Sunday, September 9, 2007

Whose service is perfect freedom: (Costing not less than everything)

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

When it came time to sign the marriage license for two of my college friends, the minister gave as his title, “Slave of Jesus Christ”. In his letter to the Christians at Rome, Paul introduced himself as “doulon christou iesu” – a servant of Jesus Christ, not distinguishing between bondservant and freedman.

In his letter to Philemon, a brother in Christ and a slave owner, Paul makes distinct the difference between enslavement in the world’s system and free service offered to the Lord. He greets Philemon as a “dear friend and co-worker”, telling him he remembers him in his prayers always thankful because of Philemon’s love for all the saints – all the saints – and his faith toward the Lord Jesus. This love Philemon shows is a source of encouragement and joy. “The hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother,” Paul writes.

Therefore, Paul continues, I appeal to you – rather than making a command. “Refresh my heart in Christ”, he asks. Back to you I am sending Onesimus, whom you held as a slave. He has become a Christian, and hence my brother – and yours. Meanwhile I myself am held as a prisoner, for the love of Christ. Do something extraordinary, Philemon: receive him back but do not punish him; embrace him as a brother, and further than that, do not hold him accountable for anything you might hold against him. Charge it to my account.

It was not unusual, scholars like Richard Horsley tell us, in those days for one person to own another. Even for Christians, to be a slave or a slave owner was a simple matter of economics. But not to Paul: he is challenging Philemon to break free from the economic system the world has enthralled him in, and to do something that will strike its own blow against the empire.

Set him free. Furthermore, flying in the face of the practice of the time — slaves could buy their freedom for a price but would always owe their former master a share of their income — do not charge him for his freedom, or require him to pay you royalties on his future earnings. And you shall be made free yourself.

Slaves are compelled; to serve in Christ is an act of freedom. Paul asks, implicitly, for Philemon to free Onesimus, and so to free himself.

Paul does happen to mention a little debt, and a small requirement for obedience. Not to himself, not really, not to anyone on earth: but to God in Christ Jesus. You owe him everything, Onesimus: even your life.

And here we are back at the cross, with Jesus, who reminds the crowds who were following him – up to this point anyway – that to follow him means giving up all you have. Family, possessions, even life itself, all are to be counted as loss, compared to the one thing left to them, the service of Christ.

Philemon is not being asked to give up a little. Paul reminds him he owes everything in obedience. It is being asked of him now. To give up – “I know my rights!” – he might protest – to give up what he has in the world’s terms in order to take his place in the kingdom of God. Like the rich young ruler who went away sorrowing, Philemon might have thought of what he had to lose – but perhaps, since after all he did save the letter, he thought of what he had to gain.

All this may sound symbolic, to modern ears… until we think of the cost of discipleship we might be asked to pay.

Imagine a world in which one person might presume to own another, a world in which people are bought and sold like possessions. Imagine, indeed, millions trafficked this way across the globe today. And then imagine someone taking some small step to redeem, or set free, someone who is being held hostage to wage slavery or debt, or through physical or other coercion.

That is a world we live in, even now. Organizations of Christians across the world – World Concern among them – are working to help people out of this system, and to challenge the system that enslaves. We might or might not be called to take direct action on this front, but we all will be called at some point to estimate the cost, of carrying the cross, of discipleship.

"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.… So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

Our God, whose service is perfect freedom (costing not less than everything) – how are we to serve? Whom would we consider a saint?

If a man were give up a good job in a prestigious institution, leave his fiancée behind, and join a conspiracy to assassinate the duly elected leader of his country, would we consider him a good Christian? If, then, caught, convicted, and imprisoned, he wrote that girl, telling her we now live in a world without God, would we praise his faith? We might acknowledge his contribution to Death of God theology, but would we call him a saint?

And yet there he is, on the calendar in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, for April 9th: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pastor & Theologian, 1945. Bonhoeffer left Union Theological Seminary to return to Germany at the beginning of the Second World War, and who subsequently was involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler that failed on 20 July 1944, is widely held as an exemplar of faith in the 20th Century.

If a nun were to talk her way out of her vow of stability, and go live on the streets of a big city, would we consider her a model of obedience? If then, and from then on, she felt – and wrote in her letters – that she too felt the absence of God, would we consider her a model of faith? If she carried on like that for fifty years, would we call her a saint?

And yet Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who confessed that she had experienced the dark night of the soul over a period of fifty years of serving the “poorest of the poor”, is widely acclaimed as a model, an extreme model, of faith.

To give up family, friends, possessions, life itself – even to experience existence bereft of a sense of God’s presence – indeed our Lord cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – and yet somehow from this total loss, to experience the life of Resurrection, this is the cost, and the glory, of discipleship.


Readings for Year C, Proper 18 [RCL]: Philemon 1-21. Psalm 139:1-5, 13-18. Luke 14:25-33.

T. S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’ (1942); Four Quartets (1943) []

Richard A. Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World (Grosset/Putnam, 1997), p. 182-183.

Lesser Feasts and Fasts (Church Publishing, 2006) []

My Life with the Saints by James Martin, S.J. (Loyola Press Chicago, 2006)

September 9, 2007, Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento.

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