Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Whoever doesn’t bear his own cross, and come after me, can’t be my disciple.
It used to be so easy to go to the grocery store. Perhaps I’m exaggerating, but have you been there lately? Try choosing a can of tomatoes. There is ten feet of shelf space for all the different types of tomato products they carry. It isn’t just a difference in brand names. Each brand seems to have a dozen different types of tomatoes. One is seasoned with garlic and herbs, another with chili. There are diced and finely diced, stewed and roasted, whole and pureed. There are even choices between the different types of tomato sauces and tomato pastes. The bread aisle is even worse. The number of choices is boggling. And the barbeque sauce! My favorite store must have at least a hundred different bottles. How do you choose?
However, the choice presented to us in today’s scriptures might be even harder. Moses writes, “Behold, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and evil.” This choice might not seem that difficult, after all, who would choose death over life? Yet, Jesus tells us why it is hard: we must choose God above everything to choose life.
The LORD lays it on the line with Israel in today’s Old Testament lesson. The kind of life we will live is dependent on the way we walk in this world. If we love God and walk in His ways, we will see the blessings of obedience which is life and prosperity. “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce to you today, that you will surely perish. You will not prolong your days in the land where you pass over the Jordan to go in to possess it.” If we turn away from God, in essence “hate” Him, we will suffer the consequences.
Jesus uses equally strong language in the Gospel lesson. It is shocking to us to hear Him say to “hate” someone. The word “hate” is defined in Webster’s as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury, extreme dislike or antipathy, loathing.” If it is used as a verb it means, “To feel extreme enmity toward, have a strong aversion to, find very distasteful.”
Hate manifests as violence in the streets in our world today. We fight hate cries for peace and love and understanding. We weep over the many that have unnecessarily died because of the “isms” that divide us. It is because we define hate as intense hostility that we are shocked by Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson. Surely Jesus does not mean for us to have extreme dislike and loathing for our family? After all, He reminds us to honor our parents and love our neighbors. How could He ask us to hate anyone?
Jesus did say that we are to hate our mothers and fathers, but He did not give us permission to make them our enemies or treat them with dishonor. “Hate” as it is understood in ancient Israel has to do with priorities. To hate something meant to turn your back on it, to separate yourself from it. Jacob loved Rachel but hated Leah. Obviously, he did not feel a strong aversion to her since they made several children together. The passage simply means that Jacob put Rachel first, turning his back on Leah for Rachel’s sake. When Jesus calls us to hate our mothers and our fathers, our wives and our children, He is not telling us to abandon them or treat them poorly. He is simply calling us to put Him first, setting aside everything and everyone else for His sake.
There are no shades of gray when it comes to God. Either He is first or He is last. We can’t put him in second or third place. If we choose Him, we hate -- or turn away from -- the world. If we choose something of this world, then we hate -- or turn away from -- Him. Discipleship means keeping our focus on God, doing His work, walking His path, following His Word completely.
Where is our priority? I don’t think any of us can really say that we keep God first. We all have moments when our focus is on Him: when we are involved in ministry, reading the Bible, worshipping at church, joining in Bible study and fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. But we also have moments when we don’t think about Him. We go to work, and since many employers insist that we keep our faith separate, we turn our back on God for those eight or ten hours a day. None of us would say we hate God, but are following Him, really, if we ignore Him a third of our lives?
That’s the point of Jesus’ statement here, but He has taken it even closer to home. As a matter of fact, He’s put this right smack dab in the middle of our homes. We are to give God the priority above even those with whom we live. How can He expect that from us?
It is interesting that Jesus would turn to the most important relationships in our lives in this passage. In Jesus’ day it was easy to see which false gods were turning the people’s hearts from the one true God. Rome was filled with temples to deities that had no real power. It is a little more difficult in today’s world because our gods aren’t necessarily the subject of myths and legends. Our jobs, our homes, our hobbies and sports are like gods to us. How often do we put a trip to the golf course or a child’s soccer tournament before worship? How many times do we give up on our bible studies or Christian fellowship because we have to work? How often do we say, “I’m just too tired to think about God today”?
