Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
So therefore whoever of you who doesnít renounce all that he has, he canít be my disciple.
Last year our Sunday school class spent nine months studying the book of Revelation. One of the things we took away from that study is the question put forth by the visions of the Apostle John: Which do you choose, God or the world? This summer we have been looking at the Didache, an ancient Greek document that was the earliest known catechism, probably dated even before Markís Gospel. That study has led to a similar question: Which way do you choose, life or death? Though slightly different questions, they demand that we consider how we live our lives.
Iím not very good at making decisions. My family will ask, ďWhere should we go to dinner?Ē and I would just as soon let them choose. I hate packing for a trip because I donít like having to decide what Iíll wear in a few days, especially if the weather is questionable. I am thinking about buying a new, lightweight laptop for travel, but there are too many choices!
Have you been to the grocery store lately? Try choosing a can of tomatoes. There is ten feet of shelf space for all the different types of tomato products they carry, and that doesnít include sauces and condiments. It isnít 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 chilies. 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 number of choices is staggering. How do you choose?
The choice presented to us in todayís scriptures might be even harder. Many of our choices have no real consequences. The recipe might call for a certain kind of tomato, but the meal wonít be ruined if we donít choose perfectly. It doesnít matter if we have hamburgers or casserole for dinner tonight or if I wear the red or green shirt. It does matter how we live our life. It does matter if we believe in God or in ourselves and the world. It does matter if we obey Godís commandments and walk in His ways. These choices mean the difference between good and evil, between life and death. Moses writes, ďBehold, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and evil.Ē 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 else to choose life.
The LORD lays it on the line with Israel in todayís 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. ďBut if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away and worship other gods, and serve them, I declare 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.Ē If we turn away from God, we will suffer the consequences.
Taking the wrong path can be dangerous. I was watching a show with a pair of brothers who go on adventures in the wild looking for answers to age old questions or for treasure. One day they were following a path and thought they found a marker that pointed up a mountain. They struggled with the climb, and when they got to the top, they discovered it lead to a huge cliff. It was not the way they were supposed to go. If they had not been careful, they might have fallen hundreds of feet to their deaths.
Most of our wrong turns are not so consequential, but they make our way more difficult. When I was coming home from my vacation last month, I was following my GPS. I knew the way home at that point, but the GPS knows how to avoid traffic jams. I happily took the first detour, knowing it was right. I was planning to stop at a certain place to take a break, but the GPS took me on another road. Again, I was familiar with it, but I usually donít go that way because it is out of the way. I didnít even realize I was taking that detour until it was too late. It saved me time, which is good, but I was really desperate by the time I reached a place where I could finally stop.
The most life threatening mistake I made happened to me when I lived in New Jersey. I was trying to find a business one evening and I came to a crossroad that I thought would lead me to the place. I was in the left hand turning lane waiting for the green arrow. When I turned, I carefully moved forward, but a drunk driver ran the red and smashed into my car. My car spun several times and my can of soda exploded on the dashboard. I was not injured but I believe that my seatbelt saved my life that night. That night a wrong turn could have meant the difference between life and death.
As we learned in the book of Revelation and the Didache, the right choice is to follow Godís Word. The psalmist writes that the man who lives by Godís 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, but instead is about living in a relationship with God. God does not come to us because we are good enough, but we are made righteous by living in His presence. We are given all the faith we need by Godís grace, dwelling in His gifts will keep us on the path which God has ordained for us. Dwelling in His gifts means that weíll avoid those paths that will harm us. Dwelling in Godís grace means that weíll not walk in the counsel of the wicked because we have His council by which to walk. Dwelling in Godís faith means weíll not stand in the way of the sinners because we will stand in His love. Dwelling in Godís presence means that weíll meditate on His Word, His Law, day and night.
Does this mean that we should separate ourselves from the world? No. It is not necessary to hide, instead we are called to take God with us into it. We have each been given a vocation, a calling in this world. It is through our vocation that Godís grace flows into the lives of others and His purpose for our lives is accomplished. Our vocation might not sound very godly; as a matter of fact, sometimes our jobs seem very counter to Godís intent. Is a stable hand really doing Godís work when he shovels the manure each day? What about those accountants, lawyers and stockbrokers riding the train each day? Is a mother serving God when she feeds her children or a shop clerk ringing up my total at the grocery store?
