September 4, 2022
I was reading recently about the interesting ways our brains will sometimes process the world. One of those things was that we tend to understand things in time the same way we understand them in space—basically, we process some event far off in the future as small and manageable in the same way that a mountain or a plane looks small when it’s really far away. It makes it so that we overestimate the importance of stuff that will happen soon, and underestimate the importance of things that happen far the future. It’s why making a good decision that is hard now, but will definitely pay off later, is so much harder than making an easy decision now that will come back to bite us later. Our brains understand the future as less important than the present.
Which is probably why Jesus’s words today come across as even more shocking. We don’t often talk about the cost of discipleship, but Jesus is making it abundantly clear that this faith we take on is going to change things, radically, and forever. And some of that change can be pretty challenging, and pretty painful. The harshness of what he’s saying is just to emphasize the point that following Jesus means everything else—even family and possessions—has to come second. Following Jesus looks like leaving behind everything that was once important. The hard part is that the reward, the good stuff, the thing that makes it worth it, is really far off in time. And we get a glimpse of what that struggle looks like in the second reading from today, from the letter to Philemon.
Paul is writing to Philemon about Philemon’s slave Onesimus, who it seems might have stolen something from his master, and run away. Unlike so many of his other letters, Paul is delicate and tactful with Philemon, trying to make the case that Philemon should welcome Onesimus home not as a slave, but as a family member. A freed family member. Apparently Onesimus had been baptized sometime during his stay with Paul, and his membership into the body of Christ radically redefined how Paul thought he and Philemon should relate.
Onesimus’ name actually means “useful,” and that leaves little doubt that it’s a name meant for a slave. It defines the relationship between him and Philemon. But Paul is tapping into who Philemon is as a disciple of Christ to redefine how he and Onesimus relate: no longer as slave and master, but as brothers in Christ. Paul is so diplomatic with what he’s saying that it can be hard at first to catch that’s what he’s suggesting, but it’s there. Because Philemon is a disciple of Christ, he is called to “give up his possessions” for the sake of the kingdom. To do the hard thing now, that will bring more good later.
It’s a message that goes against the grain of the culture. Greco-Roman culture equated a person’s worth with their power and honor—remember the honor/shame system we talked about last week. Philemon’s identity as a disciple of Christ called on him to do the bafflingly stupid thing of shaming himself by making his slave equal to him, and renouncing his power by freeing him. Paul was reminding him that, compared to the kingdom, he had to hate his own life. Discipleship wasn’t going to line up with what his world was telling him was important.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a person who realized what was important. I’m sure many of y’all at some point have heard his name, and know what he did. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during the 1930s and 40s. He saw how his own church was bending to the will of the Nazi government, accepting the heretical preaching of German supremacy and militarism, purging Christianity of its Jewish roots, and trying its best to keep its central place in the German social sphere.
Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship in response. I’d recommend reading it. In it he wrote the famous line, “When Christ calls [someone], he bids [them] come and die.” Bonhoeffer practiced what he preached, and ended up being executed, martyred for the witness of uncompromising grace and justice embodied by the first century Jewish radical he was a disciple of.
He understood that the call to be a disciple of Jesus was an all-encompassing call, with no room for any other loyalties. Possessions—attachments to anything—will warp our priorities. Jesus said we must give up all our possessions, and he didn’t mean just our snowmobiles and retirement accounts. He meant even our very ideals, our values, our culture. Christ calls us to reorder our hearts.
And the reason is that we as human beings are beings made to worship. We were created that way. And that’s not just worship in the sense of Sunday mornings or bowing down or that kind of thing, but worship in the sense of elevating something or someone to the point that we put our hope in them. Our security in them. Our prosperity and salvation in them. Idolatry is whenever we put our trust in anything besides Christ, and I’m not just talking about eternal things. I’m talking about here and now too. And we will find idols to worship with ease, from our possessions to our politics to our ideals to, yes, even our families.
Which is why we are called to daily discipleship. It’s a reordering of the heart, seeing Christ’s call in all things, being ready at a moment’s notice to drop everything for the sake of Christ and the kingdom. It’s not something that happens overnight. The Spirit calls us back to the table each week for a reason. Discipleship takes discipline, and in discipline our life as Christians becomes less doing what God wants and more being who God calls us to be. We are called in our discipleship to go beyond Sunday morning so that we put Christ and the kingdom first every day of the week, so that we are shaped by Christ by always working toward his kingdom.
And that is hard. Impossible, actually. We cannot, of our own power, accomplish anything that God has set before us. After all, who am I to be able to love God with all my heart, mind, body, and soul, and love my neighbor as myself, to love my enemies? Who am I to be able to give up all my possessions for the sake of the kingdom, loving Christ and the kingdom so much that I hate my family by comparison?
Yet, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” We have been given the Holy Spirit in our baptism, our old sinful selves drowned with each morning and raised to new life in our calling. God never gives a command without promising to empower.
We are empowered by Christ’s own body and blood, broken and poured out for our sake at this table, medicine of salvation that restores our souls to the work we are called to do. We are empowered by the example of the saints like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, like the past saints of Our Savior’s, like the saints who live in our midst who are far too modest to let themselves be recognized. We are empowered by the scriptures set before us and a congregation set around us, to give strength to the weary and encouragement to the downtrodden.
Day by day we are called to give all of ourselves, and we can only do it by the power of the Spirit. But also day by day, God gives us the grace that we need to do what we are called to do, to reorder our hearts to be disciples of Christ, and to die, like Philemon and Bonhoeffer and all the saints, so that we can be raised anew in the mercy of Christ who is above all and in all and through all, into the kingdom he is making in our midst.
Thanks be to God. Amen.