Even harder to see is how our families are the gods which we worship. Jesus brings this problem closer to home. The gods we worship were not just found in the temples of Rome, they are the flesh of our flesh. Our mothers and fathers gave us life. We become one flesh with our spouses. Our children came forth from our loins. Certainly human beings play a role in procreation, but we do not give life. The breath of life can come only from the Creator, our God. Yet, we put so much emphasis on our relationships with one another, as if life would not exist without us. We feel we owe our parents or children our lives and we put them before everything else. It is by God’s command that we become one with our spouses. How could it be wrong to love them? The problem is not that we love, honor and serve them. The problem is that we put them ahead of God. They become our gods.
Life with Christ means putting Him first. It means doing His will even when it will go against the will of our families and the society in which we live. It means being obedient to God when the world around us expects something else.
Jesus not only asks us to follow Him, but He demands that those who want to be His disciples “hate” everything else. In this passage He was being followed by large crowds, a mob of people. Most of them believed in Jesus, at least to a point. They believed that He could do great things and that He was a charismatic and credible speaker. He had authority they had never seen in any man.
He told them what it meant to be a disciple. It meant putting Him first. The people in the crowds had not given themselves fully to Jesus. They could leave at any moment, to go home to care for the needs of home and family. They believed but had not committed themselves to Him. It is a very hard thing that Jesus asks. It is hard to give up everything, to turn our backs on everyone we love. I can’t imagine giving up the wonderful life I have been living. It is an impossible request from Jesus.
And yet, does the servant who stays with the master want for anything? No, as the master’s servant he had everything he needed: a home, food, work, clothes, family and friends. Jesus is not calling us to live a life with nothing. He is not telling us to become penniless wanderers. He is asking that we give up even our very lives for His sake to be more than followers. He is calling us to pick up His cross and follow Him.
Now, many will say that their cross has something to do with something they are suffering. “I’m sick, but I can carry this cross.” “The cross I have to bear is this job I hate.” “My relationships are difficult, but I’ll stick them out because they are the cross I must carry.” This is not what Jesus meant when He told us to pick up our crosses and follow Him. He wants us to be willing to give up everything, even our families and our lives, to be disciples.
Jesus told them two parables -- one about a builder and the other about a warrior king. He asked what would happen if they did not count the cost of their projects. The builder would be seen as a fool when his foundation lay undeveloped, the king would be routed by the enemy. The builder and the king had to count the cost so that they knew if they could succeed. The cost of discipleship is great -- it means giving up everything for the sake of Christ. Jesus wants the crowds to consider whether or not they want to be followers or disciples. It is much harder to be a disciple. “So therefore whoever of you who doesn’t renounce all that he has, he can’t be my disciple.”
There are many followers. There are many people who make to church on a regular basis, who serve on committees and attend Bible studies. There are a few who seem to fully and completely immerse themselves in their lives of faith. However, I often wonder if it is even possible for anyone to really be the kind of disciple that Jesus demands in today’s text. I can’t imagine giving up everything I own and everyone I love to turn my back completely on the society in which I live, to follow Jesus wherever He might lead. I praise God for the incredible blessings I have in my family, my home, my work in this world. Perhaps this is an impossible request from Jesus.
Yet, I’m not sure that Jesus is demanding that we completely separate ourselves from the world in which we live, dwelling in a hermitage with our Bibles open constantly. It is not necessary to hide from the world. Instead we are called to take God with us into it. To do so, however, means keeping His Word in our hearts and in our minds. It means taking time daily for prayer and study, for renewing ourselves by drinking in the waters of life. All too often we think that we are strong enough, faithful enough, knowledgeable enough to live on what is already a part of our lives. God intends for us to be like the tree that dwells by the streams of water, drinking in His Word daily for life. Unfortunately, we are so easily distracted by the world in which we live. We ignore God during those moments when we are interacting with the world that rejects Him. Our focus turns to the needs of our families, to our work, to our interests. That is why Jesus tells us to hate our fathers and mothers, our wives and children, our brothers and sisters and even our own lives. We are to hate them, turning to God, so that we can love them with His love and grace.
Philemon was a Christian man that lived in Colossae. Paul was probably in Rome, living as a prisoner under house arrest for his faith and preaching. Paul wrote many letters during his imprisonment’ it was a way to encourage congregations and individual Christians to be the men and women God has called them to be even though he could not work amongst them personally. Philemon was a master whose slave named Onesimus ran away. Onesimus eventually met Paul, heard the Gospel and believed. He became a Christian and then served Paul as he was able.
