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Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Heart of It

Christly love is costly love, and even though we’re not at the start of our journey of faith, Jesus’ words remind us that there will be costs ahead in our walk of faith.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 23 C
   Texts: Philemon; Luke 14:25-33

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Jesus’ words are a bit too little and too late for us.

In the Gospels, sometimes Jesus talks to believers, actual disciples, as in the parables of Matthew 25. The parable of the bridesmaids and the others there are words to the inner circle of disciples, who’ve been with Jesus longest.

Sometimes, though, like today, Jesus talks to folks who’ve just showed up to hear this teacher or seek a miracle. Today’s hearers are at the starting line of following. So he warns them to estimate the cost of following first, using examples of building towers and waging war. He tells them they might need to split with their families, or give up everything they possess, even life itself.

Jesus obviously isn’t much of a marketer. But he wants it clear that following him takes on a burden of love as serious as a cross of execution. He doesn’t want anyone to think a life of faith and love in Christ will be easy.

But it’s too little and too late for us. We’re well past the starting line. We’re committed.

We’ve got the foundations of our tower built already. 

Some of us even have walls and roofs, and are finishing the insides. It’s a little late to be told to consider before we start if we can afford to follow Christ.

We who were baptized as babies never got a chance to get estimates of cost. Someone chose the path for us. At confirmation, yes, some of us agreed to this path ourselves. But we were mostly in our teens, hardly aware of what costs might come later. And we’d already been living in this life for years at that point; it’s hard to break from the familiar.

For most of us, it’s like we signed a mortgage and all the accompanying paperwork and just trusted the lawyer sitting next to us to have understood all the implications. We clicked on the software agreement page without reading the fine print, just to get at the program.

This isn’t necessarily a problem.

We have advantages over new folks. The people we remembered last week, who led us to faith, who showed us Christ’s way, who brought us to baptismal water and God’s claiming of us, who were Christ’s wisdom and grace to us, they’ve already shaped our choices and our lives irrevocably. Because of them, we’ve already made sacrifices and paid costs for following Christ.

Because we’re not starting today, we’ve got experience, too. We’ve learned costs of discipleship others don’t know; some are now instinctive to us. There are many examples, personal and congregational, of things we’ve learned about the cost of following Christ, of sacrifices we all make almost without thinking. For that we thank those who led us here.

Because we’re not starting today, we can also see more of this house of faith God is building in our hearts. Some of us have been at it for so long, the house is nearly complete. This is also good.

But Jesus does say things today that even we who are not starting fresh need to hear.

Jesus’ words alert us that there may still be bills coming on this heart-building, costs ahead in discipleship, that will be pretty big.

We can’t choose not to start; that time has passed. But Jesus says we haven’t seen the full amortization of what following Christ will be in our lives. Because many of us have been walking this path for years, and know no other way, we may think it should be easy. We might be more inclined to struggle than a new believer when the costs of loving as Christ loves seem too high.

After all, Jesus says that the costs to following are total. Everything. All our possessions. All our life. Maybe even walking away from our closest family. That’s what he means by carrying the cross; that we imitate fully the Son of God whose love led him to lose everything for the people he loved, all people.

It’s limiting to only see the cross of Christ as a model. The Incarnate Son of God facing death for the world’s sake gives us far more than something to imitate. The mystery of the cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus means God’s love can never be overcome, not even by death.

But we can’t miss that Christ also wanted the cross to be a model for us of what it costs to love. We can say “love God with everything, and love your neighbor as yourself,” quite easily. Today Jesus says, “Be careful.” Such utter love, such self-giving, will cost. Maybe cost everything.

Our comfort level with Christian life can lull us into complacency. And just when we think we’re in smooth sailing, someone like Paul sends us a letter and presents us with a bill we weren’t quite ready to pay.

Philemon looks more like us than do Jesus’ hearers.

He’s wealthy and privileged enough to provide room in his house for a church to meet, and to own slaves. He’s a faithful Christian whose love for the Church and for Paul is remarkable. Paul gushes how thankful he is for Philemon, for his love, and that he is Paul’s brother.

In the midst of his faithful, wealthy life, where he’s walked Christ’s path and been a gift to many, Philemon receives notice of an unanticipated cost. Standing in front of him in person, holding Paul’s letter, is Onesimus. Onesimus is the shape of the particular cross Philemon’s now asked to carry.

Paul simply asks him to welcome back his runaway slave as a brother in Christ. Onesimus has become a Christian, and has cared for Paul in prison. Paul doesn’t want to ignore this outstanding debt, though, and asks Philemon to forgive it and love Onesimus as a brother, rather than punish or execute him as a runaway slave.

It’s a huge price. Philemon’s in the right legally. He probably feels in the right morally. He’s the offended party. He’ll lose economically both Onesimus’ price and his value to the household. He’ll have to give all that up to do what Paul wants, what Paul says Christ wants. And this is a public request, addressed to Philemon and the church that met in his house. He can’t privately refuse this and go on without risking the scorn Jesus talked about today. Whatever he decides, everyone will know. His sisters and brothers who love and respect him are watching.

For we who walk in Christ, who are past the starting line, Philemon’s story is our story.

Imagine you were a Christian slave-holder in the nineteenth century United States, and a dear Christian friend challenged you to read Philemon and consider what it meant for you to own slaves. Suddenly Jesus’ words become real. It would feel like hating your family to end a practice that their livelihood depended on. It would be giving up a huge part of your possessions. Your life, your way of living, would be at risk. Your decision would be public and noted by friends and fellow Christians.

This is how it happens. We follow Christ with our lives, and find ourselves faced with costs that the love we know, the love we want to be, will incur. Costs that could change our lives a great deal, feel like loss, be big sacrifices. They’re often public, where all can see, because we live in a community of faith. And we rarely can foresee what these will be ahead of time.

Philemon, and so many others, stand before us as a reminder that loving God with all we have and loving our neighbor as ourselves is never cost-free. We belong to the Triune God who loved us enough to go to the cross to bring us life and restoration. Now God’s Son reminds us that such love is our call, and such a cross could be our future.

We’re not the first to face this challenge.

Philemon wasn’t, either. Peter and the others fell into following Jesus without a clear understanding of what he was asking of them. Sure, some left businesses or homes, and some of the women risked reputation and respect by following him. But like us, they only gradually began to understand the costliness of following Christ’s love and life.

But there was that one moment, after Jesus fed 5,000. His teachings started to offend people, and thousands were slinking or stalking away. Jesus finally looked at those women and men closest to him, the only ones left, and asked them if they, too, were going to leave. Peter spoke for us all: “Lord, where else would we go? Your words are eternal life for us.”

That’s our only answer. Costly as Christly love might be or become, we can’t imagine not being alive in Christ, filled with forgiveness and grace. Jesus’ words are too little and too late because there’s no estimate of cost, no bill to be paid, no loss incurred that would make us want to walk away from the heart of God’s love that centers and fills us and calls us to love.

Where else would we go? Here is love and life in the Triune God. That’s worth everything.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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