"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Cost of Discipleship

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Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33 (the cost of discipleship) Pulpit supply in a friend’s parish.

Pray. I’m delighted to be with you here today sharing in God’s Word and in our worship of the almighty. This month, the Gospel readings bring us an increasingly challenging series of snips of text, providing us a series of teachings and parables, all around the question of the cost of salvation. Not a comfortable topic, and certainly not one that lends itself as the setting of a talk for children! Yet that is exactly the manner in which we are called to approach the Father in faith – and as is fitting children, the root message in these texts is simple, but has infinite impact.

I want to comment on the reading from Philemon for a moment. Our schedule of readings cuts this off at verse 21, which is unfortunate given this is a very short book, and only has another four verses after 21. In my reading of Philemon, the verse that jumped out at me was verse 22 – let me reset the stage.

Paul is writing his co-worker in the Gospel, Philemon, from Paul’s place in prison. Paul mentions prison three times in this short letter. The purpose of the letter seems primarily to be Paul’s commendation of his child Onesimus, who has been Paul’s helper while he is in prison. The letter tells us a number of things about Onesimus – he is (or was) a slave of Philemon, who appears to have done something that has left him in Philemon’s debt. Paul calls Onesimus a slave, and goes on to say that if Philemon is owed anything, or if Onesimus has wronged him at all, those things should be charged to Paul’s account…that is, those accounts should be wiped clean off of Onesimus’ record.

This is incredible, that Paul would do such a thing, and he doesn’t even specify how big the debt could be. Now, put this in terms we can imagine. I’m building a new house and because of some bad deals I’ve made, the bank requires a co-signer for my mortgage. Would you co-sign my loan? Oh, wait, that’s not a direct parallel. This is closer to what Paul is doing. I’m building a new house because my family is growing, and there’s no room left for us…will you pay for that house for me? Your first question (after some shock at my audacity) will likely be to ask…(how big a house, how much, what neighbourhood are you planning on building in). I’ll continue in my boldness and say, “I really don’t know how much. It might be a very big house, and we might decide to build next door to that guy that owns Rexall Drugs, so it might be really expensive.” At this point you will have moved on to thinking about cleaning your gutters, or the coming tea after the service, or how you can quickly end this conversation with an obviously deranged father – pay for your house? I’m not even paying for my own!

That, however, is exactly what Paul is doing on behalf of Onesimus. He offers to take on all of his debt solely because Onesimus is now a member of the body of believers. We don’t know what Onesimus has done – run away? Stolen money? Murdered a member of Philemon’s family? We don’t know, but we do know that some reparation, some forgiveness is required – and Paul tells Philemon that all that debt of sin is to be counted as Paul’s burden, and not Onesimus’. CS Lewis wrote that forgiveness sounds like a really great concept, until we’re actually called to do it, and then it seems not so good. But God’s forgiveness is audacious in the extreme.

This should strike you as being as audacious as my request that you build me a house next to Daryl Katz, with a skating rink and a pool, by the way. It’s not that surprising given who Paul was serving, and how his conversion on the road to Damascus had literally remade his being. Paul is just reflecting the audacious forgiveness offered to us by virtue of our faith in Jesus Christ – are you a murderer, a thief, a liar, a cheat, a person who gossips, a person who has never forgiven that teacher in grade 6 who hurt you so badly? Well, all that is done away with by virtue of Christ’s death – all of it, not one tiny bit is left in the big accounts book of God, because that account book has been wiped away as well.

This is so audacious that we can’t believe it, and we spend our lives wondering, is it even remotely possible that this can be true? This is how Paul, even while languishing in prison, writes this appeal of his own hand. The audacious nature of God’s forgiveness is set out in a wonderful movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? This is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set in the deep south in the early 20th century. Have you seen it? It’s well worth a watch, and it has some rather profound theology worked out in the tale. The three main characters have escaped from prison, and are on a journey to rescue a great treasure – the money from an armoured car heist, if I recall. That turns out to be a lie, but in all great narratives it is the journey that counts. The three come across a revival baptism at the river, and one of them, Delmar, runs to the head of the line and submits himself for baptism. As he comes up out of the water they have the following exchange:

Delmar O’Donnell: Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher’s done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward.

Ulysses Everett McGill: Delmar, what are you talking about? We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Delmar O’Donnell: The preacher says all my sins is warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.

Ulysses Everett McGill: I thought you said you was innocent of those charges?

Delmar O’Donnell: Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that that sin’s been warshed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.

The audacious forgiveness of God – neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on us now, and thank God for that. Paul makes an even more audacious statement next, also based soundly in God’s economy of Grace, that Philemon is not only to receive Onesimus back forgiven and free from debt, but he is no longer to be his slave, but rather his brother, a beloved brother in the faith. This, we have already heard in the Gospel, is part of the reason Christ marks the cost of faith so high – because it undoes all the comfortable power relationships we have in the world around us, and suddenly our property, a slave, comes back as a full member of our household. Paul is clear in this change in relationship when he calls Onesimus his son in the faith. I’ll talk about this more in a moment, because it is exactly what the Gospel is telling us, that our faith in Christ is a great leveler in terms of power imbalance, and this is one reason why the faith overhauls any community it enters in a real way, and is also the reason dictatorships always quickly seek to suppress the church.

