A few years ago, I was just about to begin a service of morning worship as the presiding minister, when a very distinguished Australian, who had received a knighthood, walked in. I actually knew him reasonably well, but wasnt immediately sure whether I should welcome him as Sir so and so, or simply by his name. I turned to a colleague beside me for a quick word of advice. It came back: in the church we are all equal! I knew immediately that he was right, though I dont think this precludes being courteous to each other.
Much more recently, I was in a prominent Episcopelian Church on Fifth Avenue, New York City. I had heard about it and wanted to see and hear what it was like. We were greeted by men in morning dress (striped trousers), with a red carnation in their button-hole, and women, similarly (and beautifully) attired in black. The descendants of North American slavery were conspicuous by their absence.
At the time I was spending a period of study leave in Princeton (NJ). There was a large, flourishing Presbyterian Church, to which I went a few times, and a small Presbyterian Church, started a hundred or more years ago by the black slaves who did not feel that they belonged in the large Presbyterian congregation.
[B] Pauls letter to Philemon
All this despite St Pauls well-known, much-quoted line that in Christ we are all one: no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. (Gal 3:28) Paul, of course, was not denying the reality of these distinctions he did not seek to abolish the institution of slavery, any more than Jesus himself did but in Christ they were to be of no importance. Therefore, in the church these distinctions were no longer to be divisive; nor others which could be added these days to Pauls list of differences which were not to divide the church.
This morning the lectionary put before Pauls shortest letter by far: the letter to Philemon. Its very seldom read; I think that I have never preached from it in almost 40 years of ministry.
It is actually a very interesting letter, though, unlike all the other letters of Paul that survive, it only relates to one matter: a slave called Onesimus who had run away from his master, Philemon, who had become a Christian and who, by virtue of this fact, was greatly indebted to Paul himself. (Paul the apostle had founded many communities of Christians in the region we now know as Syria, Turkey and Greece.)
Onesimus had also become a Christian; he had come to be in the service of Paul, who was in prison. (In those days, if you had servants, you could have their help even though you were imprisoned.) Paul refers to Onesimus as his child, whose father I have become. But Paul is sending him back to Philemon, with this letter.
He thinks he could simply instruct Philemon to receive his slave back without the punishment that he was legally entitled to inflict; such was Pauls authority in the church, at least in Philemons congregation. But he refrains from doing that. Instead, he appeals to him on the grounds of the Gospel. He wants Philemon voluntarily to be generous to Onesimus, not as a result of Pauls twisting his arm. A colleague of mine [Brendan Byrne] describes this letter as a masterpiece of subtle persuasion in the name of the Gospel.
[C] Everything is different
What is the basis of this subtle persuasion? Paul would like to retain Onesimus for his own support and help. But he also wants Philemon to have him back; indeed, to have him back forever! But he wants Philemon to have him back no longer as a slave, but more than a slave: a beloved brother! This is possible, Paul reasons, because Onesimus has already become a beloved brother to Paul himself, both in the flesh that is, in the concrete reality of everyday life and in the Lord that is, in the shared reality of their faith in Christ and their discipleship.
What makes this possible? What makes everything different, socially and relationally speaking, between Philemon and his (runaway but returned) slave? Simply put, Onesimus has become a Christian! Why should that make such a difference? Because, despite all other things that make us different from each other, being servants of the Gospel, disciples of Jesus Christ, makes us brothers and sisters.
We dont know how Philemon responded to Pauls letter and how he decided to treat his returning slave. Was it possible, despite their master-slave relationship, to be brothers in Christ, and therefore brothers in the church? Could they talk together, sit together, or was Philemon always in the higher place and Onesimus in the lower place to refer back to last Sundays reading from Luke? We can only speculate.
What was true for Paul, and Philemon and Onesimus is also true for us. In everyday life our relationships with others vary enormously: some are determined by business, by profession, by background, by kinship, by friendship (despite all other differences), by sport and other things. In some the differences are accentuated; in others they are minimised.
