Discipleship is a choice.
First Reading Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm Psalm 1
Second Reading Philemon 1-21
Gospel Luke 14:25-33
“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
From Bryan, a disciple of Jesus Christ, by the will of God and constantly reaffirmed choice,
To the saints of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Macon and all the faithful of middle Georgia, the Diocese of Atlanta, and the one holy catholic and apostolic Church,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
I give thanks for you constantly and lift each of you up to God in my prayers, for I am thankful for this community and the journey we share, seeking God’s will and acting, challenging ourselves to love like Jesus as we worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually.
If this sounds like the beginning of Paul’s letters to his church, it is not by accident. I honor by imitation our patron Paul on the occasion of our anniversary. While we continue to celebrate 150 years of this parish, that is not the anniversary I refer to. This week, we passed the three year mark as priest and parish journeying together.
Just over three years ago, with the bishop’s approval, your vestry called us to one another. Our time together has been marked by choices. We decided how we would treat one another by adopting a congregational covenant. We established safe space to talk, listen, and occasionally disagree. We encouraged one another to stretch our vision of God’s call to us. We chose to double down on many of our traditions and ministries, and embarked on new ways to be, to respond, and to serve.
Entering our fourth year together, we continue to make choices. Discipleship, our life in Christ, is all about our choices. Against all the options, temptations, and pressures of life, you have chosen to be here this Sunday morning. In the old TV show Mama’s Family, one of the characters was pushing back against Mama’s desire for them all to attend Sunday services. One said, “You don’t have to go to church every Sunday to get to heaven.” Mama replied, “No, but it helps!”
Our scriptures today outline the nature of our choices, and how the choice to follow Jesus can be challenging. Yet choosing discipleship is to choose life.
Deuteronomy offers Israel the options of blessings, life and prosperity, or curses, death and adversity. We are urged to choose life, by loving God, obeying God’s commandments, and walking in God’s ways. This does not promise wealth and prosperity, nor does it prevent suffering and adversity. But by loving and holding fast to God in faith and with endurance, we will be continually reconciled with God and others, and we will receive God’s blessing. Heaven and earth are witness to the choices we make, both good and bad. We are to pursue the choices that lead to God’s life!
Sometimes these are difficult choices. Large crowds are following Jesus as he moves toward Jerusalem. He takes the opportunity to expand on the call to discipleship and its demands. In rather strong terms, Jesus suggests discipleship requires that we hate our family and friends. But the hate Jesus describes is not malice, violence, or any other feeling or expression of hate we might apply. Jesus is not talking about an emotion, rather action. Jesus is describing the uncompromising loyalty to himself and the mission required for discipleship. Choices will have to be made, and they may risk division, even in the closest of human relationships.
Jesus also warns that we will have a cross to bear. This must be confusing to Jesus’ audience, as he has not yet made it to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed and crucified. Those present probably took this statement as metaphorical at best. Do we today really know what it means to bear the cross of Christ? Yet as disciples we are called to accept, bear, and carry the cross. Discipleship is a ‘no matter what’ proposition, and we are called to continually choose discipleship, even when the road is hard. Jesus describes the common wisdom of planning and measuring the cost before jumping in with both feet. Discipleship means making a personal choice, even when we don’t know all the options. Discipleship requires giving up all claim we have to our possessions, denying the temptations of our own selfish advancement or achievement, and being open to God’s purpose. It is not a blind, foolish choice, like stepping off a cliff, but a choice to step into God’s blessing and joy, no matter what. The stakes are high, but the odds are completely in our favor.
Paul offers us a real world example of choice as a disciple of Christ. He writes to Philemon, but invites the whole church to hear the conversation. Paul writes from prison, yet chooses to plead for the freedom of his brother in Christ, Onesimus. Onesimus is Philemon’s runaway slave, yet serves Paul and God’s mission with faith and love. By choosing Christ, he is in fact already free. Paul makes the risky move of sending Onesimus back to Philemon, possibly to face punishment. Yet Paul asks Philemon to make a choice of mercy and compassion for a fellow brother. So strong is this bond of family in Christ, Paul states, “I am sending my own heart back to you.” Paul suggests he has the authority to demand Onesimus’ freedom, but appeals to Philemon in faith to do the right thing, to make the right choice. Paul sweetens the deal, perhaps applying a little guilt, that whatever debt is owed by Onesimus should be applied to Paul. ‘Charge that to my account’. Paul is sending Onesimus back so that he may be made a free man, so that his status will match his freedom in Christ. Paul is sending Onesimus back so that Philemon might practice the choices of discipleship, so that Philemon might have Onesimus forever, not as a slave, but a brother in Christ.
The Church has not always made the best choices. During the darkest practice of our nation, the Church chose scripture out of context to approve and even justify the enslavement of fellow human beings. The Church chose to be complicit in the oppression and suffering of others, the effects of which linger today. Imagine if Paul’s letter to Philemon carried the day. Perhaps we might have made different choices, to seek and serve Christ in all human beings, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. We still have the opportunity to choose to reject slavery in all forms, systematic, social, or financial, and choose the freedom that life in Christ offers.
As a people, we continue to face other choices. Immigration laws can be helpful to maintain order, protect citizens, and offer a path to belonging. Shall we choose laws over fellow human beings? Perhaps if we choose to see Maria from Mexico as a person, along with all our journeying brothers and sisters in Christ, we might choose new immigration laws that reflect our Baptismal covenant.
We do not know what choice Philemon made concerning Onesimus. Church history suggests a happy ending, as Onesimus is reported as later becoming the Bishop of Ephesus. This is not a happy ending because Philemon granted Onesimus’ freedom, but because Onesimus was free to become who God called him to be.
We are free to choose discipleship and follow Christ. We are free to choose relationships that transcend natural kinship and social stratification. We are free to share the gifts of love and mercy and compassion and forgiveness that have been given to us. We are free to be thankful for one another, to lift one another up, and to encourage each other to be who God is calling us to be. We are free to choose to disagree, yet remain one. We are free to seek God’s will, and to wield God’s power, to transform the world into God’s kingdom. There are choices to make. We are free to choose. With faith and without fear, and with God’s help, may we choose God’s life. Amen.