I usually approach the story of Philemon and Onesimus from the perspective of Paul talking to Philemon. The letter is a lesson in forgiveness. We don’t know much about these two men. We don’t know how Onesimus came to be a slave; he most likely owed a debt, committed a minor crime or was taken in battle. For most slaves in Jesus’ day, service was payment and it ended after the debt was paid. We don’t know why Onesimus decided to run away, although by Paul’s description of Philemon, it is unlikely that he was a cruel master.
Onesimus ran away, found Paul and met Jesus. He became a Christian, and as such needed to restore the relationship between himself and Philemon. See, Christianity is about reconciliation, even if there is good reason for the brokenness. We know that slavery is wrong, but so is theft and by running away, Onesimus did not fully pay his debt to his master. How do you go from freedom back into slavery, which is what Onesimus was being called to do? And yet, restoration and forgiveness was what Onesimus needed the most.
Slaves were not slaves forever. They served for a time and then were set free. If the slave was married when he went to a master, his wife was also set free. However, if he married and had children while serving a master, the wife and children belonged to the master. The slave could decide to stay with the master, choose to be with him forever for the sake of his wife and children. “But if the servant shall plainly say, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go out free;’ then his master shall bring him to God, and shall bring him to the door or to the doorpost, and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall serve him for ever.”
When a slave chose to stay with a master, he was nailed through his ear to the doorpost as a witness to his willingness to be a servant forever. Perhaps this was what Paul was referring to in this letter when he said that Philemon would have him forever. Onesimus, in his new found faith and trust in the Lord, could have willingly returned to the life of servanthood for the sake of the Gospel of love. The sacrifice of his freedom may have been his cross to bear, the cost of being a disciple for Jesus Christ. Reconciliation could come as Onesimus turned away from freedom and submitted himself to a life of service. Though he would be returning to Philemon, this turning was an act of repentance as Onesimus trusted in God’s grace. But if he continued to run, Onesimus would not only turn his back on his debts, but also on the God who saved him.
Paul wrote the letter to encourage Philemon to look at Onesimus through the eyes of love, forgiveness and faith. He wanted Philemon to receive Onesimus in a new way, as a brother of Christ. There were debts to be paid, and Paul was willing to pay those debts for the sake of reconciliation. Paul says that Onesimus is more valuable now as a Christian than he was as a slave. It broke Paul’s heart to send Onesimus; he considered him a son.
We have no idea what happened to Onesimus or Philemon. Did they reconcile? Did they live in a new and better relationship? Did they work together as disciples of Christ? A man named Onesimus is identified as a Bishop in the early church writings. Was it the same man? One writer suggested that the fact that a private letter like this one to Philemon still exists is possibly proof that Onesimus was forgiven. After all, would Philemon keep a letter encouraging him to do something he refused to do?
Though still master and servant, the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus would be different as they both lived their faith together. They were both being offered a very hard choice, “Behold, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and evil.” Philemon was being asked to forgive Onesimus for his transgression and Onesimus was being asked to trust God. The call to discipleship required them both to carry heavy burdens. Yet, those burdens are not so heaven when we remember that Jesus Christ carries us by His grace. Repentance and forgiveness will lead us to a life of blessings we can’t imagine.
We will not suffer the wrath of God for our poor decisions, but we’ll never truly know the blessings of grace if we turn our back on the One from whom true life comes. We will suffer the consequences of a life poorly lived. So God, in His love and mercy, calls us to put Him first in our lives so that He can love us and care for us as He has promised. Following Jesus comes at a great cost, even the world, but having Jesus to follow came at an even greater cost to our God. He paid the debt to set us free. In that freedom we are called to willingly serve Him, to turn our hearts away from the world to become His disciples. We are called to allow our ear to be nailed to God’s doorpost, to give even our lives for Him. As disciples we’ll truly know what it means to be blessed, like a tree planted by the streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season. Our sacrifice will last but a season and we’ll soon know the blessing of dwelling with Him forever.
The crosses we have to bear has nothing to do with the suffering we experience in this imperfect world. Jesus calls us to willingly give up the freedom we think we have and take up a life following Him, even if it means the loss of everything we love in this world. We’ll find, in the end, that by hating the world and turning to Him, that we’ll have so much more love to give to the world through Him. It is, perhaps, the most difficult choice we’ll ever have to make, but being a disciple will reap the greatest benefits in this life and the next.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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