Philemon 1-21 Luke 14.25-33
I really love sewing, and in particular, I really enjoy quilting. (I really love maths too, but that’s (several) other sermons!)
I really love Jesus, and in particular, I really enjoy singing his praises. (I really love fellowship with other Christians too, among (several) other joys of my faith!)
The things I sew are not perfect, of course, but whoever I make them for knows they are made because of my love for them and receives them with grace.
The way I sing God’s praises is far from perfect, of course, but I believe God knows I sing them because of my love for him and receives my praises with grace.
I am blessed enough to have a fantastic sewing cabinet, absolutely brimming with all kinds of wonderful fabrics and chock full of possible creations.
I am blessed enough to live in a fantastic world, absolutely brimming with all kinds of wonders and chock full of actual creations.
My cabinet is in need of a good tidy up and general reorganisation, and part of what is causing the disorder is all the projects (known as UFOs (Un Finished Objects) that I have begun but not finished.
Sometimes it seems that the world is also in need of a good tidy up and general reorganisation, and part of what is causing the disorder is all the projects that we have begun but not finished.
For me it is so much easier to start a quilt project with enthusiasm than to persist right to the end of the last stitch. I’m not even sure that I should bother to complete them all as I’ve rather lost heart and gone off the vision I had.
In our lives generally it is so much easier to start on the right course with enthusiasm than to persist right to the end with our good intentions. Sometimes we’re not even sure that we should complete them all as we can lose heart and change our minds about the vision we once had.
If it’s not too trivial a matter to consider I would like to you to imagine the times when my passion for sewing and my passion for Christ might cause a conflict within me. I am sure that you might be able to substitute your own enthusiasms, instead of quilting, to make the thought experiment more relevant.
There are occasions when I need to choose between spending my time quilting and spending my time with Jesus. Sometimes it is OK to choose to do the sewing, and sometimes it is not. It is not a straightforward matter. In that God made me and loves me and understands me completely, my pleasure in creating with material and stitch will please him too: he delights in my joy, just as we delight in the joy of those we love. But obviously if I continually choose pursuing my hobby over living out my faith that would NOT please our heavenly father.
Why am I talking about preferences and competing loyalties? Because thinking about priorities rather than in absolute terms is one way to understand this morning’s Gospel. Let me explain further….
The Gospel for this morning is a hard text to hear. In my bible it is headed “Jesus teaches about the cost of being a disciple”. One thing that helps to explain this difficult message is its context. At this point in Luke’s Gospel Jesus was in the midst of his ministry and had gathered large crowds of followers. When you are in a big group of people it is very easy to get caught up in the emotions around you: maybe you have experienced that for yourself? This is a phenomenon known as crowd psychology, defined as “when crowd behaviour is heavily influenced by the loss of responsibility of the individual and the impression of universality of behaviour.” Jesus is giving a very necessary warning to each individual in that mass of people that what he is preaching about is not trivial: in fact, it is the very opposite. Once you realise Jesus is God, and that God loves you and wants to be in a personal relationship with you, all your priorities will be changed.
Jesus speaks of hating father, mother, spouse, child, brother, sister and even our own lives. Instinctively we recoil from these ideas: surely, we should love father, mother, spouse, child, brother, sister, and our own lives? I think part of the problem comes from the way the Hebrew word which Jesus spoke has been translated as “hate”. The word used in Hebrew reflects a preference or allegiance, an ordering or a choice, rather than the strongly negative emotions that the English word “hate” evokes. So in this passage “hate” means “give lower priority to when compared with God” rather than an intense dislike.
The news this week has provided examples of this need to prioritise and decide the order of our loyalties sometimes. 21 Conservative MPs decided to vote on a principle which they held dear, to do what they felt was right, rather then obey the party whip. In the language of this morning’s Gospel, they “hate” the government. An even more obvious parallel could be drawn for the actions of Jo Johnson: he resigned his position citing an “unresolvable tension” between his family loyalty and the national interest. He was forced to order his priorities, but he does not literally hate his brother.
