Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
He was slowly being pulled apart. He was wholly committed to his calling as a mouthpiece for God and yet he also loved his own people with deep and abiding ties of identity and belonging.
It was no tub-thumping patriotism, blind to its faults and neither was it the kind of constant complaint and fault-finding which is common in much of our own public discussion.
He knew where his people belonged and grieved like a rejected lover at their abandonment of that identity.
And so like many prophets, before and since, he dangled there foreshadowing of course the supreme personal sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
But God had something to show Jeremiah, in the form of a potter’s workshop where, if a vessel failed to take the form the potter desired, then it would be collapsed and the task would begin again.
And God said that this was how Judah and Jerusalem would fare if they did not change their loyalties and their ways. His promise to Israel would always stand but it might be a different generation that was to benefit from His blessings.
If His eyes were upon all nations then they were especially on His own people and His own city.
The love of God was never separated from holiness or the possibility of judgment. It never degenerated into sentiment or indulgence, and it was never going to be satisfied with less than that which was perfect for His people.
To follow the ways of God was never going to protect Jeremiah from conflict, least of all from the hostility of the people he loved the most.
For Paul and Philemon the issue was much more personal, for Onesimus, an escaped slave, had found his way to Paul while he was in prison, and there it had all come out.
While Paul had wanted to keep Onesimus as a personal assistant, he knew that he could not go behind the back of Onesimus’ master, Philemon, also a believer converted through Paul’s ministry.
Paul might have rationalized the situation and in effect gone behind Philemon’s back but rather he preferred to face the situation out with Philemon.
Hence this most personal of Paul’s letters: it is a personal plea, but one addressed to Philemon in the presence of the whole house church that met in his home.
Paul is prepared to let go of Onesimus for the sake of honesty and fair dealing, but he also expects Philemon to let go, and to forgive, for the sake of the unity of the people of God in their common baptism and fellowship in Jesus Christ.
There can be no half measures and if Philemon was a spiritual child to Paul then he would also be a spiritual brother to Onesimus. Equally, if Paul was facing a personal loss, then Philemon was also to be placed in a similar dilemma. It was all part of the cost of discipleship.
In the gospel, Jesus is wholly uncompromising about the costs of discipleship. Put simply, a disciple must place Jesus Christ above all other considerations, relationships and possessions.
Jesus will not accept a place which is second to anything or anyone else. He is not a convenience to be taken up when need arises but then dropped when the urgency passes or when greater enticements appear.
For if His salvation is to cover all aspects of our lives then so must His discipleship. And the costs of discipleship can affect all aspects of our lives.
In the gospel of John, Jesus’ farewell discourses include the image of Jesus as the vine, His disciples as the branches and of His Father as the vinedresser.
It is His Father’s place to inspect every branch of the vine which is Jesus, and to prune and prepare it so that it can be fruitful, and so that its fruitfulness can increase in quantity and quality.
But the pruning is what we feel as different aspects of our lives come under uncomfortable and even painful inspection. They are indeed liable to be pruned, and it is indeed disconcerting when this happens to us.
It can affect any aspect of life: our relationships, possessions, attitudes, ambitions and even our memories. Nothing can be hidden or placed out-of-bounds.
Some of these things may in themselves be wholesome and constructive – but there is an even better way before us, which we can only embark upon when we are separated from them.
As Christians, we can never expect to be protected from pain, sorrow, disappointment, frustration, alienation and plain rejection.
For us this is not really the issue: rather it is the way we face them as we exercise our faith in the love and providence of God even when they appear to be so well concealed.
This is the faith and the commitment which in the midst of trial and sorrow can still glorify and serve God for that is His due, regardless of our feelings or sentiments.
In this sense God is worthy of our highest and best, especially when we do not feel like it, when our prayers seem dead, our worship seems to be blind repetition and our relationships within the church seem formal or even cold.
This is when our discipleship indeed becomes sacrificial as we put faith into practice within the difficulties of our lives.
But then this is the worship that is given, not for how we feel or understand but for the sake of God alone.
It is the kind of devotion and commitment that He honours for He is indeed honoured by it. It takes place in the secret place – and this is one of those secrets that in the fullness of time will be opened up to flower like a garden in springtime.