Being Christian is a leveller; it renders differences insignificant. Archbishop William Temple once said that, despite the differences in responsibilities between an archbishop and his chauffeur, there was no essential difference between them before God in the Lord, as it were; in the Gospel.
Normally, you dont take your brother or sister to court, except if relationships have broken down, trust has been seriously betrayed or you are the victim of some criminal action. In the same way, Christians too do not ordinarily take each other to court; when they feel that it is necessary to do so, it is the sign of a serious breakdown of relationships. Why is this so? Because we all share a common gift in the Gospel; and we share a common allegiance to Jesus Christ, whom we confess as Lord. Therefore, like it or not, we are related in kinship. This makes everything different.
[D] A framework for Jesus radical demands
This is also the only possible context in which to hear those extraordinarily demanding words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospel of St Luke. If we want to be disciples of Jesus, we have to hate those who are dearest to us: husband, wife; parent, child; brother, sister! We have to carry the cross, presumably Lukes version of take up our cross! We have to give up our possessions. It sounds repugnant in the extreme!
Discipleship is presented in this passage in the most radical terms so much so, that the cost of it has to be weighed up carefully before we would undertake such a commitment: like building a house (or a tower); or a king planning to go to war with another king. [One might wish that Mr Bush had heeded this piece of advice.]
It is necessary to remember, of course, that Luke expresses the radical sayings of Jesus in particularly radical terms. Its also worth noting that Hebrew idiom is fond of hyperbole; in any case, it lacks the capacity to say that you prefer one thing over another, and so speaks in terms of hating the one thing and loving the other. So lets put this aside, at least.
On the other hand, lets not blunt the sharp edge of Jesus words to the large crowds that were coming to listen to him, including perhaps some would-be disciples. He does make some very radical demands, even when you take the hyperbole out of them. Family allegiances very strong in Jewish society then (as now) are not invariably our first responsibility; let the dead bury their own dead! is another one of those radical statements recorded by Luke a few chapters earlier (9:60; cf. Matt 8:22). To adopt his mission is to relativise what might otherwise be regarded as our highest commitment. Sacrifices have to be made. To be in his company, committed to the reign of God in all things, is to choose a different way; choosing against the possibility of everything remaining the same.
What sense does it make, then, to be a disciple of this Jesus, to choose this radical and difficult way, to see things from a different angle, to set different priorities? It only makes sense if encountering Christ has first come as a gift to us; if we recognise that before being bound to him we have been set free from other things that hold us or have us in their grip.
Most of us, I imagine, do not like changing our life-style. But sometimes we have to; and sometimes we are very glad to if we have been given a second chance at life, if medical treatment has given us the prospect of a few more years. Sometimes our priorities and our values do change if something truly wonderful has happened to us.
In such a context, making money and acquiring possessions prove to be not the most important thing to live for. In such a context, the words of Jesus, properly understood, may sound as promising as they are demanding. In such a context, our own leisure and pleasure are not all-important, and the kingdom of God and its justice, peace and reconciliation make a very plausible claim on our priorities and our over-riding commitments.
The logic is that the one who asks a good deal from us also gives us a great deal. The one who sounds as if he is asking the impossible also makes life possible for us; that is, life in a more than minimal sense. The one who asks us to take up our cross and that doesnt mean putting up cheerfully with our arthritis or our cataracts is also the one who went to the cross for us and for all, who gave himself for us, who, though he was rich, became poor so that we might become rich.
To be in the company of Jesus, the world-wide communion of the church, is to be given much: a new frame of reference for interpreting the world, a new story to give shape to our own story, new meaning, new purpose, new life. Being a disciple means that a slave can become a brother, a subordinate an equal, a stranger a friend. Rivalry and enmity can fall away; competition is not the only name of the game.
From that gift it becomes possible for us as for countless others before us and others in countless places even now to live in transformed relationships, to become disciples of the one who loved us and gave himself for us, and to set our hearts on the reign of God, which Jesus announced and enacted.
Thanks be to God for his gift in Jesus Christ and for the invitation to be his disciples.