by Benjamin M. Stewart
Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship, Director of Advanced Studies
You heard them, in the midst of other words of promise: three clear reasons why we may not have what it takes to be disciples. That could be what some of us need to buckle down in our work, get our hands around those books, plug in that laptop, and build up our systematic and constructive theology into a solidly crafted superstructure.
We do have work to do and the readings make it plain: there are clear choices about how we follow Christ, and the faithful choices will not be easy. One out of every three verses in the Gospel text ends with, like a refrain, “…then you cannot be my disciple.”
In fact, people around us often register an immediate kind of respect for the sort of commitment we’ve made to be here. Have you had this happen? You tell someone, Well, I’m going to seminary, and they say that’s intense, or that is such a huge commitment, or just dude! or wow! We publically take up the cross of discipleship when we come here. As Ray mentioned in his sermon on Monday, many of us move away from our families—sometimes to the other side of the planet—to come to seminary. And as we take out student loans we watch even our future possessions being given away.
This highlights the etymological connection between the words disciple and discipline, and it might make us see this campus as a theological boot camp where we become spiritual super-athletes. And there is some important truth to that. There is nothing cheap in what we’ve signed on for.
But that muscular tone is mostly absent in the second reading that Alma read. St. Paul, who can channel a wicked inner drill sergeant, is remarkably gentle as he deals with a matter of life and death: Onesimus, a runaway slave who is accompanying Paul, is now headed home where he could face the death penalty. Paul is not only trying to convince the slave owner Philemon not to punish or extract any penalty from Onesimus, but to welcome him back, as he writes “no longer as a slave… but as a brother.”
But did you hear how Paul writes that he could do the boot-camp-drill-instructor thing if he wanted to? He wrote, though I am bold enough… to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love. … in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.
Paul is inviting both Onesimus and Philemon into a way of relating beyond slavery, beyond compelled behavior, beyond control-over-one-another. Now Christians through the ages have debated about whether Paul in this encounter with slavery is being naïve, or a sell-out to the system, or a visionary of a new world being born inside the old one.
It may be that his persistently gentle approach—his refusal to pull rank on Philemon and order him around—is exactly the same kind of freedom-from-coercion-and-control that he is inviting the slave-owner Philemon into. No more command-and-control over one another: not in the way I treat you, Philemon, and, from now on, not in the way you and Onesimus relate: no longer slave or slave-owners, but brothers. We are giving up treating each other like possessions.
This may be the same thing Jesus is talking about in that stuff about hating your family. Have you noticed how often in families some people act as if other family members’ lives are their own possession? Expectations about a career path; jealousies between couples; sibling rivalries; various forms of manipulation under the banner of family loyalty; physically or psychologically violent forms of discipline that look a lot more like revenge. Large and small, subtle and overt assertions of control.
We hear our kids push back on this, from pre-K into adulthood, in that almost universal phrase:“You-are-not-the-boss-of-me.”
When Jesus uses the word “hate” here, that expression can mean active hostility, but it can also mean something more like benign neglect, detachment, a letting go, a loosening of bonds. In Jesus’ time, when family loyalty trumped nearly every other possible way of relating to the world, when family identity was something that could own you like a possession, you can imagine Jesus saying that a good dose of neglect, some loosening up in that family system, might open up a space for a healthy kind of freedom and more authentic reverence and love.
When St. Paul says it, he could be cutting a love song on a pop album with Sting: “If you love someone, set them free.” But Jesus doesn’t aim for the top forty: “hate your family and give up all your possessions.” But it may be that both of these texts are inviting us (not into the drudgery of boot camp but) into a way of freedom—including freedom from slavery to people and possessions.
Have you ever met one of those people who seem to know deep in their bones that they are not owned by anyone, and that everything they have comes to them as gift, and is ultimately not theirs to possess?
- I’ve seen it in the way some members of this community greet friends and strangers passing in the hallway, as if they are walking the halls of a building filled with holy angels and every encounter is a gift,all of these creatures inspiring wonder and joy as they pass by.
- I’ve seen it in the pause people make before meals—this open space before eating that says “this is not mine, but comes to me as gift,” and gratitude stretches out to the cooks and the field workers and the land, the sun, the rain, and to God.
- We all know sisters and brothers—aware of the gift of life and health—who count it an honor to make the middle-of-the-night drive to the ER. To accompany someone in great need.
To people in this state of gratitude, in many ways, giving up their possessions is often not like boot camp, but seems to have returned the whole world to them as gift, with days filled with giving and receiving—none of it really firmly theirs to possess in the first place.
Right before Jesus speaks about possessions in the Gospel today, he talks about someone trying to build a tower but who can’t complete it and so is mocked. And he talks about a king who goes to war but quickly turns to peace when he encounters the strength of the enemy. And the interpretation often says: make sure you’ve got enough stuff to finish that tower, enough to win the war. But it’s interesting that right after these images of successful tower-building-and-war-making-because-you’ve-got-enough-stuff, Jesus says to give up all your possessions:
The tallest tower Jesus ever publically ascended was a cross where he was mocked for not being able to complete the work he had been given. And when Jesus actually came face to face with real-life soldiers, Jesus was the weak-looking king, making peace, who stretched out his arms to forgive.
For Jesus, even his own sense of purity, holiness, and victory seemed to be possessions he surrendered and gave away, refusing to slay his enemies in order to win, the great Temple that Jesus promised he would raise up… turned out to be the Temple of his body, given away. His holiness and purity were given away as a gift to all of the world’s unwashed and unclean. In Jesus, God refuses to command and control this world into obedience.
On this week when towers and war are newly on our minds again, these texts warn us against holding too tightly onto what we think is ours, and against treating other people as objects that we would possess or control. Paul sings it as a love song and Jesus reminds us that it will cost us everything.
But discipleship is not life in a boot camp with a drill-instructor-god. It is walking hallways populated by angels, each encounter a gift. It is receiving every meal—and even every breath and gust of wind—as a miracle of being. It is sharing our lives in gratitude with one another, and especially with the poor and needy, and having the space and freedom within our families to choose to follow into the places where Jesus calls us.
Our life of discipleship is founded not first on our giving up of all our possessions, but first of all on the one who has already given us everything: our life, all good gifts around us, and, like a king who offers peace even to enemies… there is mercy placed in our hands and in a cup overflowing. We have not come to a boot camp where everything is taken away, but we have come to a table. Here we are, already a second time this term, at the table of Jesus, learning to lay down our possessions, open our empty hands, and receive everything as a gift. And soon, we will be sent out of here to serve the world with this food… that is not our own.
Philemon 1.1-21, Luke 14.25-33