Jesus is not calling his followers to hate their families in terms of emotional response; instead, he calls for undivided loyalty to himself above family loyalties. Therefore, if you are called upon to choose between Jesus and the list given: you should choose Jesus. I am confident that I could give up my quilting if it was a choice between that and God: less so about my Mum and Dad, Stuart and the children, Dawn and my friends, my own life- I’m hoping not to have to choose. Although this idea of prioritising is still deeply uncomfortable, it is more understandable.
On the face of it though, Jesus’ words do seem very demanding. But another way of thinking about this occurs to me. Last week we sung the worship song with the title “What can I do (when I see the beauty)”. In response to the lines “It awes and humbles me To be loved by a God so high” the chorus says “What can I do but thank you? What can I do but give my life to you?” Referencing last week again, Lorraine asked us to pause and think about the humility of almighty creator God stepping down from heaven to take on our humanity. If we really think about what God has done for us, our response has to be to put him first. How can we not? So we make a heartfelt response, rather than grudgingly answer a demand.
Jesus is trying to ensure that the crowd is not getting carried away, that they understand what they are signing up for. He is emphasising that being a disciple should be a choice entered into knowingly. And when you know the cost, you can choose. You can go deeper, be a disciple. Or you can turn back.
To illustrate this, he gives 2 examples:
Firstly, the tower example, which we also heard 3 weeks ago, when we were celebrating the completion of our own tower project. Jesus is advising us not to start a project without thinking it through to the end and being confident that we can finish. I was reflecting on this: often in this church family we have started projects without knowing how we could finish them…. But we have still obeyed Jesus’ teaching here, because we believe that God will bless our faithfulness, and so he has, time and again. That is how we know we CAN finish.
It is not easy to follow Jesus. We must either go deeper into the project, trusting God, or turn back. Faithful disciples will choose to go deeper. When we were building the Parish Centre, 20 years ago, I vividly remember an emergency meeting of the PCC. There was a financial problem. The building costs we had incurred had exceeded the amount we had raised. The PCC members were told that we were jointly and severally liable for the money owed to the contractor, if funds could not be found to bridge the gap. It was a horrible moment, when were literally confronted with the cost of being a disciple! Thanks to the faithfulness of our God, and the generosity of the church family here at the time, the story had a happy ending. The funds were loaned, the building completed, and it has been a blessing to us for 2 decades now. We failed to count the cost in advance and could have been ridiculed as the bible story suggests, but God answered our prayers.
The second example is the king who, realising he can’t win the war, makes peace instead. You either must go deeper into the enterprise or turn back. If you think you want to follow Christ, you either must be prepared to go deeper, or you may as well turn back, like the king does. The cost of discipleship is too great for him.
Christ’s disciples have found following him costly throughout history. In the first reading today, Paul is asking his friend Philemon to take Onesimus back. Onesimus was a slave who had stolen from Philemon and run away: to Philemon this was a double loss of property. Onesimus ran away to Rome, where he encountered Paul, and become a Christian. It seems to me that both Onesimus and Philemon would have found following Christ costly at this point. It is a big ask of Philemon to welcome Onesimus back after his betrayal, and I am not sure that it any better to be Onesimus in this story: very uncomfortable to return to the scene of his crime. Ironically Onesimus is being asked to go deeper by turning back! Sometimes we too may have to go back to a situation, when it would be easier just to continue to run away: another way in which being a disciple can be costly.
So, what does this mean for us here and now?
As individuals you may be able to think of a place in your own life where you are counting the cost of being a disciple, a place where you need to turn back, or go deeper. If you go deeper, as in the example of the building of our Parish Centre, you will be rewarded. Matthew 19:29 says, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.”
My prayer for us all is that we will choose to go deeper, not in an unthinking or careless way, following the crowd, but rather as disciplined disciples of Christ, who have counted the cost, and who are certain of the reward.