Today's sermon is taken from the reading Luke 14:25-33.
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
Jesus certainly knows how to stir things up; he tells the ever adoring crowd that they must hate their family if they are to follow him. Is Jesus using hyperbole, overstating what the crowd have to do for effect? Did he want to attract attention and warn the crowd that following him needs total commitment? Or, did he mean you have to hate your family; which sits uncomfortably with most people?
I believe that Jesus wanted attention and wanted to stop the crowd in their tracks. They had been amazed by the healing, bedazzled by the miracles and bewildered by the parables, but Jesus wants them to understand that following him means to change everything about their life: renouncing all possessions, looking again at your priorities, and removing all distractions.
Families are central to the Jewish way of life. They are integral to the Jewish community. They nurture and nourish but Jesus is saying, the commitment you give to a family must come second to the commitment you give to him. Jesus is being very upfront, laying it on the line that if you wish to follow him, you have to pick up the cross every day. This is not a jolly ride, this involves real hardship. It involves real focus because it will bring a split in the family and a split in the community when it is already hard enough living in a land oppressed by a burgeoning Roman Army.
Following Jesus is not an add on, there is a cost to discipleship: a cost of money, a cost of time and a cost of energy. Jesus warns us in two parables to sit down, stop what you are doing and think this through: is the cost of following of Jesus, despite the risk, worth the reward? Jesus is not into numbers, he is deliberately trying to whittle down the thousands into hundreds and tens because he does not want half-hearted disciples but those who truly believe Jesus is the Son of God.
The Luke passage is offering us the choice to follow Jesus or not. It is saying we have to prioritise, reassess our commitments and sit down and think of the true cost of following Jesus. The two parables put forward the suggestion of planning, of forward-thinking and making sure we go into this commitment with our eye wide open.
Our second reading is from the very short letter to Philemon 1:1-21.
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— 2 also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home: 3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, 5 because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. 7 Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favour you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
This letter has been used in the past to advocate slavery. Paul does not condone the economic use of slaves who were indeed indispensable in society. What Paul does do in the letter is give the runaway slave Onesimus an equal status because he is a brother of Christ, as is Philemon following his conversion by Paul.
We believe the letter was written when Paul was under house arrest and that he was released shortly after writing this letter as well as letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians. Philemon was a wealthy member of the Colossian church and a Greek landowner converted by Paul. The letter shows us how the early Christians met in people's houses and that to have a slave or slaves was as common as having a car is today. We have no idea what Onesimus has done wrong, whether he has stolen things or worse, but we do know he has run away and that, therefore, Philemon has the legal right to kill his slave if he so wanted.
Onesimus means "useful" and we must not lose the humour of Paul in using the word "useful" a couple of times in his letter. We do not know what happens but presume Onesimus returns, what happens to him then is unknown. Did he return to slavery? Was he given an exalted position because he was a Christian and had the personal guarantee of Paul? What did the community think of his return and what did the community think of Philemon? Slaves must be punished and know their places, I can hear angry chants being cried. But Paul is building bridges, he is trying to remove hate and create a new relationship where all people are seen as equal, whether they be rich landowners or slaves. It is about transforming relationships and the way we associate with each other. Slaves should not be possessions but free children of God.
I was shocked when researching for this sermon to discover that there are said to be 27 million slaves in the world today. Internet research tells me that various industries depend upon slavery. One example is the seafood industry: I read that Thailand, which is the third-largest exporter of seafood in the world, has been accused of crewing fishing boats with Burmese and Cambodian men who have been forced to work as slaves.
The internet further advises that cannabis factories and nail bars use victims of slavery. In the UK, there are as many as 13,000 who have been trafficked from Albania, Nigeria, Vietnam and Romania. The Sex Industry is a huge source of sexual exploitation and forced begging highlights how victims are exploited by being forced to beg on the streets by criminals and give all the money they receive to gangs.
If this is true, then we have to think very carefully about our lifestyles and how we shop and who we support. We should be ever mindful that if products and goods are so unbelievably cheap, we should ask how the shops make a profit.
God is love (1 John 4:8) and Jesus' example shows us we have to love everyone and that his love is all-inclusive. But is this too glib? Do the drug traffickers, those who exploit people, and those who have committed heinous crimes, deserve this love? We are told to forgive but are there some unforgivable things? Paul, in Romans 13:1 and 1 Peter 2:13, tells us to submit to governing authorities but in that submission, are we giving tacit agreement for the crimes the government may commit?
Luke, in the book of Acts 5:29, helps our thinking when he says that we must obey God rather than men. The whole question of forgiveness is answered in Deuteronomy 32:35 and Romans 12:17-19 where it says that it is not up to us to judge, leave it to God and it is God's judgement that will be merciful and fair but incisive on judgement day. It is not up to us to forgive, it is up to God because God knows.
Do not hate but love. Follow Jesus and be committed to Jesus if you feel you can pay the price and leave judgement to God who is our Sovereign Lord.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon