A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 5, 2010.
Luke 14:25-33; Philemon 1-21
At Luke 9:51, we learn that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Luke 14:25 reports, “large crowds were travelling with him.” Something very dramatic then happens. Jesus turned and said this to the crowds.
- Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.
- Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
- None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
That’s strange talk if someone is leading people. It’s confrontation talk, not invitation talk. These words won’t be used by a congregation recruiter. And that’s the point. Jesus is not trying to recruit anyone. He’s screening, not recruiting. Jesus is separating the social climbers from the followers.
This is not the ordinary image we are given of Jesus. Instead we usually are treated to a version of Jesus that is something like a cross between Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, a Jesus who makes no waves and whose ministry costs us little.
The Jesus we see in the Gospel reading from Luke makes lots of waves. To follow this Jesus means giving up possessions, family ties, and even going against social customs and norms in religion. According to this Jesus, none of us can be his disciple without that kind of devotion and commitment—none of us.
And in Paul’s letter to Philemon we see how following Jesus worked in the relationship of a pastor and two believers. Paul was the pastor. Philemon was a leading figure among the believers in Colossae, a man of considerable social influence in the wider community as well, and was wealthy enough to own slaves. One of the slaves was Onesimus, who escaped and ran to Rome where he came under the influence of Paul’s ministry and also became a believer in Jesus. Paul led Philemon and Onesimus to become followers of Jesus.
So we have a social justice issue emerging from the religion of Jesus—look out Tea Party! The Epistle to Philemon is about how the religion of Jesus affected Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Would following Jesus affect the relationship between Philemon the slave owner and Onesimus the runaway slave? Would the Roman citizen and Christian preacher named Paul respect the legal right of his parishioner Philemon to be returned his slave Onesimus now that Onesimus is a brother in Christ to Philemon, his former owner?
Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. At Philemon 8 Paul writes that he could have used his pastoral relationship to Philemon to command him to release Onesimus—something Paul refers to as “your duty.” Verse 9 states, however, “I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” So Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you… So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Paul the pastor appeals to Philemon to treat Onesimus like Paul would expect to be treated by Philemon—like a brother, and expects Onesimus the former slave to offer himself to Philemon without knowing how he will be received.
I wish Paul was more direct with Philemon. As a descendant of an enslaved people whose slavery was often justified by distorted readings of the Bible, including the writings of Paul, I think Paul should have denounced slavery as a violation of the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. No person who understands and values what it means to be free would want to be enslaved. I wish Paul had directly said so to Philemon. But Paul chose to plead for Onesimus “on the basis of love” and to Philemon on the basis of their fellowship, not Paul’s pastoral authority.
Here is what I hope we will learn about following Jesus from these passages from Luke and Philemon.
Following the real Jesus re-structures values and priorities. How many times do we let personal, social, business, and political relationships come between us and living for God? Will we serve Caesar or God? Will we serve material riches or God? Will we order our lives based on popularity or the principles of faith? Religious faith always requires us to make choices and decisions about our relationships, values, and priorities.
Paul did not ask an easy thing of Philemon regarding Onesimus. Philemon was asked to relinquish his right under Roman law to own another human being. It also appears that Onesimus may have owed a debt to Philemon. Paul not only asked Philemon to forgive that debt but offered to assume the debt himself. Following Jesus would be financially costly for Philemon and for Paul if they chose to love Onesimus according to the religion of Jesus.
Following Jesus would also require Philemon to voluntarily accept a lower social status and reputation. Philemon would not be able to treat Onesimus as socially inferior and demand that Onesimus treat him as socially superior.
The same was true for Onesimus. Onesimus did not know whether Philemon would free him and forgive the debt. He did not know whether Philemon would heed Paul as a loving pastor or dismiss Paul as a crazy preacher. Onesimus enjoyed a relationship with Paul in Rome that he was not certain to experience by returning to Colossae and Philemon.
Paul offered to pay any debt Onesimus owed yet reminded Philemon that he (Paul) had led Philemon to Jesus, a relationship that cannot be measured by money. By urging Philemon to free Onesimus and offering to pay whatever debt Onesimus owed, Paul made himself financially vulnerable to Philemon.
This is what Jesus meant when he told the crowds hanging around him that discipleship is costly. Sometimes personal and family relationships are strained. Sometimes social standing and reputation suffers. The religion of Jesus burned so much in Harriet Tubman and John Brown that they became outlaws. Choosing to follow Jesus is what made Martin Luther King, Jr. a target for J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to investigate. Jesus said that if anyone is not willing to pay these costs, that person cannot follow him.
What are some choices you and I might make concerning our working brothers and sisters as followers of Jesus? Does the love for neighbor that Jesus demonstrated and Paul urged Philemon to show toward Onesimus affect how we treat people who are immigrants? Remember that slavery was legal under Roman law. Remember that Onesimus was a runaway slave. Does Paul’s request that Philemon respect a relationship with Onesimus higher than Roman law say anything to us concerning how we treat undocumented immigrant workers? Do immigrant parents who are undocumented deserve something higher from followers of Jesus than an electronic fence, racial profiling by police, and fear?
Glenn Beck and the Tea Party say religion has nothing to do with social justice, but is that truly the religion of Jesus? After all, the Hebrew prophets were always complaining that political and religious leaders and institutions were inconsiderate of poor, sick, and defenseless people. Jesus began his ministry talking about the Spirit of the Lord anointing him to speak liberation to oppressed people. The religion of Jesus is all about social justice because it is based on love for God and loving our neighbors more than we love personal wealth and private advantage.
Perhaps that means we should be creating more jobs with public dollars to give poor people the opportunity to work and support themselves. Perhaps following Jesus will mean voting to pay higher taxes so we can have better schools, pay teachers more, help more families face the struggles of life, and have fewer prisons. The cost of saying so might mean we lose popularity in political polls. Note to Glenn Beck, the Tea Party, and anyone else: following Jesus costs something. It isn’t cheap and it’s not personally advantageous. It means taking up a cross—a symbol of condemnation. If you want to be popular, join the anti-tax, anti-worker, anti-social justice, pro-war crowd, and Chamber of Commerce crowds.
The good news is that following Jesus is worth the cost! Redeeming Onesimus was worth whatever Philemon would have to lose and Paul would have to pay. Saving fallen humanity was worth the cost Jesus had to pay. Following Jesus in loving God and loving our neighbors is not cheap. It is not convenient. It is often misunderstood and controversial. But following Jesus is always worth the cost.
Redeeming our young people is worth the cost. Providing good schools for children is worth the cost. Showing respect and acceptance for our immigrant neighbors is worth the cost. Turning our homes and neighborhoods into places where people can safely live, learn, work, grow, play, and help each other is worth the cost. Forgiving people who offend us and who owe us is worth the cost.
Jesus never said that following him will be cheap, convenient, or uncontroversial. He said exactly the opposite—that no one can follow him without making tough and costly choices. Do we want to follow that Jesus? Are we prepared to make those tough choices? Are we willing to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus? Or must Jesus bear the cross, make the tough choices, and pay the costs of redeeming humanity alone?
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.