Jesus says, ďSo therefore whoever of you who doesnít renounce all that he has, he canít be my disciple.Ē His point is not that we are to give up everything of this world and lead a life of separation like a hermit. He is telling us that we must check our priorities. What matters most? What is the purpose of our work? Who are we serving when we start our day? To follow Jesus means putting Him first. It means leaving aside our agendas, our expectations, and our desires so that we will do what He has called us to do. As recipients of Godís grace we are called to make Him the priority in our life, to consider His Word when we make decisions and to walk in His ways as we respond to His call.
Our study in Revelation and the Didache has led us to a new study: the Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes give us a picture of what a discipleís life should look like. It is counter to everything we know in this world. Jesus tells us to be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek and to hunger and thirst for righteousness. He tells us to be merciful and pure in heart. Jesus tells us to be peacemakers and to accept the persecution that will come our way because of Him. This is exactly the opposite of what the world expects from us. We are to be wealthy, happy, strong, and satisfied. We are to get what we are owed, to follow our desires, be a winner and follow the crowds. We struggle with Godís path because it seems to lead to suffering, but the reality is that those who are obedient disciples will enter the kingdom of heaven. Godís path leads to eternity, all other paths lead to hell.
We are shocked by Jesusí comment in todayís Gospel lesson. He said, ďIf anyone comes to me, and doesnít disregard his own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he canít be my disciple.Ē This seems like a contradiction since Jesus talks about honoring mother and father and loving our neighbors, even our enemies. How can we both honor and love them and also hate them? Jesus is telling us to consider the cost of following Him.
The word ďhateĒ is defined in Websterís as ďintense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury, extreme dislike or antipathy, loathing.Ē If it is used as a verb, it means, ďto feel extreme enmity toward, have a strong aversion to, find very distasteful.Ē Imagine the shock Jesus must have provoked with His comments in todayís lesson. We are to hate our mother and father?
ďHate,Ē as it was understood in ancient Israel, had 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 created several children together. This passage simply means that Jacob put Rachel first, turning his back on Leah for Rachelís sake. When Jesus calls us to hate our mothers and fathers, our wives and our children, He is not telling us to abandon them or treat them as enemies. He is simply calling us to put Him first, setting aside everything and everybody else for His sake. It is a matter of priorities, placing God ahead of everything else, including our selves. It is a heavy cost and never easy, but it is the life to which each disciple is called.
Imagine how hard it must have been for Philemon to get the letter from Paul. We do not know his whole story from the beginning or the end. We know a little bit about the characters, the time and place where this story is set. Paul is the writer, a passionate Christian who has not only taken Godís word to the world, but has suffered for its sake. He is a prisoner, though we do not know from which of his many imprisonments he is writing this letter. We know that Timothy is a friend and co-worker in Christ, a ďsonĒ of Paul not in the biological sense, but because Paul was the one who instructed him in the Christian faith. We know that Philemon is a man from Colossae of some means because he had at least one slave. He was Christian. We know that Onesimus was a slave from Colossae who became a Christian under the instruction of Paul.
We do not know how Onesimus became a slave. We do not know why he ran away or how he came to befriend Paul. We do not know what happened to these characters after Paul sent his letter. Did Paul have any impact on the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon? Were the reconciled? Did Onesimus suffer the consequences of his infraction against Philemon? Did Philemon have mercy and receive his slave as a brother in Christ? Did Paul ever see them again?
Paulís concern here is not just for his new friend and brother Onesimus. He was concerned about Philemon. There is a question of a financial matter involved in this story. Was Onesimus purchased or did he owe Philemon a debt which forced him into slavery? Did Onesimus steal from Philemon when he escaped? Paul was so concerned for the welfare of both these men that he was willing to repay the cost to restore the relationship. The details of this story donít really matter; the purpose for Paul is to show us what it means to walk the path of Christian faith.
