May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit, Amen. Would you please sit.
Well here we are deep in the midst of Trinity. The Trinity season, the twelfth Sunday after Trinity, a time of reflection and growth and learning hence the green in all the vestments and so forth. In the past weeks the theme very much in all the readings has been what does discipleship look like? It’s a question that’s been repeatedly explored in the readings particularly the Gospel readings in the past weeks. Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel is a particularly hard one to hear and we will face it head on.
Jesus presents his followers three times in this short passage we heard with the choice to follow him. First [though] he says we must ‘hate parents, spouse, children, siblings and even our own life’. Second we must ‘carry our cross and follow him’ and third ‘we must give up all our possessions’. This is in the translation anyway. These are hard hitting demands. They are a clear challenge and whatever they mean the work of discipleship is clearly radical and costly, and it does not appear to be an attractive option.
Calvin categorised the demands of discipleship in the following ways, four ways,
- self denial,
- cross bearing,
- meditation on eternal life,
- the proper use of God’s gifts in daily life.
For Calvin, self denial is not about self destruction rather it is the path to freedom from selfishness and the love of self, doing all for oneself. Self denial is a gift of Christ in enabling us to dedicate ourselves to God’s service and in his ways opening up new avenues for grace and love and companionship and relationship in the world around us. This is an affirmation of the power of love in human relationships, of God and of the love of neighbour as God’s children. It’s a giving up of oneself for the sake of others. This is a liberation when we free ourselves from feeling bound by things or ourselves or our concerns. The world opens up new vistas of life and relationships.
Cross bearing enables us to face suffering obeying God through the sufferings of life – through them and in them. In this the cross of Christ helps us. Not only does Jesus share in our sufferings; whatever that suffering may be but he journeys through it and he overcomes it.
Meditation on eternal life enables us to open our hearts and souls to the presence of God who heals and brings life and peace. How much that is needed in the world around us today. Amidst all the struggles and the concerns: [actively] meditating on those things that bring life and peace rather than just getting bogged down in all the struggle and difficulties that surround us.
All of this enables us, opens us up, to properly use the gifts that God has given us in daily life and God has given every single one of us gifts to use in daily life. This involves neither excessive asceticism but nor does it involve excessive abandonment to ‘I will do what I like’ [or] ‘just do what we like’; that leads to excess and pursuit of of selfish desire. The principles of self denial, cross bearing, meditation on eternal life, and the proper use of God’s gifts in daily life in God’s service are far removed from the understanding of human life today.Yet when we encounter the effects of selfishness, selfish pursuit, the effects of abandonment or doing our own thing for our own pleasure then often moral, social, and spiritual decay results in society. If we live for ourselves the needs of others fall by the wayside and a sense of personal and corporate responsibility is lost.
Is that a position we are in in our society I wonder? We [might] look at housing crises, hunger, environmental destruction around the world: [each often ]a consequence of trying to meet the growing demands of first world consumption. That’s what so much of the fires in the Amazon are about. Conflicts based upon actually control of resources by the powerful. We see the chaos that results from selfish pursuit.
What is the cost of Christian discipleship in daily life today? Where do our priorities lie. We may not take all those statements literally from the English translation perspective: ‘hating our family
for instance. In the context of the time [these statements] actually challenge that sense that the family was the ultimate unit and tribe which had barriers around it. That’s all that mattered. Actually we might say that’s not far removed from today’s society. We put barriers around our family or round our tribe or round our community or our nation. In their shocking extreme these statements about hating those things they do challenge us to examine our priorities.
Jesus exhortations do present us with a problem. As disciples we should travel lightly and when interests come into conflict [favour] God’s ways over humanity. Jesus makes a clear demand for discipleship over our insecurity. The church is a place where as members of Christ’s family [we] are equally vulnerable to Christ’s call because every singe one of is called to follow him. We can grapple with the implications for discipleship in the context of our own situation. Even today we have a very big question. What is our calling as disciples in the context of our nation today? Where are we called to sit in the struggles we face today?
Now the other reading which is set – the New Testament reading which is set for today – is from the short letter of Philemon. And so I’m just going to reflect on that because it is also very relevant to what we’ve, to what we’re talking about here.
Philemon is a wonderful illustration. It’s literally thirty verses or something – it’s one chapter . It’s a wonderful illustration of living out Christian compassion in a difficult situation. It’s a model of pastoral care and diplomatic solution to a complex situation. Paul stands between two followers who are at serious loggerheads with each other. [He asks] them not only to be reconciled to each other but to model the way of Christ.
Philemon is a wealthy man whose slave has run away. He is also leader of a congregation that meets in his house. His slave Onesimus – the one who’s run away – is now in prison. Has he stolen something? We do not know. The passage speaks of an injustice done by Onesimus to Philemon but in prison Onesimus has become a Christian.
Paul asks of Philemon two huge concessions
- To free the slave
- To forgive the debt whatever that injustice that Onesimus has committed against Philemon.
In the context this was a hugely big ask. For Philemon who was a significant figure within his community at the time this could be perceived as a big weakness and a huge loss of face for Philemon. It’s going against the grain of custom and expectation.Paul does not make this a command but appeals to Philemon’s compassion. He refers to his own imprisonment, reminding Philemon of the cost of discipleship. He also reminds Philemon of his role as a co-worker in Christ and thus he has a responsibility to be Christ like, despite his position in his dealing with Onesimus. Peace between Philemon and Onesimus requires that Philemon receives his former slave as a brother. Absolutely shocking [ and]unheard of, in the context.
Paul is inviting Philemon to renounce the privilege to which in human terms he is perfectly entitled and suffer loss both socially and economically; in order that Christ’s way may be accomplished and revealed inChrist. Philemon and Onesimus, Master and Slave in that particular historical context are equals no matter what human society may think.
This story speaks to us all generations. Every church experiences instances of conflict in its life. Every human community faces issues of status and allocating priority. Every one of us at some point or another has wronged another or has wrong done to them. So this story applies to e very single one of us. And the message of this story is relevant to us all and it reflects the Gospel reading as well. We are called to honour the bonds of Christ.
When we speak of fellow Christians wherever they are, whichever country or nation or continent they belong to as members of our family. That has profound implications for it speaks of a familial and sacred bond that we cannot and should not avoid.
In these challenging times for our own country as Christians wherever we stand on political issues we are required to stand by the principles of equality, human justice, compassion, forgiveness and welcome. And these are to be the foundation of our attitudes whichever policies we support.
We asked at the start: what does discipleship look like? The response in the scriptures is actually fairly clear but also that path is challenging – it counters the human status-quo. It invites us to a model, to model, a new humanity a new relationship with one another in which love grace and life giving wholeness and healing are the prevailing features.