I found two different but related messages from our readings this week --one from the Gospel from Luke, and the other from Paul’s letter to Philemon. The first is more about our individual relationships with God; the second is about our community relationships with each other and God.
First message—from the Gospel. Our Pentecost season readings of the Gospel from Luke have all been very challenging. Jesus, as he has worked his way toward Jerusalem and the cross, has gone after his disciples, his followers, and those Pharisees around him during his ministry. Lorraine in her sermon three weeks ago used the word “raging” to describe what Jesus has been doing, and described the situation well—“Do you hear the urgency in his message? He seems to be saying—pay attention, look around, be aware. His concern is for his disciples as he attempts to prepare them for the days ahead.”
Today, Jesus is “raging” again!
In this Gospel Luke begins by saying that Jesus was accompanied by great crowds as he preached and performed miracles. Some people would have been following him because they had been cured of some disease - or perhaps they had witnessed one of these cures. Many would have been following out of curiosity. Too many were hanging around probably just because of the catchy teaching and preaching. But probably most all of them were following Jesus around only as they found time to do it, rather than actually making the commitment to Jesus and his ministry the central part of their lives. That is what the message in Luke’s Gospel today is—what does it take to really sign up for a life following Jesus!
Jesus decided that it was time to make these people think about what they were doing--and the possible cost of committing to Him seriously. He attacked their family relationships, talked about the cost of bearing the cross for God, and how they must carefully discern about all of this before committing to follow him. He finished this message by telling them they must be willing to give up their material possessions to be a disciple of Jesus. He made this all about renunciations: (1) renouncing one's family; (2) renouncing one's life--by bearing the cross; and (3) renouncing all that one has.
I know we like to think of Jesus as bringing a message of love for all (I sure do!), and because of this we can try to soft sell what he said to these people in this Gospel reading today. But, “what Jesus really meant” was even stronger than what we read here. We are called to give up not only our possessions, but we are also called to give up our very existence --which means property, possessions and our being. In being clear with thinking about our faith, we know that none of this is ours anyway. We didn’t create it – we only manage it, we won’t be taking it with us in the end of our lives on Earth, and it is all worthless other than to care and minister to each other and the rest of God’s people.
Jesus makes it very difficult to be his disciple. To follow Him will ultimately cost us everything and we need to know that cost before "signing" up. Assuming all of us here think that we have decided to follow Jesus (and that is what we say with our baptisms and in our worship each week) -- maybe we need to pull back and dampen the enthusiasm a little bit. Let’s do some reality checking, and clarify our theology by thinking about what it takes to be a true disciple. Clearly, with what Jesus is asking of us, it is very difficult or impossible for anyone to actually do this; but at the same time, we know we have salvation by God’s grace and failure is not really an option if we truly believe and follow him. (The message is not about salvation by doing works, but how we show others we are people of grace!)
About 20 years ago while working at Boeing I participated in a pre-management training exercise; I was asked a question about the priorities of my life. I answered to my boss that, in order, my priorities were: #1--my faith, #2--my family, #3--my health, and then my job and other things. My boss was not happy with that answer, but he knew me well from my talk and actions of faith, and understood it. I think that is what Jesus is getting at, about deciding to follow him—carefully discern, and then if you decide to go forward, then clearly live your faith as an example to others.
In our own Book of Common Prayer Catechism, The Church and its Ministry, it provides us with some answers as to how to follow Jesus, as individuals and as a church body. It states:
--The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
--The Church pursues this mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
--The Church carries out this mission through the ministry of all its members.
--The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.
These practices have nothing to do with a legalistic, law-based approach to Christian faith. Their purpose is not to create super Christians or any kind of spiritual elite. No one earns salvation or gains any special favor from God by practicing these. They are simply good habits of the soul that open us to the wonder and mystery of God's active presence in our lives. They keep us focused and consistently fix our attention on the grace of God.
Jesus strongly urged us to make disciples of all nations (not "make church members"). His instructions are to baptize and teach the people. Faith is more than just an intellectual acknowledgment or exercise. We need to show to others what we believe by the way we live much more than by what we say.