The purpose of Christian faith is restoration and forgiveness. Philemon knew the power of Godís forgiveness in his own life because heíd 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. Onesimus, though still a slave, was something new, he was a brother in Christ to all those who believed in Jesus. He was transformed and willing to serve. Did his good graces extend even to the one who had held him as a slave and did he return with courage and hope to the place where he belonged?
Along with forgiveness, we see a lesson in living our vocation in and through the faith we have been given. Philemon was master, Onesimus a slave. In Christ the roles of life may not change but the way we deal with one another does. In our own churches we often have people who are CEOs of a company and their employees worshipping side by side. That relationship reaches beyond the church door as the CEO is expected to treat the employee with Christian love and respect even in the workplace and vice versa, neither one taking advantage of their position in the church or in the world to set themselves ahead or above the other. The life of discipleship means doing things in a whole new way.
Paul was writing to Philemon to encourage him to receive Onesimus, to grant forgiveness and be reconciled to him in Christian love. It went against everything he knew about business and society, but for him it was the cost of discipleship. To be a follower of Jesus means more than just words and even good deeds. It means more than giving up the easy things like immoral behavior. It means hating your very life, turning your back on everything for the sake of Christ.
This message of hate in todayís Gospel is harsh and hard. Jesus not only asks it of us, but demands it of those who want to be disciples. Jesus was being followed by 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 an authority they had not seen in any of the religious and national leaders. He turned to them and 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 could walk away if Jesus did something or said something with which they disagreed. They believed, some may have even had faith that Jesus was the Christ for whom they waited, but they had not committed themselves to Him.
He 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 wanted the crowds to consider whether or not they wanted to be followers or disciples. It is much harder to be a disciple. ďSo therefore whoever of you who doesnít renounce all that he has, he canít be my disciple.Ē
I wonder if it is possible to truly become this kind of disciple, though there are some throughout history of that seem to have come close. I canít imagine giving up everything I own and everyone I love or 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, this is the demand of discipleship, and by Godís grace we can fully commit to Him.
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. ďBut if the servant shall plainly say, ĎI love my master, my wife, and my children. I will not go out free;í 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 forever.Ē
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, willingly returned to the life of servanthood for the sake of the Gospel of love. For him, it was the cost of discipleship. He turned away from freedom to live reconciled to his brother in Christ and master, Philemon.
When we consider the servant who has had his ear pierced on the door jamb of his masterís house, did he live in want? No, as the masterís servant he had everything he needed: a home, food, work, clothes, family and friends. This message is not about having nothing or living as a penniless wanderer. It is about giving up even your very life for the sake of Jesus Christ to be more than a follower. He is calling us to be disciples, putting Him first and sharing the Gospel of love with the world. As His servants, we can trust that Heíll take of us in this world and the next.
God puts us in a time and a place and in relationships to accomplish His good and perfect work in this world. He needs stable hands and mothers, masters and slaves, CEOs and employees to live their Christian faith not only within the walls of the church on Sunday, but daily in the world so that others might see Godís grace. We donít know the whole story of Philemon and Onesimus. We do know that Paul sought to restore their relationship for the sake of Godís kingdom in Colossae, so that the two brothers might work together in forgiveness and grace to make the Church grow in truth and in spirit. The prize we seek as Christians is not to be better than one another but to build the Church of Christ together so that we will shine Godís grace to the world.
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. We may have read the bible a dozen times, so why do we need to read it again? We hear it at church and learn about it in our bible studies, why do we need to read it ourselves every day? We need to drink daily to live. So it is with the scriptures. It is much too easy to lose sight of what matters, and then the lines between the wicked and the righteous blur. If we take the wrong path, we lose touch with God. When we live without daily time in Godís presence, we are like a tree that is planted in the dry field far from the source of life. God intends for us to be like the tree that dwells by the streams of water, drinking in His Word daily for life.
We will not suffer the wrath of God for our poor decisions, but weíll 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 care for us as He has promised. Following Jesus comes at a great cost, but God paid the greatest cost and Jesus made the greatest sacrifice so that we could follow Him. 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 weíll truly know what it means to be blessed, even if we suffer the wrath of the world. Our sacrifice will last but a season and weíll soon know the blessing of dwelling with Him forever.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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