Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
Just a few weeks ago, it fell to me to preach on the passage from Luke where Jesus says, “I came not to bring peace, but division” – one of the more difficult sayings of Jesus, no doubt. And now here we are, this morning, hearing these words from the lips of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother cannot be my disciple.” Is there any harder thing we can imagine Jesus saying? Where did the love go, Jesus? Wait, isn’t Jesus’ message about reconciliation and forgiveness? What is this about hating? Doesn’t this contradict the other things Jesus has been saying all along?
Of course, these aren’t the only difficult words in this gospel passage this morning, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions!” Clearly, Jesus didn’t take the church growth class at his seminary, or perhaps he failed the class on how to preach a winning sermon!
It is striking how many preachers and Christians will rush to contextualize Jesus’ meaning here. Well…the defense goes…Jesus didn’t really mean this…we must look at it in the context of his day. This often coming from those who take the Bible VERY literally when it concerns issues they feel more confident about, like human sexuality. Those few verses MUST be taken literally, but when it comes to money or family…well…let’s be reasonable!
But what would happen if we don’t try to explain these words of Jesus away and look at them with courage and understanding. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate even life itself cannot be my disciple.”
When a member of that society chose to follow Jesus, their whole life changed. Remember when Jesus called his first disciples, many of them left everything behind – including the family business. Jesus was in the habit of turning fishermen into fishers of men. This didn’t exactly help Zebedee bring in a day’s catch of fish.
Jesus’ call to follow him was radical, it demanded COMPLETE obedience and ultimate sacrifice. To choose to follow Jesus was not a smart career move. Just prior to the passage we hear this morning we hear the familiar parable Jesus tells about a host throwing a lavish dinner party, but everyone on the guest list made excuses why they could not come – one invited guest just bought some land, another some new oxen, and still another gave the excuse that he had just gotten married and could not come.
Is the dinner host understanding? Does he reschedule the party for a more convenient time? No! When those on the list refuse his invitation, he sends his servants out into the town and bring the crippled, the blind and the lame to the dinner. Those who rejected his invitation with their excuses would never taste the banquet he had prepared.
In the beginning of today’s reading we hear the words, “Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus…” Jesus was becoming quite popular, a local celebrity if you will. Rather than build a mega-church on the spot, or take up an offering, Jesus turns to them with these harsh words. Jesus is not competing for the title of most-popular messianic figure. Jesus knows that his mission will bring nothing but opposition from the religious authorities. He is going to get into trouble. His word then to these crowds following him is an honest word. If you follow me, truly follow me to the end, it may cost you your life just like it will cost me mine.
If you were to follow Jesus, you would have to break away from the system. Both Jewish and Roman society in those days was strictly patriarchal. Your father controlled just about every aspect of your life. All that you did, your career, your education, your marriage, it was up to your father to decide. Boys had it better – one day they would be the patriarch in their own family, but even then, they were always beholden to their father’s position of honor and authority. Women had no power, no rights. This is why widows and orphans were to be pitied.
This past week I saw the film, “Winter’s Bone,” at the Lyric. What a harrowing story of life in a still very patriarchal culture, but in this case the culture of the rural poor in the Ozarks. A young woman is on a journey to find her absentee father. Along the way she runs a fowl of the local ways. When she calls at her grandfather’s house, he won’t see her but instead sends his wife out to chase her off. “Don’t you have a man you can send instead?” the woman asks incredulously. This courageous young woman puts her very life in danger by not following the system.
It is this kind of rigid patriarchy that Jesus is calling his followers to leave behind, which would, no doubt, be tantamount to hating their families. When the words, “come, follow me,” came from the mouth of Jesus, they weren’t necessarily good news for someone’s family back home. Many of those hearing Jesus’ words that day had already walked away from their families, their professions, their possessions. Many of them may have been counted as dead by their fathers and mothers. Many of Jesus followers may have realized that as far as the system they left behind was concerned, they were dead to the world.
Flash forward a decade or so to this epistle by the Apostle Paul to Philemon and Apphia and Archippus. (We only call it Philemon because his name comes first…) Set alongside the teachings of Jesus this epistle is actually beautiful! The epistle is addressed to Philemon and all those in his church family. Paul calls Philemon “brother” – familial language. The letter seems to have been brought to them by Onesimus the young man mentioned in the letter, who was once a slave, but is now free. Paul is sending Onesimus to them, bearing this letter, pleading with them to take Onesimus back in, but not keep him forever.
