Luke 14.25-33 Philemon 1-21
One of the more tantalizing aspects of St. Paul’s letters is the vast cast-list of characters which they contain – but this is also one of the more frustrating as well, because many of the names are destined to remain just that, names on the page, a reminder that while we have a veritable treasury of writings of the Blessed Apostle, there must yet be countless other fruits of his labours that are irrevocably lost.
In the letter to Philemon, however, we do have a little more skin on the bones thanks to both tradition and some painstaking research. Philemon we know as a prominent member of the church at Colossae, which was a Gentile city near Ephesus. Philemon had a slave, Onesimus, who became acquainted with St. Paul, presumably while accompanying his master. Philemon helped establish the church at Colossae and then there was some altercation between him and his slave which caused Onesimus to run away in search St. Paul, who was by this time, the late 50s AD, under house arrest in Rome. It was there that Onesimus not only became converted to Christianity but also proved himself to be an able and valued co-worker with Paul himself, to the extent that Paul grew to look upon him more as a son: and this the crux of his most poignant of all his letters. He writes to Philemon, the wronged master, I am appealing to you for my child Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.
Paul know full well that rightfully Onesimus must return to his master – but if that is to happen, he wants to be assured that his new disciple will be welcomed not as a slave but as a brother, a fellow-worker for Christ, one whose ability and enthusiasm will do much to build up the church at Colossae. But really, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that what Paul really wants is to keep Onesimus with him. Such is the stature of the man, however, that he asks this not with the authority of an apostle, but as a brother in Christ. I wanted to keep him with me – but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.
Quite apart from the sheer humanity of this letter, the struggle which Paul is clearly having with his own conscience, we are provided with a perfect example of the cost of discipleship. There is nothing Paul would have liked better that to use Onesimus’ gifts and talents for himself – and yet he knows full well that this might just be going against the will of God and that the right thing to do is to send him back to Philemon.
And it is the cost of discipleship that we are called to consider, too, in our gospel reading. At first, the choice appears stark: whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. The word hate here is a Hebraism, its truer meaning closer to detachment. And it’s a matter of priorities. What it doesn’t mean is that in choosing to take up our cross we cut ourselves off from those who are our nearest and dearest; it is about understanding that while service to Christ is and has to be paramount, it is that very service which calls us into a proper relationship with those we love, that underpins our very being. To count the cost of being a disciple is not to abandon life and love, it is to embrace that discipleship with open heart and mind, to discern exactly what we are being called to do and more particularly to be realistic about that calling.
The man who starts building his tower and fails to finish brings ridicule not just on himself but on the task he has begun. The foolish king who goes into battle against overwhelming odds puts his soldiers’ lives on the line, a far greater risk than if he sat down with his enemy and negotiated a peaceful settlement. And Paul, languishing in his prison, knows all this. He has trod the way of the disciple, suffering opposition, persecution, beating, flogging, rejection, shipwrecks and finally imprisonment, all for the sake of the gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He knows the true meaning of sacrifice and he is more than willing to pay the ultimate price. Here, he has to relinquish Onesimus his own heart. And later on, despite his optimism that he will visit Philemon himself in Colossae, he meets his martyr’s fate.
What Christ is asking us to do is to look realistically at what it means to carry his cross. If we look into our own hearts and see the true treasure, the peace of Christ Jesus which passes all understanding, then we know that whatever the cost, this is a price worth paying, for what we reach for is precious beyond the dreams of avarice; and what’s more it is all there for us. By grace we shall be sustained and strengthened in our discipleship in ways which we might not expect because that is the will of Christ. Our Lord carried his cross for us, he suffered and died because of his love for all people and through his own obedience he rose again. Like the apostles, we are witnesses of these things. So, as we gather around this altar of sacrifice with joy in our hearts, let us all be prepared to take up the cross, to bear its weight and to spread the love of Jesus Christ in our lives. Then we will truly be his disciples. Amen.