Answering the call of discipleship involves unexpected challenges and conflict, we choose if it leads us to destruction or to grow together, rooted in justice, peace and loving our neighbors.
Vicar Mollie Hamre
Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Lect. 23 C
Texts: Psalm 1, Philemon 1-25, Luke 14:25-33
Beloved in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s readings are not the warm embrace one might be looking for.
Jesus makes declarations about hate and about the cost of discipleship. Paul challenges Philemon about welcoming his slave, Onesimus, as a brother. And we are left to figure out how to connect the pieces.
I found myself asking, really Jesus? Hate? Isn’t that what we are trying to get away from? I would imagine that Jesus’ statement grabbed the attention of the crowd around him as the Gospel asks if we’re ready to consider what the cost of discipleship may be.
While the second reading helps us discern what the cost of discipleship could look like. As we’ve traveled through the Gospel of Luke, we know that Jesus is not a stranger to conflicting relationships. And when looking at the world today, we’re not strangers to this either. Except for today, the question about discipleship and conflicting relationships is asked directly to us.
Are we willing to open ourselves up to conflict and unexpected difficulties that come with being a disciple? And are we willing to let the call of discipleship change us, allowing us to grow into the promise we made in baptism, even if that means letting go assumptions we have made about the world?
Paul opens up this question to Philemon.
The book, Philemon, consists of a single chapter containing a letter from Paul to his “dear friend and co-worker,” Philemon. In the letter, Paul asks Philemon to take back his slave, Onesimus, and asks that when Onesimus returns, he be welcomed as a brother.
On the surface, Paul’s letter appears to be a phenomenal cover letter for Onesimus. Paul speaks about having a father-like relationship with Onesimus and even states that he will take the blame for any form of debt Onesimus has.
But Paul’s ask should not be taken lightly. Knowing the inhumane history of slavery, Philemon has the legal ability to choose what happens to Onesimus. Despite this, Paul asks Philemon to live into the choice he made to become a disciple of God. Paul points to what actively living out discipleship looks like, even if it means challenging one’s close friend.
Paul holds both love and accountability for his friend, Philemon
Paul gives thanks for Philemon, expressing how Philemon has brought him joy and encouragement. After acknowledging that friendship, Paul pushes on in his letter saying “for this reason, I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty.” Welcome back Onesimus – not as a slave, those old days are gone – instead, live into your call of discipleship. Welcome home your brother.
We’re looking at a conflicting situation that feels all too familiar today. Opposing sides, friends being torn apart, both feeling justified in their thinking. We’re seeing that when Paul says, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” he means it.
The letter ends unclear as to what Paul’s expectations are for the outcome or even if Philemon chooses to follow through with Paul’s appeal. While this may be a cliffhanger for the reader, it leaves us to think about Paul’s words. Paul leaves his request open-ended, saying: “Knowing that you will do even more than I say,” “welcome him as you would welcome me.” A true challenge to the call to discipleship.
Although Paul mentions he would like to make this a command to his friend, Paul reminds Philemon that he has an option in this. Will Philemon decide to answer with hate? Or will Philemon and Paul grow together, bringing God’s reign of peace, and justice, and caring for the neighbor?
Paul puts himself at risk of losing his friend and the whole situation ending in conflict. And we are left asking if Philemon is going to pick up his cross to be a disciple, even if that means ending his assumptions about how his world operates and reaching instead to his foundation found in God.
Philemon’s call to discipleship is a call for us too.
How can we as a community keep each other rooted in this call? And how can we as individuals, answer the call of discipleship, trusting God’s teachings to guide us when conflict arises? Will we choose to be grounded in God’s teachings of peace, justice, and loving the neighbor when political divides emerge? What about when in arguments with loved ones? What about when anger rises to the top and we begin to even feel hate towards those close to us?
The psalm gives us an answer.
Meditate on God’s teaching, look to the law of the LORD to guide, and be like a tree. It is no wonder that we find the answer in the texts of scripture that are known for having raw emotions because those that wrote the Psalms knew about conflict. Yet, when writing in conflict, they looked to God and remained rooted.
Note that the Psalm speaks about being planted by a stream of water, a place where trees can be fed, grow, and prosper. Know that this rooting by a stream does not mean ultimate safety. Our summer storms remind us of that. But having rootedness means leading to growth. It means enduring the change of the seasons and growing tall via the nutrients we find when going back to one’s foundation.
Those roots for us can be found in the sacraments, in God, and in our communities. Do you find your identity being empowered by God’s spirit and trusting in the Triune God? Do you find yourself welcoming all to the table, despite the biases and the doubts poured into our ears? Do you have the boldness in your relationships to both walk with and confront the challenges of life? These things are by no means easy, but show the risk that Jesus is speaking of in the Gospel and what is at stake in the book of Philemon. Discipleship is a big commitment. Paul’s letter shows us this while continuing to act with love towards Philemon. It shows us this is what growth can look like.
So, where will you choose to plant your roots?
In places where questions are not asked and the call of discipleship is disregarded when it gets too complicated? Or in places where we’re pushed to grow, to branch out, reaching toward God’s promises? If we’re to be bold enough to hope for peace and justice and reconciliation for the world, we, in partnership with God, are to work toward that with each other, too.
In the name of the Father, and of the ☩ Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.