There is a context here – “formerly he was useless to you, but now he is useful…” We don’t know the story or the context, but we do know this much. Paul has adopted Onesimus. “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” He even refers to Onesimus as “my own heart.”
It is a remarkable piece of scripture. It is very short. We have heard almost the entirety of the letter. Philemon is numbered among Paul’s “pastoral” epistles – not spelling out doctrine or settling arguments but truly being a pastor. What has become of the parents of Onesimus? We don’t know. Being a slave, it is quite likely that they were separated early on. They could be dead. We don’t know. But we do know that he now has a home, has a family.
I see here a vision of the early church, the followers of Jesus, many of whom had left all behind to follow him now forming families all their own. Have you ever wondered why priests and monks and nuns have always used familial terms such as Father Garcia, Mother Teresa, even the title Abbot comes from the Hebrew word, Abba, father.
Did Jesus or his disciples know then that they would have to become family to each other?
For some of us today, hearing these difficult words, we can be thankful that our families have been loving, supportive, welcoming places of refuge in a troubled world. Many of us were brought by our parents to the waters of baptism, because our parents wanted to see us raised within the household of God. Our parents entrusted us to the care of the family that is the church. For others of us, however, our families of origin may have been places of turmoil. Some people hearing these words this morning don’t think back fondly on their upbringing. For them, the church represents the possibility of a new family, a place of refuge.
Yet, for most of us, we must admit that we’ve had it pretty good, Jesus’ words notwithstanding. Very few if any of us have had to leave behind everything in order to follow Jesus. Christianity is the establishment religion in this country. It would cost more for many in this country to renounce Christianity than to take it up. It would alienate us from our families and our heritage.
So I don’t think we can know what Jesus means here, not really. We can gain an inkling, but not, I believe the full meaning. But Jesus isn’t speaking to us, not primarily, he is speaking to a people in captivity, not just to the Roman Imperial presence in Israel, but in bondage to many cultural norms and systems that kept them under patriarchal authority, no questions asked.
What do these words say to us about the cost of our faith? Will we have to take up our crosses or give away all our possessions? We can understand that truly following Jesus isn’t a casual pastime, not something to do just because we are bored or because it’s a comfortable habit. Faith makes demands on us how we structure and prioritize our lives. It affects how we vote, how we give of our time and our money, what causes we support. I believe that behind how live our lives is something more than just whim or circumstance. I’d like to believe we are here this morning is for something deeper, something costly. Hey you could be in bed, or golfing, or doing the New York Times Crossword over a cup of coffee with NPR on in the background.
But you’re not. You are here. We are here – the family of God. Look around, those around you are not meant to be strangers, but friends as close as family.
While preparing this sermon, I had a moment, an epiphany if you will. I noticed, somewhat by accident, what immediately follows these harsh words in Luke 14. In the very next chapter of Luke’s Gospel, the Pharisees and Scribes start to ask Jesus why he eats and spends time with tax collectors and sinners, some of those very people who had left all behind to follow Jesus. In response, Jesus tells these religious insiders a few parables – among them, the Prodigal Son.
I literally sat back in my chair and marveled at this juxtaposition. First we hear about hating father and mother, and almost immediately in this gospel, we hear of a father taking in his lost, rebellious son. What an amazing contrast, and what an amazing invitation. Some had walked away from family, while others were discovering a new family. And then there comes this image of a father offering his unconditional love and forgiveness, not just welcoming the prodigal home, but giving a feast for him.
This morning, God’s table is about to be set for you, for us, for all of us. The table will be set with bread and wine, blessed with words of welcome and forgiveness and, most of all, reconciliation. Yes, sometimes faith puts up boundaries between people. Some of you will come to the rail you’re your family, celebrating together the extravagant love God has shown to us. Others know all to well that sometimes we are called to leave behind family systems and ways that aren’t God’s way, that aren’t part of Jesus’ vision. Sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible. Sometimes it isn’t even wanted. But we are God’s people, God’s children. Let this meal remind us of the life and the family God promises to give us if we, with Jesus, count the cost of our faith. Amen.