Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Having confidence in thine obedience I write unto thee, knowing that thou wilt do even beyond what I say.
What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? What does the disciple’s life look like? We might think that it is easy to recognize the disciples by the things that they do and the life that they lead, but is it? Is the Christian who commits to a life of missionary service any more a disciple than the Christian who teaches Sunday School at the local church for fifty years? Is a pastor who goes through training, is ordained and spends his life committed to working with and for the Church more of a disciple than the blue haired lady who arrives early to church on Sunday morning to make the coffee?
Where are the disciples of Christ found on a weekday morning? Can that guy who rides the train to his corporate job be a disciple as much as the volunteer who works full time at the food bank? Does it matter which political party they follow or which denomination they prefer? Can people on opposite sides of today’s issues all be disciples of Christ?
This is a much harder question for us to answer than it appears. We all have in our heads the image of what a disciple is supposed to do and what they should look like. We know what they should not do and we are shocked when we see people who claim to be Christian acting in a way that goes against what we believe Christianity means. The hard part, however, is that they believe as strongly as we that they are living the Christian life. They see our actions, or lack of action, as proof that we are not disciples.
But is there really a job description that concisely says what we are supposed to do? We have the great commission that says it is our task to go out and make disciples, teaching them everything that Jesus taught us. The Bible gives us guidance, but even there we see different perspectives: wait and see, go and do, stand and fight, give your cloak, speak the word, wipe your feet. Which is the life of the disciple?
There are more than a dozen saints who are remembered on September 8th with feast days. Among them are these four: St. Eusebius, who destroyed a pagan temple, was arrested, beaten and killed by a mob. St. Adela joined a nunnery after her husband died and spent the rest of her life serving from there. St. Adrian was a military officer who became a Christian after seeing the courage of Christians being tortured in Nicomedia. He was imprisoned, tortured and killed. St. Corbinian lived as a hermit for more than a decade, but eventually became an evangelist to Germany. He spoke out against an improper relationship in the nobility and was persecuted. These are just four examples of Christian disciples who have been lifted up for their faith and their discipleship. There are dozens for every day of the year, and that doesn’t include the millions of Christians who have lived from the time of Christ to today that haven’t been officially sainted.
In these four examples you see four very different lives. St. Adela lived a quiet, prayerful life. St. Eusebius was a fighter. St. Adrian barely had time to even figure out what it meant to be a Christian. St. Corbinian followed the Holy Spirit wherever He led. Each are examples of discipleship and a reminder that it isn’t what you do for God, but that you do what He has called you to do.
Discipleship is about living your vocation. You might be called to a monastic life, or a life on the streets as an advocate for a cause. You might be called to serve in the food kitchen or be ordained into pastoral ministry. You might be called to be a mother, a janitor, a politician, a teacher, an artist, a writer, a plumber, an architect, an accountant, etc. There is no limit to what God can call us to do. What makes us disciples is that we obey God’s call and walk in faith, according to God’s Word. God will not call us to do something that goes against His Word.
And this is where we have to be careful. We are human. We have agendas. We have ideas and beliefs and opinions based on our worldliness. We tend to believe what we believe and we ignore what we’d rather not believe. We will see in God’s Word what fits our human desires, and justify our actions by twisting the Word. Then we stop seeing Christ in those who disagree and we ignore the reality that there is as much truth to their ideas, beliefs and opinions as there is in ours. We believe we are disciples and that others are not. In other words, we are all sinners in need of a Savior. We all need Jesus.
There is something that is very obvious in the life of a disciple, however: forgiveness. We are forgiven, and we live forgiven. That’s what makes us disciples. That’s what Paul is teaching his friend Philemon.
The short book of Philemon is a letter to a man who is a Christian that lives in Colossae. Paul is a prisoner, probably in Rome, under house arrest for his faith and preaching. During his imprisonment, Paul wrote many letters, encouraging congregations and individual Christians to be the men and women God has called them to be. Philemon was a slave owner whose slave named Onesimus ran away, apparently after stealing something. Onesimus eventually met Paul, heard the Gospel and believed. He became a Christian and then served Paul as he was able.
Paul knew that the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus required forgiveness and reconciliation, for both their sakes. Onesimus must have felt guilt over his actions against his master. Philemon had every right according to the law of the land to require restitution. It may have even been within his rights to punish the runaway slave even to death.
But is that an act of a disciple? It appears that Paul gave the letter, and possibly others, to Onesimus to carry back to Colossae. This was a risk for Onesimus since he was a criminal. But 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?
