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4th September 2016
Psalm 139.1-5, 12-18
Luke 14.25-35 The Cost of Discipleship
An important question kept coming up for me as I studied the readings for today. “At this pivotal point of our parish life, what do today’s readings have to say to us?”
This is one of those weeks when preachers look at the Gospel reading and then quickly glance to see if any of the other readings are better candidates for a sermon. Both Old and New Testament readings today have a lot in them, but I think dodging the Gospel because its hard isn’t what I’m meant to do. Besides which, I think it’s the only passage in the Bible which refers to the advisability of using a quantity surveyor when planning a building project, and Mike would be disappointed if that didn’t get a mention.
I remember something from the address given by the vicar of the little church of St Mark’s, in Ampfield, England, where Mike and I were married 40 years ago. He said that most people getting married make vows to each other about supporting each other through good times and bad. At least, he said, that’s what the marriage vows say out loud. But really, he said, what most people are thinking is more along the lines of “I choose to commit to you for a lifetime together, because I think you are the person who ‘s most likely to make me happy.”
He then added a very important point. Most people can stay reasonably happily married during the good times. But it’s the hard times, the challenges, the rough patches, which make a marriage strong.
The passage from Luke’s Gospel today is rather like that wedding sermon I’ve remembered for 4 decades. It might not be what we want to hear, but it’s important, even if it’s uncomfortable.
Last week’s passage from Luke was set in a dinner party at the house of a Pharisee. Jesus used that setting to talk about the wisdom of appropriate humility to avoid the embarrassment and shame of being publicly asked to make way for a higher status guest. In the passage that wasn’t included between last week and today, Jesus went on to tell the parable of the Great Dinner, in which the invited guests all made excuses, and the host sent his slaves out into the town to bring in the street people to the dinner instead.
As usual, Jesus was a disconcerting dinner guest if you were a Pharisee. The parable implied that other issues had become higher priorities for the original invitees to God’s kingdom. It’s a clear warning to his host and the rest of the Pharisees that their focus on status and their confidence in their religious and social superiority were not what the kingdom of God was about.
In today’s Gospel reading, we find Jesus on the road, with large crowds following him. The setting has changed, but the confronting nature of the things that Jesus keeps saying hasn’t. This is a continuation of the journey theme in Luke, which began in Chapter 9 v.51 and ends at the Cross. Many may have been following because they were attracted to the excitement and novelty of this Galilean teacher. It seems that Jesus was giving a reality check to the thrill-seekers – “It’s not going to be as easy as you think”.
Jesus’ shocking statement that being his disciple entails hating parents, spouse, children and siblings, even life itself, must be understood in its context. We know that hyperbole – strong exaggeration to make a point – was a familiar way of speaking emphatically in Biblical times. Even today, the same exaggerated linguistic style is sometimes used. Anyone with school children will be familiar with the lament that “everybody hates me” or the dilemma of someone standing in front of a full wardrobe complaining “I’ve got nothing to wear”.
In this instance, though, Jesus isn’t calling his followers to hate their families in terms of an emotional response. Instead, he calls for undivided loyalty to himself that overrides all other commitments. And since Jesus himself was unwavering in his loyalty and commitment to God, he’s calling those who follow him to be the same.
If anything, it was an even more extreme statement then than it is to us. Then as now, Middle Eastern culture was intensely family focussed. It was also an honour culture, where duty to family was essential, and failure in that duty brought shame on the whole family. People’s identity was closely bound up in their family’s relationships and status, not individualistic as it is in our culture. Jesus is saying that following him has to be more important than all these things, even family loyalty. It requires a single-mindedness that the crowd didn’t yet understand. For Jesus, it was a single-mindedness that led to the Cross.
This isn’t about earning eternal life. God has already taken care of that. This is about the calibre and character of our Christian lives. And, like anything else worth doing, discipleship takes time, energy, work, and practice — in a word, it takes sacrifice.
Christianity is a way of being, a way of living, a way of doing things differently because of living “in Christ” (to borrow Paul’s favourite phase). It’s the source of our sense of meaning, and what our values are based on, according to Bishop Bruce Wilson when I was at St Mark’s. It often seems from the public discourse as if it’s primarily a way of thinking, about having the right set of beliefs – even about the right interpretation of Scripture. It seems to me, though, that Jesus spent far more time talking about what we’re called to do and to be than about what we need to think and believe.
We live in a market driven society, so it is not surprising that we feel the urge to “sell” Christianity in the marketplace of competing ideas and ways of life. The idea that we need to sacrifice other priorities to follow Jesus sounds uncomfortably challenging, and certainly doesn’t sound like the best approach to evangelism. We’d not expect a positive result if we greeted any newcomers to our congregation with demands that they give sacrificially of their time and money to prosper the church. We’re more likely to emphasise what our faith does for us than what we do for our faith.
