be severely punished and even put to death. However, Onesimus has become “very useful” to Paul, and Paul believes he could now be useful to Philemon. Paul is sending Onesimus, carrying this letter, back to his master, as the law requires. But Onesimus has changed, and Paul believes he should return to a changed situation. Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus with him but recognizes that Philemon has the prior claim. Paul wants Onesimus to be received with forgiveness into Philemon’s household and received as an equal in the community of the church – “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave – a beloved brother” (verse 16). Paul hopes that Philemon will then send Onesimus back to assist in his mission and probably also to help him during his imprisonment.
Paul makes this appeal based on love: Philemon’s love for “all the saints”, his love for Paul, Paul’s love for Onesimus whom he calls “my own heart”. Paul does not want to make his request based on his apostolic authority, even though he does speak as Philemon’s “spiritual father”. He says in effect, “I‘m not ordering you to do this – although I could!” The love that flows from the gospel has the power to transform lives and relationships, but it must be freely chosen to be genuine. For Philemon to embrace Onesimus as a beloved brother, he must choose to do so. And if he is to do the “good deed” of sending Onesimus back to Paul, Philemon will have to renounce his legal right to keep Onesimus with him. This letter is advocating as much for a change in Philemon’s heart and mind as it is for a change in the status of Onesimus. Paul does not address the institution of slavery, and it’s not clear whether he is asking Philemon to free Onesimus. But the expectation that Onesimus will be received and treated as an equal does push back against the foundation of slavery – that people own other people. Belonging to this new way demands that old assumptions and classifications fall away. A slave becomes a brother and a partner in the Gospel.
We don’t know what Philemon decided to do. But we can see the clear choice with which he is presented. He is being asked to choose to live differently in the light of the Gospel. Like Philemon, we are called into a new humanity created in Christ that lives differently from the expectations of the world. We are not simply partners in the same enterprise but members of a family. Life together cannot be “business as usual”. How do these new relationships work? What do they look like? And what is the impact on all the things that used to separate us? The Gospel changes how we see things, how we think the world should be, and the rules that govern how we live together and treat each other.
Who would ever think that hate would be a prerequisite for discipleship? And yet, Jesus turns to the crowd and says they must hate their parents, spouse, children and siblings – even life itself – if they want to be his disciples. In a culture based on family, this must have been truly shocking. Jesus’ words are almost savage in tone: hatred of family, disposal of possessions, and carrying one’s cross, which in the Roman empire meant carrying the implement of your own death to the place of execution. If we are going to hear these words in church, we must ask what they meant then and what they mean now.
There are other instances in the gospels where Jesus uses exaggeration to drive home his point. This saying today is consistent with his practice. Crucifixion was a frequent means of capital punishment in the Empire. Jesus uses this vivid image to capture the riskiness of his rejection of the accepted religious and social values of his day. We know from Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts, that the early church rejected personal property and attempted to build a community based on common ownership of goods. This vision is consistent with Jesus’ requirement to give up one’s possessions. And the situation of early Christians must have cut across family lines. Just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus say that he had come to bring division between sons and fathers, daughters and mothers. Luke is telling his readers that discipleship can be very costly, and they should not embrace it without looking at that cost very carefully.
So, how are we to hear Jesus’ requirement to hate in the context of his other teachings about loving one’s enemies and doing good to those who hate you?
I don’t think Jesus uses “hate” in the sense of an emotional response or an absence of love. I do think he is emphasizing the consequences and sometimes the contradictions that come with a decision to follow God’s way, as Jesus himself has done. Discipleship does call for sacrifice. It calls us to examine our priorities. Discipleship calls us
• to champion the cause of the poor and oppressed
• to refrain from amassing wealth on the backs of the downtrodden
• to reject greed and overabundance of possessions in favour of living simply
• to examine accepted traditions with a critical eye and jettison them when they conflict with gospel values
• to advocate for those most vulnerable at the expense of one’s own privilege.
One commentator suggests that this passage is Jesus’ commentary on the commandment to love God with one’s whole being. Discipleship means loving God above all else. And that brings choices and decisions. The gospels contain many examples of people who were unable or unwilling to make that commitment and chose instead to walk away. Discipleship is more than saving our souls. It is embarking on a new way of life, a new way of being in the context of this new relationship with Jesus. The purpose of sacrifice is not to make our lives more austere and barren, but to open us to the joy of abundant life in Christ.
The Church is the community where we practice following Jesus, so that we can take our love of God and neighbour and make this world different. We are the community of disciples who are on the same path. And we know what following God looks like. The pattern of this new humanity is Jesus himself. Amen.