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Sermon - 16 Pentecost

In the Name...

There's a story told about the Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black when he attended the funeral of a politician who had a somewhat questionable reputation. As the minister was beginning the eulogy, another judge arrived and whispered to Justice Black, "Have I missed anything?" "Naw.", the crusty jurist replied, "They've just opened for the defence."

Looking at today's lessons, I was reminded of a preacher I once heard who, before coming to Christ, had been a drug user and alcoholic, and in the course of his sermon, he said something that really annoyed me. He said that no preacher could be taken seriously unless he had been a drug user or alcoholic. You had to have "been there and done that" or you were a fake. You had no business speaking about God. You weren't, as he said, authentic.

Well, that upset me a lot. Who did this guy think he was, holier than thou? But, on reflection, I realized that he wasn't trying to be insulting. He was actually saying something quite reasonable - that the best authorities on forgiveness are those who have sinned big-time and known a radical life-changing experience of God's love. Just as Jesus said, those who have been forgiven much, love much, and this fellow really felt that. He really felt how much he owed to God. And I respect that. But, he still annoyed me.

The thing is that people often use extreme language to make their points, and, while the point is to be taken seriously, the language is not always to be taken literally. Consider how often we use the word "kill" in a non-life-threatening sense. "I'm going to kill him for that." And so it is with the words of Jesus today. He says some very extreme and shocking things to make his point, but, how he says it shouldn't distract us from his point.

I mean, what did you think when you heard, "Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, cannot be my disciple." This is Jesus, right? The guy who said “love your enemies”? So, what's this about hating your family?

Well, the clue comes when we realize that in this passage he's talking about possessions. Possessions are not just property, like cars, or houses, or bank balances. They're anything, or, in this case, anybody we may regard in a possessive way. What Jesus is warning against is treating people as possessions because if we treat people as possessions we are abusing them - we are holding them as less than human. He feels strongly about this, so the words he uses are strong.

Just think about the ways in which we use possessive pronouns - "my wife", "my husband", "my children". Innocent enough, but, how often do we hear of situations where people take those terms literally and try to dominate others as if they were objects like my car or my big screen TV People are individuals in their own right. I may have a duty of care to them. I can be proud of their achievements. But, I don't own them. They're not mine to control. Even when we refer to God as "Our Father" how possessive are we subconsciously? Do we feel we own Him?

The journalist Bill Moyers tells the story of a day he was at lunch with President Lyndon Johnson and some White House staff members. He was asked to say grace and, as he began, LBJ interrupted, "Speak up, Bill, I can't hear you." Moyers replied, "I wasn't addressing you, Mr President."

Having right relationships is very important to God. Jesus came to restore the one between us and the Father and it is the Father's will that each one of us should have a restored relationship with everybody else. Last week, the Scriptures showed us that Christians were the first to apply the word 'brother' to mean people with whom they had no physical relationship beyond our common humanity. Today, in the Letter to Philemon, we see a specific example of how this has practical implications.

Onesimus was a slave. He had stolen money and stolen himself – he had run away from his master, Philemon, who was a leader of the church in the city of Colossae. Somehow, Onesimus had made his way to Rome and, once there, linked up with Paul. Why? Who knows? Maybe he heard Paul talk about "freedom in Christ" and took it literally. In any event, once in Rome, Onesimus became a Christian.

So, Paul uses this situation as an opportunity for a great teaching about relationships. Paul asks that Philemon receive Onesimus back into his household, but, not as a possession, not as a piece of property, rather as a brother, a partner and friend in the community and family of Christ.

This is no small thing Paul is asking. As a slave, Onesimus was the legal property of his master no matter what his religion was. A runaway slave could expect nothing less than crucifixion and the social pressure would be on Philemon to make it so for the good order of society. But, invoking the love of the crucified Christ, Paul asks that Philemon exercise the forgiveness of Christ rather than give in to the worldly value of possession which marks the master/slave relationship.

And it's true that Paul doesn't specifically say that Philemon should set Onesimus free which has led some to say that Paul approved of slavery, but, the implication of what Paul does say almost demands that response and history records that, not only did Philemon take the hint, but, Onesimus eventually became the second bishop of Ephesus succeeding St. Timothy - quite a step up for a former slave.

Our gospel today included the warning of Jesus that to follow him means to "carry the cross". So often, though, we rationalize and even trivialize these words so that “bearing a cross” can mean little more than suffering with hay fever.

There's a lot more to cross-bearing, however. "Pick up your cross and follow me" are words that ring through the Christian experience. For Philemon this meant doing something totally contrary to the way society was structured. It meant publicly declaring that, in Christ, a new relationship existed between him and a slave, and very probably it caused him more than a little scandal in the neighbourhood.

How do we carry the cross in a meaningful way? By doing what Jesus said. By hating. By hating the ways of the world in order to love the ways of God. We must hate the thought of controlling others. We must love those who are different from ourselves. We must love, even when we do not want to love, and, above all, we must act. We must let go of whatever it is that controls us as much as we think we control it - an unhelpful relationship, a behaviour pattern, an unrealistic dream. We all have something we're better off without.

By the way, I'm sure that Onesimus' experience made him a very authentic preacher, indeed. He may not have been an alcoholic drug user whose life was saved by Christ, but, he was saved from a horrible torture and death because the love which led Christ to the Cross also led a master to call him 'brother'.

We may never be in Onesimus' shoes, but, we are all in Philemon's. We're all in a position to let something or someone go free. How we do that is what determines, at the end of the day, if our eulogy is a tribute or a defence.

In the Name...

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