Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14: 25-33
Rev. Peter Faass
Good grief. "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Really? Hate your family, your own life? Does Jesus require us to hate so that we may faithfully follow him?
This is the second time in Luke’s gospel that Jesus called us to behave in bizarre, counter-intuitive ways as Christians. Well, at least on our good days.
He certainly was on a roll. Three weeks ago, Jesus proclaimed to bring fire to the earth and that he was no peacemaker, coming to sow division. Plus, he eagerly awaited that fire to be kindled! Luke’s image of Jesus turns our preconceived notions about him upside-down and inside-out.
I don’t know about you, but I would prefer not to hear about hate, especially from Jesus. The world and our culture are already so overloaded with messages of hate. It seems as if you can’t go online or turn on the television without being washed over by a tsunami of it.
We are confronted by this challenging Gospel message, and the epistle is not an easy out, as it concerns the equally challenging topic of slavery. What’s a preacher to do? Well, examine both because these texts have something valuable to contribute to the way we are supposed to live our life in the world today.
So first Luke. It’s important to know that Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, which was a common rhetorical device in his day. Using the word “hate” and saying we have to hate our loved ones, and even our own life in order to follow him, is meant to grab our attention. And hey, it worked!
In this passage, Jesus expects - even demands - undivided loyalty when we choose to follow him. He wants us to seriously think about what that undivided loyalty and fidelity entail. His two stories undergird the meaning. In the first story, a contractor is building a tower; in the second, a king is going to war. Each needs to calculate the cost of their endeavor before embarking on it. These stories compel us to count the cost of what it will truly entail to be faithful followers of him – because the Christian life is expensive, demanding our commitment of resources of time, attention and money.
I’m not talking about calculating the cost of achieving our salvation in this passage. We can’t earn our salvation. That’s been done, completely taken care of by God’s grace alone. Any Lutherans in the congregation thinking I was suggesting works over faith can breathe easily!
This passage is about the cost of discipleship, which includes the image of carrying the cross. By carrying your cross (which is essential for true discipleship), we carry the choices, burdens and realities of a life that has made a certain commitment – a commitment to a way of life that is devoted to bringing the Reign of God. That’s certainly what it meant for Jesus, and for us.
Carrying your cross doesn’t mean bearing a burden that leads to suffering and death. It is working through challenging and sinful situations, so you can achieve the fullness of the precious gift of life you have been given, here and now. The cross always leads to resurrected life in the present.
Luke’s clarion call about carrying your cross is moving past the sinful behavior of tribalism: the tribalism of family; the tribalism of religion; the tribalism of race; the tribalism of gender; the tribalism of economic class; and the tribalism of health status.
In Luke, Jesus picked up the cross of moved beyond tribalism at the very start of his ministry. In chapter four, just as he returns from spending forty days in the wilderness, we are told:
“He went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4: 17; 18-21)
Jesus self-identified as the one Isaiah foretold, the one who would heal all the ailments of the human condition, making us whole. He was the one who would lead us away from our narrow, tribal ways of living and free all people from the shackles of prejudice that enslave the human person, giving them freedom, dignity and respect. He did this unwaveringly and great commitment. That was his cross to bear.
To carry our cross and faithfully follow him, we also must, without wavering, work to free all people from the tribal shackles that enslave them. We must also carry the cross to free ourselves from the tribal shackles that enslave us.
This is why we must hate anything that we give our loyalties to, preventing us from fully picking up our cross. A house divided – with split loyalties – cannot stand. You can’t serve God and mammon. You can’t be half-free and half in bondage. When we follow Jesus, it’s both all freedom and dignity, or it’s nothing.
When we baptize baby Sean Alejandro this morning, we will be reminded of that cross we are asked to carry Christ’s followers when we recite our Baptismal Covenant and commit to respecting the dignity of every human being. We commit to doing this to role model a better way of life for him as he grows into the fullness of Christ. We want a better world for him and all people. We want to build up God’s reign.
And now the letter to Philemon…
Paul’s short letter appealed to a man named Philemon to free his slave Onesimus, who had run away and sought shelter with Paul. Paul converted Onesimus to the Christian faith. Because Paul believes that in Jesus one is no longer slave or free, he desires to move Philemon to a new way of life; a slave-free life. He wants Philemon to carry his cross and free his slave Onesimus, since the Gospel always sets us free when we give up sinful ways of life.
It would cost Philemon to set Onesimus free. The Christian way of life is expensive. Freeing Onesimus would exact a price, and not just in monetary terms. By freeing Onesimus, Philemon’s sense of status and in his relationship with Onesimus would mean that Onesimus would "no longer [be] as a slave but . . . a beloved brother.”
A Biblical commentary I read asked this about the letter to Philemon: “Could it be that Paul is calling his readers (including us) to see every human being through the lens of the gospel message of freedom and dignity, to shine the light of the gospel on every situation and then to listen for how God is still speaking about every cultural practice and in every moral question we face in our communities today?”
We desperately need to see though that gospel lens today. Tribalism is having a resurgence.
New York Times op-ed communist David Brooks wrote this on Friday. “Politics is dividing along crude identity lines — along race and class. Are you a native-born white or are you an outsider? Are you one of the people or one of the elites? Politics is no longer about argument or discussion; it’s about trying to put your opponents into the box of the untouchables.”
Defaulting to these crude identity lines based on tribalism is a cancer threatening to destroy our entire culture and world. We have the cure.
But we must pick up that cross and carry it, which means we must choose where our loyalties lie.
The transforming power of the Gospel yearns to shine its redeeming light in a dark world. Are we willing to commit to picking up our cross and follow Jesus, working for the freedom and dignity of every human being?
If we say yes, we will free ourselves of those sinful shackles of tribalism that enslave us. The choice is ours to make. Where do our loyalties lie?
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.