Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25:33
First time preaching at our main Eucharist here at St Edmund’s, and it was an all-age service. Each person was given a pan scrubber as they came in. I set the children (and any interested adults) to building a tower with them in the middle of the aisle. Using pan scrubbers as building blocks is an idea I discovered during our children’s week earlier in the summer. Current record is 42 for a freestanding tower. I digress. Here’s the rest of the talk.
Jesus uses the example of someone building a tower to try to explain that following him is hard. He says that there is a cost to what he asks.
Jesus says we should hate our families and give away all of our possessions.
I don’t think we need to take this literally today. Wouldn’t it be silly to give our house away, and have nowhere to live? Or give all our clothes away and have nothing to wear?
How seriously do we take our discipleship?
Jesus is telling us that those who want to be his disciples must make counter cultural changes. Counter cultural means not doing what everyone else does. And sometimes that’s hard.
September is a time of change for many. Our little ones start school or nursery; older children perhaps moving school or starting the year without a best friend. We want to fit in, find friends, and be liked.
In a world where bullies seize on differences, and can make lives truly horrible, seeking to stand out can be hard. That holds true for work as well as school.
Now, if you had given all your clothes away and were going into work or school wearing nothing but a smile, you would definitely stand out.
I wouldn’t recommend it.
But what if you decide to spend a bit less, and are teased for wearing something that’s not the right label? What if you are at school, and you make a choice that goes against your friends? Or you stand up for a colleague at work? Or call out someone being dishonest? Or walk away from malicious gossip at the school gate?
Those times can be hard.
Is taking up your cross being willing to be a doormat and be bullied?
It’s not about being deliberately, openly, proudly making ourselves a victim.
Jesus asks us to think carefully about our priorities. He tells us that following him will be hard. But the cross he asks us to take up can be a cross of comfort, not just pain and difficulty. The cross shows us that God loves us. The cross gives us hope of resurrection and new life. The cross shows us that change is possible even in very difficult times.
Jesus asks us to be prepared to be different from the crowd.
In our epistle, we see a demonstration of exactly what that looks like.
Paul is asking Philemon to be different from the crowd.
Now, let’s be clear that whilst slave owning is something we find abhorrent. Being a slave means a complete loss of individual humanity. But in Paul’s time, it was an accepted part of society.
Yet the story tells us something important about discipleship.
Onesimus was a slave. And he had run away from his owner, Philemon. Philemon was a follower of Jesus, Paul reminds him at the start of the letter how pleased he is with Philemon’s work. Paul is, essentially, buttering Philemon up, because he’s about to ask him something really hard.
In Paul’s time, a slave who ran away could be killed as punishment. Philemon as a slave owner would not want to lose face, to be seen to be lenient with Onesimus. Otherwise where would it all end?
You let one slave go free, you encourage the others to run away.
Philemon would have to be persuaded to be compassionate.
Philemon would have to be persuaded to bear the cost of discipleship.
We don’t know for sure what he did, and whether he was persuaded by Paul’s appeals. There are reports of various Onesimuses in the history of the early church,
But we can see that from the very beginnings, to live as a follower of Jesus has asked people to be different.
You let one slave go free, you encourage the others.
You let one refugee in, you encourage the others.
You start one food bank, you encourage people to shop for free.
You give one person debt counselling, you encourage poor choices.
Those are all objections I have heard to actions that churches have taken. But aren’t they exactly what Paul was asking?
He’s asking Philemon to value the person, not the status.
He’s asking Philemon to think differently about the values he has inherited from his upbringing.
He’s asking Philemon to give Onesimus his humanity back.
Can Philemon think in terms of love and reconciliation instead of rights and punishment? Can Philemon see Onesimus as a person, beloved of God, a brother in Christ – not just as a useless slave?
Let’s remember that in our Gospel reading Jesus asks us to count the cost; to put him first above our family, security and possessions.
Often it’s hard to do the different, Christian thing.
It’s hard to bite our tongue, and back down in an argument.
It’s hard to find more money to support more charities to help more refugees.
It’s hard to be teased for believing something different, or for believing something at all.
But remember, the cross we are asked to bear is a sign of hope in the darkest times.
Was anything worth having ever gained easily? We built fun towers with sponges…but real foundations and real building takes effort.Perhaps you can take a pan scrubber home, and when you’re using it to do a bit of cleaning, remember that God is with us in the ordinary, and have a bit of a pray about what’s on your mind.
We all have a role to play as disciples. We all have different gifts, talents, personalities and ideas. As we all brought our individual scrubbers to be part of a tower, we all bring our own selves to build the community of the church.
Our parents and carers with a vocation to parenthood know well the personal cost and sacrifice of bringing up children, and grandchildren. But we know there is great joy sometimes – making the cost worthwhile.
If we want to nurture a society that is guided by love, compassion, reconciliation and respect, we’re going to have to work at it.
That means that to fulfil our role as disciple, we need to be prepared for it to be bumpy along the way. And we can’t say that we weren’t warned, for Jesus sets out his terms and conditions very clearly.
So let me leave you with some questions.
Jesus asked us to give up everything to follow him. What might we be unwilling to let go of, and why?
Paul asked Philemon to do something that might make him look strange in the eyes of his society. Are we willing to respond to that challenge today?
Are we willing to accept the cost of discipleship?