But that doesn’t seem to be Jesus’ way.
Maybe he knew something that we don’t. There are plenty of things that people commit a lot of time, effort and money to – their favourite sports, social or political organisations, fitness programs, making sure their children don’t miss out on any opportunities like sport or music. Even in this time-poor era, people spend untold hours on a vast range of activities they feel are important. Parents stay up late making costumes for performances their children are in. Grandparents look after their grandchildren to help out the parents. In fact, there are so many choices and so many pressures not to miss out on anything that it all gets exhausting. For many families today, with both parents working, Sunday morning is the only time for a rest.
So many things to distract us from following Jesus. We live in a smorgasbord of distractions, in our 24/7 society. Discipleship, Jesus tells us, requires that we take an honest and realistic look at our lives to make sure we’ve got our priorities right.
The two brief parables that Jesus tells as part of this challenging teaching illustrate the importance of assessing what’s required before committing to a course of action. Someone building a tower needs an accurate estimate of the required materials, because if he runs out part way through the build, he’ll incur the mockery of those who see it, a dreadful loss of face. Similarly, any ruler contemplating a war needs good intelligence about his enemies’ resources before going into battle, so that he knows whether to fight, or negotiate for peace.
“So,” Jesus says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” That’s yet another uncomfortable challenge when our consumer culture tells us our happiness depends on having lots of stuff. Jesus seems unrelenting in the way he makes us confront things that may stand between us and our commitment to God.
Jesus’ warning of the often challenging situations that face believers who are trying to live out his teaching is demonstrated rather well by the dilemma described in Paul’s letter to Philemon. It concerns a runaway slave, and his master, to whom the letter was written.
Again, it’s hard for us to get into the mindset of a slave-owning culture, but Paul’s request to Philemon to treat his returning slave was a huge challenge to both Philemon and Onesimus. Slaves were thought of as things, not people. Even his name indicates a lack of human status – it means “useful”. Somehow Onesimus had escaped, had met Paul and become a Christian. Paul is now encouraging him to return to his master, which is a hugely risky thing for a runaway slave to do, because he faced brutal punishment, even death, for escaping.
Paul doesn’t question the issue of slavery itself – it was the reality of the culture they all lived in. His request that Philemon now greet his returned property as a person – a brother in fact – rather than as a possession – this was an incredible thing to ask. Paul offered to pay off any debt, but that wasn’t really the point. It wasn’t just monetary – accepting a runaway slave back as a brother challenged social expectations, reputation, and law and order both in Philemon’s own household and in the wider community. It could have brought shame on him and his family as the local community might see this elevation of a slave as undermining the whole family’s status. They might also have been angry if they saw this as a threat undermining the institution of slavery that they all took for granted.
Paul was asking Philemon to risk his social standing and honour in order to follow the Gospel. As Paul puts it as he tries to encourage Philemon with a bit of flattery – “I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.”
The fact that we have this letter as part of our Bible indicates that Paul’s advocacy for Onesimus was successful. Both slave and master showed how powerful their new faith was, and must have overcome all their cultural conditioning to accept the full humanity of each other. 1800 years later, another Christian responded out of his faith and the call of Jesus to radical discipleship, and brought an end to slavery in England. William Wilberforce worked for 18 years with a small group of likeminded people, against massive opposition, to abolish slavery. We regard him now as a hero. At the time, most of his contemporaries considered him a crackpot at best, and a dangerous threat to stability at worst.
I referred earlier to an important question that keeps coming up for me, and, I assume, for most of you as well. “At this pivotal point of our parish life, what do today’s readings have to say to us?” We know we have challenges as a parish, and we want to follow God’s will for us as part of the Body of Christ in this place. Our new mission statement, which you’ll find in the pewsheet each week, states that our mission as a congregation is:
“To be a faithful, inclusive, worshipping Anglican community, that cares for others and creation”
There are many people in this congregation who give tirelessly of their time, and work hard to serve the church and the local community. There are many people who are very generous in their giving to support the work of the parish. As we explore our path forward together, it seems to me that we will need to have ongoing conversations about what living up to our mission statement means in the situation we find ourselves in.
Sometimes, what’s required of us may be a willingness to let go of some things we hold dear, in the interests of moving on together as a community, and that can be very difficult. Putting other people’s needs before our own can feel like we’re losing out. It’s always a challenge in a time of change. But it’s not something we do alone or in our own strength. We have the assurance of God with us. Paul asked Philemon to do something that was revolutionary, but he knew Philemon was filled with God’s love, and faithful to Christ, and that was what made Paul’s impossible request possible. As we look to the next phase of our parish life together, we too can be confident that God will enable us to do whatever God asks of us.