Philemon 1 – 21
Luke 14. 25 – 33
It’s rather a strange sales pitch for a leader, isn’t it? “Want to be my disciples, do you? Well then, learn to hate your family, give up all your possessions, and get ready for a nasty death!”
It’s quite different from the way modern leaders advertise themselves – like in the leadership election we’re going through at the moment. It’s far better to tell people what they want to hear – not the grim truth about the situation.
But of course Jesus doesn’t tell people want they want to hear. He tells them what they need to hear.
And he gives them, in today’s reading, two dire warnings about what will happen if they don’t listen to him, and change their ways.
The first is a story about the building of a tower. The great building project of the time was the temple in Jerusalem, which Herod and his descendants were enlarging and beautifying on a massive scale.
But Jesus has already warned, in the last chapter, that God has abandoned his house. Jesus is the new temple – the place where God can be found – not in a temple of stones built to the glory of those who build it.
And of course, just a few years later, this great temple would be destroyed, as Jesus foretold – and that glory will be turned to shame.
The second story about the war-like king is connected. Throughout the Gospels, we see the crowds, and even the disciples, trying to make Jesus their king. To make him into the kind of military messiah they wanted, who would fight and overthrow the Roman rulers.
They want a fight. But Jesus warns them again – if only they knew the vast number of enemies lined up against them, they would surely sue for peace, and not continue the fight.
And again, he’s right – the Jewish rebellion that follows is brutally crushed, and Jerusalem is destroyed.
These people are fixated on temporal things – their glorious buildings, their ancestral possessions – and they’re blinded to the one eternal thing that can give them the true freedom – Jesus himself.
In other words, they’re held captive by the things that possess them. And I think that’s the way to approach Jesus’ strange and difficult words about hating our family, and even our own lives, and giving up all our possessions.
It’s not really a case of ‘how much do you hate all these things?’ as it first appears. But rather, ‘how much do you love me?’ How much does our love for Christ and one another go beyond the limits of family boundaries, love of self, and love of possessions?
There’s a hint of what this might look like in our first reading, from Philemon.
Look at the way Paul addresses his fellow Christians – “our sister”, “my brother.” Onesimus he talks of as “my child” – even to the point of saying that they should welcome him as if he were Paul himself – as a “beloved brother” – in the flesh, as well as in Lord.
This is a community that still values family, of course – but now opens up that family to all. And like a family, Paul doesn’t command them to do as he wishes – he appeals to them on the basis of their family love. That they, his brothers and sisters, will do what he asks for his child, simply because they love him, in the Lord Jesus.
This is the joyful life that Jesus is calling his followers into in our Gospel reading. It sounds difficult and painful on first reading – but that’s because Jesus is soon to go into the most difficult and painful situation – his walk towards the cross.
I said at the beginning that it’s a strange sales pitch for a would-be leader. But imagine instead that he’s not like a politician.
The theologian Tom Wright, in speaking on this passage, thinks of Jesus more like this:
He says, “Think of the leader of a great expedition, forging a way through a high and dangerous mountain pass to bring urgent medical aid to villagers cut off from the rest of the world. ‘If you want to come any further,’ the leader says, ‘you’ll have to leave your packs behind. From here on the path is too steep to carry all that stuff. You probably won’t find it again. And you’d better send your last postcards home; this is a dangerous route and it’s very likely that several of us won’t make it back.’ We can understand that. We may not like the sound of it, but we can see why it would make sense.”
Jesus is being honest about the difficulties ahead. But he’s also giving an invitation. An invitation into something much bigger than we could possibly imagine.
Thank God, we don’t have to go through the same darkness and danger that the first Christians did – and many Christians around the world still do today.
But there’s still a question for us – just as urgent, perhaps, in our more comfortable society. What is it that possesses us, and holds us back from entering into Christ’s freedom? What are the towers we build for ourselves and the battles we insist on fighting? How can we accept his difficult but wonderful invitation? Amen.