September 4th, 2016
Here’s the list of things Jesus wants us to forsake for his sake: father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, all your possessions, and life itself. This is a list of the things Jesus promises to give in return: the cross, an instrument of torture and death. Here’s Jesus, gathering the large crowds that follow him around, gathering them around close so they all can hear: here’s Jesus, giving them all a way out: Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost? Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether
he can win? Here’s all of you, for some reason, coming to hear this message. Here’s me, wondering if anyone who hears the call to discipleship really can count the cost of discipleship.
So, choose carefully. Choose carefully and think if discipleship is for you. Because, ultimately, discipleship is not compatible with your lifestyle, no matter how crunchy, no matter how glamorous. Discipleship is not going to make you famous, unless you somehow are plunged to suffer in the public eye on account of your faith. It will not bring you wealth and riches, most likely, except for you to pass those things through your hands to your brothers and sisters from whom riches and opportunity have been taken away. Discipleship is not on part of a wellness or wholeness wheel. Discipleship is the whole wheel. It’s the whole thing.
I’d like to take the example the Scriptures give us. We get the bulk of a letter from Paul to a man named Philemon. There are actually only three more verses in the entire letter, and they left off one of the most important ones, but I’ll get to that in a second. But in this letter, Paul has a difficult task. Philemon is far away, but Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, is near Paul, helping him while he is in prison. He is supposed to be back with Philemon. He is supposed to be in bondage. But instead he is a disciple. And Paul feels that he must now send Onesimus back to Philemon—but not as a slave anymore. Notice Paul does not tell Philemon what to do. He is like a father who says, “Son, I know you know what’s right.” Paul says that Philemon has been generous and helpful in supporting Christ’s work, and because of this, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” Paul is not afraid to twist the knife either—“I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.”
He says that he has become a father to Onesimus. Some scholars believe that old Onesimus heard Paul preach in Philemon’s home, and heard Paul say something like he said in his other letters, that in Christ there is no slave or free, thought to himself, “This sounds great—I’m out of here!” and then snuck out with Paul’s entourage as they left town. And, on the road, and wherever Paul was in prison, Onesimus decided he also wanted to be a disciple of Jesus. And Paul baptized him—Paul baptized, as he says, his own heart, which he is sending back to Philemon. That, by the way is another knife twist. Finally, Paul says that he expects Philemon to welcome Onesimus back no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother, both in the flesh and in the Lord. “I am writing to you, knowing you will do even more than I say,” Paul says. And he closes by saying, “One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” In other words, I’m not going to tell you what to do, I’m not going even say it out loud, but you know, Philemon, what Christ calls you to do, what the cost of discipleship is for you, when you see this man’s face at your doorstep. The cost of discipleship, in this moment, is all the money you’ve given over to support my work and to keep me alive in prison, the cost of discipleship is the scorn of your neighbors, not only for taking up a strange new religion, but following it so far that you will relinquish the investment you have made in one of the most valuable and expensive things you can buy, a slave, and the cost of discipleship is not just the money, and the scorn of your neighbors, and the loss of property, it is also your pride and your dignity and your status in society—you, Philemon, wealthy and successful, will welcome your escaped slave and consider him your brother. The cost of discipleship, for Philemon, is scandalous, and what Paul is asking of him may truly cost him everything. Do not put your hand to the plow and look back, Philemon. Look to the side, at your brother Onesimus, who plows with you.
Philemon is a short little letter, and it’s easy to miss what Paul is asking. But Paul knows. “I say nothing,” he says, “about you owing me even your own self.” That’s a baldfaced lie, of course. Paul just said Philemon owes him his own self—the self that was given to him through Christ, the cross that Christ gave to Philemon through Paul’s preaching and ministry. If you do not hate even life itself, Jesus says, you cannot be my disciple. And now it’s Philemon’s turn to know the cost of following Christ when Onesimus knocks on his door, the cost, but also the joy of welcoming home and long lost brother.
Jesus means what he says, and those of us who strive to be his disciples must know that the cross is a gift of love. We too often mistake the work of discipleship and the cross as a punishment, but that isn’t right. The cross is the hard work of discipleship, and it’s a gift. The cross frees us from all the ways we try to evade God and hide from God and put God off till tomorrow and tell God, “No, God, not today, I’m not ready to change today, God.”
There is the cross for each individual, and there is the cross for our time. I believe our cross, our work, is clear. I’ve been thinking about the Lakota Indians, protesting a pipeline that will cross their land, that will come into their river, that was rejected by three government watchdog panels but overruled by the corps of engineers. I think of my wife’s aunt and uncle in Florida, watching as a storm that is literally one of kind sweeps over them and gathers strength. I think of the people I read about in the paper yesterday, people who have been experiencing once in a lifetime floods multiple times in a decade. I’ve been thinking about places all over this country, along the coasts, that have measured the rising seas and have discovered that their communities are in danger of being washed away, not many years from now, not generations from now, but now. Today. This year. This decade.
The ocean is Onesimus, stepping up to our door. It is time we started treating the earth as our sister, rather than our slave. It is time for us to take our cross, and in taking it, find a new freedom that comes from letting go of the things which held to us because we thought the chains they placed on us were an embrace. It is too late to mitigate much of what we have already done to this Earth—but there is still time to stop the worst from happening. That is our cross—to stop the worst and live with what’s left, and try to leave something good for those that come after us.
Choose life, God told the Israelites. Choose life, God says to us. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. We have to change now. It’s a cross—but it is life. Amen.
Reverend John Flack