Sunday 4 September 2022: Trinity 12, Twenty-third in Ordinary time, Proper 18
A price worth paying
Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
Context: a Eucharist in a small but active village church, seeking to connect more widely with their community. Half of the congregation are elderly, the rest span a range of ages
Aim: to be challenged with the all-encompassing nature of following Jesus
It is important to our mission as a village church that we welcome anyone and everyone who may be interested in joining us. Bright posters on noticeboards, Facebook posts in local groups, and fun flyers at school gates all help to attract as many people as possible to our services and events.
How odd then, that Jesus seems to deliberately put off potential followers. The man is a PR nightmare! At the very moment he has successfully drawn a large crowd to follow him, Jesus appears to warn them off with a set of strict criteria for would-be disciples, who are even asked to ‘hate’ their own family.
Tricky sayings such as this can be a gift in disguise: they force us to pay closer attention to Jesus, resolving to hear him on his own terms and to allow him to challenge our preconceptions about his teaching.
EYES WIDE OPEN
Perhaps the crowds travelling with Jesus that day were enjoying a sunny stroll with family and friends, the novelty of a new teacher, the excitement of seeing miracles, and a break from the humdrum of daily life. Those early days may have felt like a honeymoon period, full of adventure and optimism. But just like a marriage, the life of discipleship is not one to be entered lightly or carelessly. Instead, those who would answer the call of Jesus must do so with their eyes wide open; like the tower-builder or warring king of these short parables, they need to know exactly what they are getting themselves into.
Following Jesus comes at such great cost because to recognise him as Lord and King demands an absolute overhaul of our priorities. Whatever took first place in our hearts before knowing Jesus, however worthy and good, must now come beneath Jesus. The hyperbolic language of hatred makes a point of comparison: Jesus deserves a devotion that is of a completely different magnitude to anything we have loved before. If we choose to embark on the journey of a disciple, no sphere of our lives will be left untouched by the message of Jesus and his transformative work in us.
COMPELLED BY CHRIST
Philemon, a wealthy Christian convert in the city of Colossae, found out exactly how much discipleship demanded of him. Paul’s letter to Philemon concerns his runaway slave, Onesimus. Contemporary readers are rightly appalled at the idea that the enslavement of some people by others was part of the fabric of polite society. But in Paul’s world, any respectable person would be expected to punish an insolent slave and preserve the social order.
So, the request in Paul’s letter, that slave-owner and slave should be reconciled with no penalty at all, is startling. Paul is reluctant to ‘command’ the exercise of grace, but, he has no need to. It is the gospel message, by which all three men have received the same mercy and forgiveness through Christ, which compels this radical response. As Paul’s beautifully persuasive text unfolds, it becomes more and more clear that there is no other option for a follower of Jesus than to release others from the chains of oppression and injustice.
HE IS WORTH IT
The cost for Philemon was both financial and social. It is just as Jesus promised: those who follow him cannot love their reputation, their money, or their way of life more than they love him. But as Paul knew from his own experience, whatever earthly privilege and comfort a Christian has, they can ‘regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus [our] Lord’ (Philippians 3:8). What a person gains by following Christ is immeasurably greater than anything they lose. If Philemon lost a slave, in Christ he gained a brother. If he lost his right to anger, in Christ he gained reconciliation with God and man. If he lost face among the rich and powerful, he gained a share in Christ’s liberating work.
So, when we reach out with the good news of Jesus to those who don’t yet know him, we need not greet them at the door with stern warnings about the cost of discipleship. Our friendly flyers are right to invite anyone and everyone to come! But let us who have decided to follow Jesus do so with joyful and wholehearted devotion, encouraging one another to bring every aspect of our lives under his transforming work. Then we will become living advertisements that tell our friends and neighbours: following Jesus is worth absolutely everything.
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