Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 4 September 2022.
• First Reading: Jeremiah 18: 1-11 (‘Turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’)
• Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17
• Epistle: Philemon 1-21 (Paul’s plea for Onesimus)
• Gospel: Luke 14: 25-33 (The costs of discipleship)
It seemed to be so unfair. Many of his helpers had left him to go about on his business, and some had gone because they lost interest in him.
And somehow this young man turned up, and Paul was able to help him. He also helped Paul and slowly the bond was formed.
‘So where are you from?’ ‘Colossae.’ ‘Lovely city. I have visited it – I have friends there. Maybe you know them?’
An embarrassing silence. Eyes cast down, and the young man says, ‘Yes, I do know them. I ran away from them, even took some money. They are lovely people but you know, boring.’
‘Oh’ A heavy silence fell between them. Paul had helped the young man to come to faith, put his trust in Jesus of Nazareth, was baptized. Now he learns that he had a runaway slave on his hands – and an escapee from one of Paul’s own friends.
It would be so easy to say nothing and let the moment pass. Nobody was going to know that he had protected a runaway slave and anyway, wasn’t slavery really abhorrent to the faith that sets all people equally free?
Even as an old man, Paul was learning new things about himself and the Lord whom he had been serving all these years. As was said in a totally different context, ‘It’s not the years, it’s the milage.’
But then Paul was never going to be at peace and there would always be that niggle, that disturbing thought. And a distaste for slavery was not going to change it. If he failed to do so then Paul would be complicit in the runaway’s crimes (like theft) and his peace before God would always be fragile, guilty, shallow, even defensive.
And so, very reluctantly, Paul set about persuading Onesimus to go back and own up. He would carry Paul’s letter and no doubt Paul paid his passage. But he would go back to his former master and face the consequences.
Paul’s heart was breaking at all this but it had to be done. And Philemon would find that he not only had his slave back but that there was a letter addressed both to him and the church meeting at his home. If Paul could not hide then Philemon would not get to hide either.
Paul would make his address both personal and theological. It would be a matter for Philemon but the church would know of it as well and it would set a standard for making slaves welcome in the body of Christ, whether still bonded to an owner or already freed.
For Paul, this would also be part of his own walk with God as a disciple of Jesus.
And Jesus had been speaking about discipleship and its costs. To follow Jesus openly would be to be exposed to ridicule, abuse, rejection. Family would turn against a new disciple, especially a recent believer.
There would be all those worldly-wise comments which the disciple did not know how to counter, relationships would come under strain and loyalties tested in new ways.
Prospects for home, marriage, occupation and citizenship would all come under scrutiny and so long as the disciple tried to keep a foot in both camps then the stress would only increase.
And even a conscience-directed and spirit-led change in churchmanship and theology could have the same effects.
Then there would be those deep and personal issues, relationships and memories, ways of seeing and understanding things which would also come into the frame. These also would be tested.
Yes, there would be costs in becoming a disciple of Jesus and they would not necessarily stop with age. They would continue as different issues arose.
But Jesus does not leave His disciples dangling there. He knows that discipleship is a process and not just a state of being.
It is about growing and becoming fruitful and more fruitful yet. It is about allowing God to be the vinedresser, Jesus to be the vine and the disciples to be branches of that vine, grafted in by His personal gift and yet tended by the love and mercy of God.
That means that branches that are unfruitful are pruned and those that are fruitful are tended.
It means that there is a process by which unfruitful parts of our lives are pruned off so that the productive parts might become more fruitful yet.
Discipleship is a long and personal encounter with the love and mercy of God as He directs and prunes our lives so that we may become more of what we already are in His sight.
And if Jesus has already shown us the way to the cross and how to carry the cross that is given to us, then God has allowed us to bear that cross, not only because we believe and trust in Him but more importantly, because He believes and trusts in us.
Otherwise Jesus need not have taken human flesh and walked that road to the cross.
But as Paul says, if we are saved through the death of Jesus on the cross, then how much more may we hope and expect to be raised to new life and new hope in His resurrection.
That is simple logic.