Whatever the outcome, Paul’s letter to Philemon asks the same question we see in the Old Testament lesson: See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil, which do you choose? Life is found in forgiveness. After all, Philemon was a Christian; he knew the forgiveness of Christ in his own life. How could he possibly withhold forgiveness from a brother in Christ? Moses says to the people of Israel, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; to love Jehovah thy God, to obey his voice, and to cleave unto him; for he is thy life, and the length of thy days; that thou mayest dwell in the land which Jehovah sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”
The life of a disciple begins with forgiveness and continues in God’s Word, wherever that leads.
So, we come again to the question: what does the life of a disciple look like? The Gospel lesson tells us, “If any man cometh unto me, and hateth not his own father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” What? How can we in one breath talk about discipleship being about loving, and in the next talk about hate? Surely Jesus doesn’t really mean we should hate our mothers and fathers? He says elsewhere to honor them, according to the commandments. How can He talk now of hate?
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.” It is because we define hate in this way 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 parents?
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 our 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 with just one priority higher while the rest of the world is behind Him. 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 walking with God as our focus, doing His work, walking His path, following His Word completely.
Do we put God first? Or do we put things of this world first, making them our gods? 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 off being a disciple to do the earthly things? After all, God doesn’t take attendance, and tomorrow is another day. We can’t miss an event because it’ll happen only once, but eternity will last forever. God is patient, right?
Yes, God is patient, but that’s not the right question. God loves us, He has forgiven us the sins that we haven’t even committed yet. Through the body and blood of Jesus we are reconciled to Him. In the story of Philemon, we are Onesimus, Paul is Jesus and Philemon is the Father. Jesus sends us home with the assurance that He has paid our debts. In this version, we know the outcome. The Father receives us with joy, welcomes us home and sets us free to be His servant in the world. How do we, as that forgiven slave to sin and death, respond to such grace? Do we go on our way to live our life of freedom as we please? Or do we commit our lives completely in service and thanksgiving to the One who has saved us?
The purpose of Christian faith is restoration and forgiveness. Philemon knew the power of God’s forgiveness in his own life because he’d become a Christian. He knew the transforming power of the call of God in the lives of those who believe. Onesimus also learned about the forgiveness that comes from faith through the teaching and concern of his new friend Paul. How do they live that life of forgiveness in the world?
The psalmist writes that the man who lives by God’s Word is like a tree planted by the streams of water. This is not simply a matter of living a life that is righteous according to the Law; it is about living in a relationship with God. God does not come to us because we are righteous, but we are made righteous by His grace. We are given everything we need to be disciples; dwelling in those gifts will keep us on the paths which God has made for us. Dwelling in those gifts means that we’ll avoid those things that will bring harm upon ourselves, our neighbors and the world in which we live. Dwelling in God’s grace means that we won’t walk in the counsel of the wicked because we have His council by which to walk. Dwelling in God’s faith means we won’t stand in the way of the sinners because we will stand in His love. Dwelling in God’s presence means that we’ll meditate on His Word, His Law, day and night.
The life of discipleship is not easy because we have to give up ourselves for His sake. Jesus says, “Whosoever doth not bear his own cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” Faith for the Christians in those early days meant possible persecution and even death. The cost was very high. St. Adrian didn’t even have time to be a Christian before he was dying for his faith; few of us will ever experience that kind of persecution. That doesn’t mean we are less of a disciple: we are called to walk a different path according to God’s Word.
Are we walking that path? Are we living in our vocation? Are we using our gifts? Are we doing what God has set out for us to do? Are we living according to His Word? Are we choosing life over death? Are we choosing forgiveness and reconciliation? The cost for you and I may not be martyrdom; the cost might just be doing the very thing that goes against the world’s expectations.
Philemon had every right to deal with Onesimus as a runaway slave. I’m sure that the other masters would be upset if he forgave the debt and received Onesimus as a brother, it would set a bad precedent for the other master/slave relationships. I’ve known people who refused to forgive. “They don’t deserve mercy,” they say. Do you? Do you deserve to be forgiven for your own debts? Do you deserve the grace of God that comes at the expensive of Jesus’ own life? If you know forgiveness, how can you ignore the call of God to forgive others?
I don’t know if it is possible to truly become a disciple of Jesus Christ, though there are some throughout the history of the church that have come close. I can’t imagine giving up everything I own and everyone I love and to turn my back completely on the society in which I live, to follow Jesus wherever He might lead. Could I do it if God called me to that kind of life? I don’t know.
What I do know is that each day I wake up I’m invited to live as a disciple where I am and in whatever I do, praising God for the incredible blessings I have. I will be distracted by the things of this world, by my family and my work and myself. I will forget to see God in the lives of those who have different ideas, beliefs and opinions. I will forget that they are disciples, too. But Jesus had so much confidence in us that He willingly went to the cross to guarantee our freedom. He is the one building the tower and He is prepared to cover the cost, even when we fail to be the disciples He is calling us to be.
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 backs 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 our whole 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. 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.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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