Back to Philemon for a moment more – what strikes me most about Paul’s letter is the first verse excluded by out cycle of readings, verse 22. After interceding for Onesimus Paul closes by saying, “At the same time, prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping that through your prayers I will be graciously given to you.” This gives me some pause when I think about the form of my prayers, which usually include a large component of things that I need (or think I need) done in my life. There’s nothing wrong with petitions, Jesus tells us we should ask the Father for whatever is on our hearts, but Paul’s focus makes me think about prayer a bit differently.

When one of us is in need, we often stop to send out an email, or call a friend or activate a prayer chain, with a request that goes something like this, “I’m in the midst of , please include me in your prayers asking for ” that’s the kind of request brothers and sisters in the faith are called to make to each other as we share burdens, and ask for petitions on our behalf. But do you notice that Paul makes no such request? He would be quite proper to finish his letter, “and please have the brothers and sisters pray for my speedy release from this prison.” Last week I received an email from Myron Penner, a priest who just left this diocese to minister to a church in Bolivia. One of their fellow missionaries, a physician, has been accused of malpractice and thrown into a nasty prison (where she still is held). Myron boldly asked us for prayers for her safety and release, exactly as he should have. But look again at Paul – all he says is please make up your spare room, for by prayer I hope I will soon be with you.

For Paul, he is confident that the Father will be looking out for him where ever and whenever he might be, and so it doesn’t matter. He states the outcome, arriving at Philemon’s guest room, as if it is a foregone conclusion. It is a powerful display of faith.

Ok, now over to the really tough material this week, this being Jesus’s comment on the cost of discipleship. The challenging Word comes right at the start: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Jesus is not encouraging us to literally hate our beloved family members, but he is making a clear statement about what we chose to treasure in our hearts, the things that are most important for us. The caution is directly against idolatry, against placing worship of things of this world, even our families, above God’s rightful place in the order of things. We are to love the Lord our God, with all of our hearts, souls, mind and strength (which is the first and great commandment) and secondly, to love our neighbours as ourselves. Love of neighbour includes our love of family, and while important it is always stated in second place to love of God. Indeed, it has been written that we are not able to properly love those around us, unless we first love God we are unable to love in a real and genuine way (1 John 4:19). It all starts with love of God, and Jesus states this is his usual uncompromising, ‘you have to give it all up, everything, if you want to follow me’ way: if you want to follow me you must be prepared to hate those you love.

It does raise another question, about what to do in a family where belief is not consistent, where parents mock their children’s faith, or visa-versa. Even more challenging can be the case where one spouse is a believer, and the other is not. Jesus is not telling us to be ready to hate in those cases either, but he is cautioning us that His coming to humanity brought a sword that will cause conflict of the worst kind. The question he leaves before us, is what we will do if it comes time to chose: burn incense for the emperor or die; support an unrighteous government that uses violence to achieve its economic goals, or publicly stand for something different even if that carries a personal cost. That is the call of the Christian, tough as it might be.

Consider a comment on our faith by the English writer G.K. Chesterton, “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but that it’s been found [too] difficult and not tried.” Christianity is not rejected by many because it does not answer the big questions, but because the answers it does give draw the inquirer into a deeper relationship that requires work, prayer, contemplation, caring. Our relationship with God, like any relationship, requires hard work.

Jesus follows the difficult statement with two short parables, that are not at all that helpful – both illustrate the importance of counting your assets before undertaking a major project. In one case building a tower, in the second before going to war. The parables are not so much meant to tell us something about God, but about how we carefully consider important decisions in this world. Usually, we don’t build until we know the house can be paid for…we don’t undertake to make war unless we know that victory is a good probability. But this does not tell us much about God, because in both cases God comes with a different answer: for the builder, he points not to the building but rather to the chief cornerstone which the builder (this world) rejected; for the king, he points not to the mathematics of victory, but rather sends his Son to die to bring peace to those who make war. Jesus’ point is – look at how carefully you consider the things of this world, that one day will rust or be eaten by moths, so then how much more carefully should you consider things of God. He ends by emphasizing that we must renounce all we have – and the Greek word here refers to possessions and everything else, everything. To follow Jesus, you just have to give it all up, all of it. The good news is that we’ve already been given all we need to meet the cost of entering heaven.

Our lectionary has skipped the parable just before today’s reading – we get it in other years, from other Gospels, and that omission is a shame. The parable is the wedding banquet, where the master’s invited guests all reject his hospitality and so the master sends his servants out into the highways and byways to collect whomever happens to be wandering around, the poor and the blind and the crippled and the lame. And when they don’t fill the banquet hall he orders the servants, “‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.” My house will be filled is God’s biggest concern. How then do we find a place at that banquet?

Well, in God’s economy we’ve been given everything we need to be saved. The price of salvation is infinitely high, and we need to count the cost to us for that tells us something about the cost to God. What you conclude in the end is that everything you are, everything you have, is exactly the right price for salvation: the price is one life, which is exactly what we’ve each been given by the Grace of God. To live forever, all we need to do is die. And thanks be to God for that. Amen

Luke 14:12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers[b] or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”  15 When one of those who reclined at table with him heard these things, he said to him, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” 16 But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. 17 And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant[c] to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ 21 So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ 22 And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ 23 And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you,[d] none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’”

Christ Be With Me

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Saint Patrick

Even more challenging, and more frequent, are the subtle small decisions that we have to make on a daily basis. Looking the other way while someone does something that while not being entirely wrong, you know you should do something; hearing a very improper joke told at the coffee table about something you know personally impacts one of your co-workers and not speaking up; being asked to do something by your boss that makes you feel just a little uncomfortable. Those are the decisions that Christ calls us to seek a different way, even if it results in personal cost.


Written by sameo416

September 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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