Well … it’s my theory (and probably mine alone) that the writers of the Revised Common Lectionary probably played the Kevin Bacon Game somewhere in their seminary careers because I’m not sure you could get more disparate readings than todays … but I could be wrong. First we have this reading from Luke with Jesus talking about hating everyone and even life itself (way to welcome people back from summer!). Readings like this make a preacher think, “Hmmm … wonder what’s in the Jeremiah reading?? Oh … potter with clay … ok. What’s the epistle? Um … runaway slave Onesimus returns. Greaaat!” After wrestling with this all week, I think there is a way these all come together and it has to do with the cost of discipleship and some reassurance when we are asked to give something up to be people of God’s kingdom.
Let’s look at Luke. We are still in the traveling narrative and Jesus is coming near to Jerusalem. I think the key to this passage is that “large crowds were traveling” with Jesus. People are basically herd animals, aren’t we? If there’s a crowd, we tend to be compelled to go over and join the crowd just to see what’s going on, right? And when there’s a crowd around somebody popular, there are a lot of people there for the wrong reasons. Maybe they are just curious or maybe they want to be cool and look good. No matter … it’s pretty clear that this large crowd had a significant bunch of posers in it and I think Jesus is firing a metaphoric shot across the bow about what his message and ministry really means. Hate is sure to separate the believers from the phonies! So Jesus speaks in hyperbole about what the cost of discipleship is. In essence, he’s challenging them with the question, “What are you willing to give up for the sake of the Kingdom of God?” … what are you willing to give up? It’s not that you’ll be asked to give up father and mother … but you might. Are you willing to do so?
He then goes on to tell two parables: one about a tower builder and another about a king. In both cases, each of these characters may be challenged to give up their dream or vision. In the case of the tower builder, if he doesn’t have enough money to build the tower, no amount of vision and imagination will make it happen. He may have to give up his dream. In the case of the king, if he’s outnumbered, he must relinquish the idea of expanding his territory. In both cases, these characters must let go of their plans for the sake of something greater. Jesus ends this passage with an exhortation to sell all your possessions – another bit of hyperbole but one to remind us to hold our possessions lightly and be willing to let them go for the sake of the Gospel.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we hear about a very concrete example of the cost of discipleship. This is a wonderful letter and shows not only Paul’s persuasive rhetorical skills, but also his vision of a new kind of family based on faith not blood ties or social privilege. He is taking up the cause of one runaway slave, Onesimus, whom he refers to as “my child.” We do not know the reason why Onesimus ran away from Philemon. However, we do know that under Roman law, Philemon as “pater familias” had the power of life and death over his entire household – wife, children, and slaves. Onesimus’ return would have been frightening for him as Philemon would have had the legal right to put him to death.
Instead, Paul writes this impassioned letter full of familial imagery. He speaks of Onesimus as his “child” and his “own heart.” He implores Philemon not only to receive Onesimus back as Paul’s equal but “confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” Paul is pressing for Onesimus’ manumission. The lectionary writers left out the next verse which says: “One thing more – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” Not only is Paul making an appeal, he’s letting Philemon know he’ll be coming to check up on this situation!
In essence, Paul uses the rhetoric of honor towards Philemon to remind him that the cost of his discipleship is that he will give up his legal rights under Roman law. The law of Christ demands love – not beatings or death. The cost of discipleship requires Philemon to be transformed from identifying himself as a Roman citizen to knowing himself as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. This transformation requires change.
And this kind of transformative change is what our faith in Christ is all about. We may not have the power of life and death over others; however, we are still being called to change for the sake of God’s love. At the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” In essence, Jesus asks us something similar: “My child, do you love me more than ?” … fill in the blank. That is our question and we will each fill it in differently. My attachments and yours are different … but we both have them. One that comes up for me periodically is when Christ asks me, “Do you love me more than … being right?” Oooooohhh! Yeah, that’s a gut punch … but a necessary one at times. Jesus is so like that! But it is a call to relinquish life on my terms to live for God’s terms.
But letting go of things is scary. I mean, if I give up this part of my identity, who will I be? How will I relate to the world around me if I change? This can be disconcerting and … this is where Jeremiah comes into play. Jeremiah is told to go down to the potter’s house. Now I’m sure many of you have made something out of clay at one time or another (think back to third grade art class). When you work with clay, it is malleable. If you make something and you don’t like how it’s turning out, you can squish it all up and start over. And this is the image Jeremiah sees and it becomes a metaphor for God’s reworking of his people through the catastrophe of the Babylonian conquest and exile. But it also is an image for us because even though the form of what the potter made changed it was still made of the same substance: clay. Clay didn’t stop being clay. And this holds a promise for us because when we are transformed throughout our lives and called over and over to give things up for the sake of the Kingdom of God, we need not fear this transformation because the real underlying substance of our true nature as children of God does not change. Our form may change … but our substance is not destroyed.
The cost of discipleship at times feels very high but it is necessary for us to relinquish our way in order to live more fully into God’s kingdom vision. We will be reworked as clay … but it will always be for the purpose of forming something more pleasing and useful to God.