Second message—from Paul’s letter to Philemon. This Epistle, or second reading today, is an obscure and less read short letter that Paul wrote to one of his own church leaders. The whole letter is 25 verses! I found this letter very interesting--as a story about the early Christians, and an example of how Paul lived practically his faith and dealt with a major issue in the culture of the first century Roman Empire. I think the way he lived his faith has implications about our lives and faith now, too.
Onesimus (whose name means "useful"!) had been a slave in the household of Philemon, a leader in the church in Colossae who must have been reasonably well off. Onesimus had escaped and somehow made contact with Paul during his time of imprisonment, where he helped Paul, but more importantly Onesimus became a convert to the faith. Philemon had become a Christian too, probably during Paul’s ministry to the people in Colossae. Paul encouraged Onesimus to go back to Philemon, a potentially dangerous thing for him to do. Paul knew Philemon well; he was a believer and friend. Paul therefore wrote to Philemon to encourage him to welcome Onesimus back, no longer as a slave and a runaway, but rather as a brother and fellow worker for Christ.
It’s interesting that, in the past British and in our own American histories, both pro- and anti-slavery forces have tried to use this letter from Paul and his Letter to the Colossians as their arguments for and against slavery. (Wow! Another example of using the Bible for your own ends!) The pro side said that Paul is saying the slave Onesimus must return to the bondage of slavery and his master/owner, while the anti side said that Paul is saying slavery is wrong and that Philemon must let Onesimus go. Neither of these sides that claimed to speak from a Christian perspective understood what Paul was really saying.
Paul's letter did deal with an accepted cultural institution of that time and for many years after--human slavery. But Paul brought to this letter the spirit of Christ and equality within the Christian community. He did not attack slavery directly, for this was something the Christian communities of the first century were in no position to do. Paul attempted to re-negotiate the relationship between two individuals of unequal social status (Philemon and Onesimus), but who were also bound together in their faith of Jesus Christ.
Paul's appeal was not based on the laws and codes of society, but was on the basis of love. Love and faith were what mattered and what brought Paul joy. Ultimately that love, then and now, flows from God, embodied in the life of Christ, and his continuing presence, the Holy Spirit. That love was also the reason why Paul was prepared to risk a Christian friendship and write this letter to advocate for Onesimus. Love means sometimes going out on a limb and advocating for people who are powerless or less fortunate than us.
It is by the spirit of Christ that we live and are brought into relationship with one another. It is because of this relationship that Paul dared to "command" Philemon, challenging him as a brother. Philemon was praised for his faith—that is, trust in and loyalty toward—Jesus Christ. Paul urged Philemon to make that faith effective by perceiving the good thing still to be done with Onesimus for Christ, whose spirit bound them together.
This letter to Philemon challenges us, too--what is the right thing to do when we are confronted with situations that makes us uncomfortable. It would be easy if doing the right thing is, for example, deciding whether to give $10, or $20 to the church, or to help out with the church school, or to donate some time to a local cause that is really simple to do. It is another thing when we are asked to give up what we can view as our own personal, and even Christian, right: our relatively comfortable lives—something we somehow think we have earned, and reach out to help others less fortunate than us. It is another thing when letting go of this leads us to assume a relationship—with those whom we may have viewed with pity and even suspicion because we now recognize that we are bound together in Christ with them.
I’m reading the book, “Traveling Mercies”, by Anne Lamott, for our new spiritual book club this week. I think her words describe well what it means to have a faith based on helping others: Most of the people I know who have what I want—purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, and joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people of community, who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians (and I add, Muslims!)—people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light that the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful.”
God wants this kinship of our common faith with others to become effective for Christ's sake. It is best for Christ, and for all in his body, if we learn to share what we have found which is good in ourselves and each other, and use it to serve and build up one another, into that mutual sharing of our lives in faith.
Let us pray: Everliving God, strength and sustain us, that with patience and understanding, we may love and care for all of your people; and grant that together we may follow Jesus Christ, offering to you our God-given gifts and talents; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, Forever and ever. AMEN.