Becoming vs. Being: Pentecost 13

Becoming vs. Being: Pentecost 13

Year C, Proper 18, The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 4, 2022

Year C:    Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

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Since July, we’ve heard readings in Luke that deal with Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, beginning with Jesus setting “his face to go to Jerusalem.”[1] The arc of his journey includes betrayal, trial, death, and, ultimately, resurrection, and the readings we have heard are full of statements about “going,” “following,” and being “along the road.”[2]

As Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem and speaks to the crowds, what is the significance of his journey? And what is his message to the people, the disciples? Some of that is answered in today’s Gospel.

Indeed, “the road to Jerusalem”[3] refers to the literal road Jesus walked on, but it is also a metaphor for Christian discipleship. Discipleship and the cost of discipleship are what Jesus is addressing in today’s passage in Luke.

As we heard in today’s Gospel, the implication of addressing a large crowd means that Jesus’ lens of who his disciples has now extended beyond the twelve disciples in Jesus’ closest circle. The Gospel of Luke, by tradition, was intended to reach non-Jewish people, particularly those in the higher socio-economic classes, primarily comprised of culturally Greek citizens of eastern Rome.

In all the Gospel narratives, Jesus wants to impress upon his followers the true meaning of his mission, its importance, and its ultimate cost.

The cost of the journey as disciples is laid bare in today’s scripture readings. It’s a high cost.

Jesus says, “whoever comes to me, and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”[4]

These are harsh words. For some, they’re fighting words. They’re tough when we consider our family’s importance in life. Is it truly possible that Jesus is saying in other places in Scripture, “Love your enemies,”[5] but in this passage seems to say, ‘hate your own family?’

It doesn’t make sense and contradicts other Scripture, such as the commandment that we honor our fathers and mothers.[6] And Paul sternly warned that “whoever does not provide for relatives, especially for family members, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”[7]

Remember the Greco-Roman world of Jesus’ time. The nuclear and extended family were important culturally and economically, just as they are in so many places in our world today. Sociologically and anthropologically, family, whether nuclear or extended, has always been the most basic and universal form of social organization.

Jesus was well acquainted with using hyperbole to heighten the effect of his statements through deliberate exaggeration. Jesus wants our attention and gets it with his message about needing to hate our family.

Jesus wasn’t telling us to hate our family, but he was telling us to be careful about things we put in place of total commitment to God. Anything and anyone can become an idol for us. Thus, giving anyone higher priority than God can get in the way of being and becoming Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus would have known it was almost unheard of for people to “give up all [their] possessions.”[8] But Jesus is telling those who follow him and follow his way that they must be willing to give up the security, comfort, and tranquility of family life to serve the Kingdom of God.

We’re left then to consider the cost of discipleship. What is that cost, and how can it be counted?

Marty had a fortieth birthday party for me. My grandmother was there, along with many of our friends from church. They were having a delightful conversation when I started making the “cut the conversation” sign for our church friends. They thought I was worried they would tell my grandmother about our relationship. No, I wasn’t worried about that. I’m pretty sure she knew. I was afraid she would find out I’d become an Episcopalian.

At that moment, the cost of my discipleship seemed too high: it was the fear that I would hurt my beloved grandmother or, worse, lose her love.

Costs are never as easily determined as we might like. For example, we got a letter the other day telling us that New Market is closing the recycling bins in our town and that we’ll have to haul our recycling up to the VDOT center on Route 11. I immediately wondered whether they had considered the costs carefully. Will the town’s trash disposal costs increase because people will be less likely to recycle now? Will they pass that cost on to the taxpayers? As someone who pored through waste disposal contracts, I assure you they will increase, and that cost will be passed on. (I just looked at our bill for the coming month, and sure enough, costs are already up 12.5 percent.)

Now, if only I could be so sure about the exact cost of following Jesus.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote most memorably about the cost of discipleship; his discipleship cost him his life during World War II.

Bonhoeffer knew that the call of Jesus to discipleship was a call to radical discipleship. Now in terms of our own radical discipleship, I don’t suggest we lose our life as Bonhoeffer and others have – but radical discipleship does mean we have to become, not just be, a Christian.

What’s the difference, you might ask. I’m sure the English teachers or scientists among us would define it much better, but here is my attempt.

A state of being reflects something that is and continues unchanged over time. Becoming a Christian means changing our lives. Becoming a Christian means taking up our cross, following Jesus, and understanding there is a cost involved in that discipleship.

There was a cost to Paul, who was in prison, for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

There was a cost to Philemon and Onesimus, the slave owner and a slave. We might wish that followers of Christ would have condemned and disavowed slavery, but don’t let that keep us from hearing the radical call to discipleship in Paul’s letter.

According to the Orthodox tradition, Onesimus was imprisoned for running away from Philemon. In prison, he encountered Paul, who brought him to the faith of Jesus Christ, and Onesimus was baptized.

Paul then sent Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter, appealing to Philemon for freedom on behalf of Onesimus. Paul implores Philemon to treat Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.”[9]

Philemon had the law behind him. Onesimus had few rights. But Philemon and Onesimus were part of this new family in Christ, and Paul appealed to Philemon as part of the body of Christ.

What was the cost of discipleship for Philemon? First, giving up what he believed to be his right to own a person and put God over his personal priorities. The cost of discipleship for Onesimus – trusting in Paul that believing in Christ would set him free.

Philemon and Onesimus both needed to become Christians.

The cost of anyone’s discipleship is usually much more complex to gauge than specific monetary costs we can quantify.

Sometimes, it means leaving one beloved church and going to another. For me, it meant giving up a respected position (people thought I was nuts), a safe salary, and moving to New York for seminary. It meant going to different churches and then moving to another area of the country.

For some, the cost of discipleship is raising grandchildren, working tirelessly to feed people, finding housing for them, knitting prayer shawls, or making comfort bags for women who have suffered domestic violence.

And these are costs because they all help us to become disciples of Christ and serve the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is telling us that we must weigh the cost of following him because it will cost us everything. But to be sure, we are called to be disciples just as Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus were. That call comes with a cost. But there are also great rewards. And, if we are daunted or exasperated, Jesus, who calls us to discipleship, is there with us every step.

[1][1] Luke 9:51, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)

[2] Cf. Luke Chapters 10-19, NRSV

[3] Luke 9:57, NRSV

[4] Luke 14:25, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)

[5] Matthew 5:44, NRSV; Luke 6:35, NRSV

[6] Mark 7:9-13, cf. Exodus and Genesis, The Ten Commandments

[7] 1 Timothy 5:8, NRSV

[8] Luke 14:33, NRSV

[9] Philemon 16, NRSV