The Gospel of Luke is a beautifully written narrative detailing the life and ministry of Jesus. However, this week’s gospel text demonstrates that Luke was not afraid to include the harsh things Jesus said when he wanted to get a point across. And this story is particularly difficult to hear – it sounds as though Jesus is demanding that we leave everything behind – not just possessions but family and friends – in order to follow him. So we are faced with what seems like a contradiction. How can we love our neighbor, how can we obey the commandment to honor our father and mother, if Jesus tells us to hate them all in order to be his disciples?
Jesus is using hyperbole; he is exaggerating, in order to impress us with how serious this task of discipleship really is. At this point in his ministry Jesus is setting his face towards Jerusalem. He wants the excited crowds to know the cost of going on the journey with him. He wants them to be prepared. Discipleship is not a hobby or an extra-curricular activity; it should be the driving force for the rest of our lives. Jesus is letting us know that it is a pretty awesome responsibility, like the responsibility that parents take on when they bring their child to be baptized. They promise to bring the child up in the faith, to bring them to church and teach them scripture and the beliefs and traditions of the faith. That isn’t easy, especially in today’s world, which becomes more secular every day. Instead of being the primary activity on Sunday and the center of extra-curricular activities during the week as it once was, church is now squeezed in among many other things that demand our time, devotion and resources.
We also have to remember that although Jesus was beginning his final journey to Jerusalem, where he would pay the ultimate price for us on the cross, the true outcome was not his humiliating and violent death but the defeat of death and sin in his resurrection. Because of that outcome, we live the resurrected life and that changes everything. That is why we bring our children to be baptized, so they can share in the miracle of the resurrected life.
In our second lesson, Paul’s letter to Philemon, we see the great possibilities and privileges that go with being part of the faith community. Rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking, was highly valued in the ancient world and Paul was a master at it. Philemon was a person of means who hosted the church that Paul founded in his home. Paul’s letter to him was valued so much that it was not only preserved, but it became an entire book in the New Testament. Our second lesson is actually the entire book, except for the last four verses.
There has been speculation that Onesimus was a runaway slave, but since Paul does not devote any space to telling the story of how he came to be with him, it seems more likely that Onesimus was sent to Paul to care for him during his imprisonment. In the first century long imprisonments took place under house arrest, and the prisoner needed other people to obtain food and other necessities for them. As a slave in Philemon’s household, Onesimus was a baptized Christian, a member of the church. That was one of the things that set the early Christian church apart from Roman society. In the church, everyone was equal. Although Onesimus was a slave in the household, in the church he was a full member who would have the opportunity to take on a position of responsibility, such as a teacher or deacon.
Earlier in our country’s history, when slavery was an accepted social practice, this letter from Paul was used incorrectly as a proof text in support of slavery. Slave owners were often prominent members of their church at the same time that they kept human beings as slaves with no rights and no freedom, and often mistreated them, sometimes brutally. Because Paul did not demand outright that slavery be abolished, they argued that they did not have to free their slaves.
What Paul does is much more subtle. He begins the letter with his usual salutations, greeting the leaders of that particular house church, including one who is a woman. He clearly intends that this letter be read to the community. Then Paul presents the case for Onesimus, pointing out that although he was not always the most useful slave, he has become very useful to Paul. Indeed, he is like a son to Paul, so much so that he calls him “my own heart.” Paul does not try to pull rank on Philemon, demanding that he do what Paul desires. Instead he uses persuasive language to bring about the desired outcome. He appeals to Philemon out of love, rather than demanding his obedience. Paul suggests that Philemon has been separated from Onesimus for so long so that they could now be reunited and be “together forever,” but not as slave and master, as “brothers.” He tells Philemon that if he has respect for Paul, then Paul is confident that he will do what he is asking.
This letter describes the church at its best – not an institution that uses its authority to coerce or make demands on its members, but an institution that uses its authority in a persuasive and loving `manner to bring about the intentions of God for the world – mercy, compassion, justice and peace. Paul certainly had authority in the early church, particularly among the faith communities that he founded. We can tell from his letters to them that they held him in the highest esteem. At times, when it was necessary, Paul was not afraid to set them straight. But he always laid out his argument and explained why their behavior was unacceptable and how he hoped they would change. In this letter, he using a more loving and persuasive argument to encourage Philemon to act in the way that Paul believes will reflect the intentions of God.
It is true that at times throughout history the church has been guilty of acting in a manner that did not follow the model set by Paul and others like him. However, we pray that as members of the church in this time and place we follow Paul’s example by using loving and persuasive arguments to bring about acts of mercy, compassion, justice and peace in the world. Just as in the churches that Paul founded, all the baptized members are equal. Logan is a little baby brought by his parents to become a member of God’s family, the Christian church. Right now he is so small that his parents and sponsors have to speak for him, but as he grows in faith he will find his own voice. If we doubt that little children actually absorb what they hear in church, Logan’s five year old brother Ethan was asked to pick a hymn for today and he chose all seven that we are singing. Onesimus was a slave in his household, yet he was an equal in the early church. Today, as in the early church, we do not have a hierarchy of membership – Logan is an equal member of the family and is treasured just as all our members are. I suppose we could be accused of having a special place in our hearts for our children, but so did Jesus.
As always, we rejoice on this special day that we are privileged to share with Logan the miracle of the resurrected life, and we pledge to nurture and support him during his faith journey. Amen.