Changed in Christ

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This is one of those Sundays (Saturdays) when preaching the gospel really makes you feel like a hypocrite.  Did you hear those hard demands that Jesus makes of his followers—his disciples?  First of all he asks them and us to put following him and loving God far, far ahead of our allegiance and links to our own families.  That’s harsh.

Next, he tells us that we can’t be his disciples if we aren’t willing to carry the cross.  Luckily, in 21st century America this doesn’t mean a literal cross like his, but surely can be something else—whether it’s suffering for some reason or giving yourself to a cause that serves others or participating full bore in the life of the Church.  One scholar said that bearing a cross is “what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ.  Cross-bearing requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule in order to follow Jesus.”  [New International Bible, Luke, p. 293]

Then, after 2 little parables about knowing what you’re getting into, and making sure you can do what’s demanded, Jesus concludes with a stunning statement that seems, on the face of it, to be quite the non-sequitur:  “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Now, my first thought about that sentence was that I sure am glad the church asks us to tithe, for I surely couldn’t give all my possessions.  Getting to keep 90% of my income seems like a pretty good deal!

But look a little closer and realize that “possessions” can cover a whole lot more than just our income or the things we have.  It also includes our priorities, our attitudes, the way we deal with people, what we value.  Our own sometimes-smug sense of ourselves—that’s quite the possession.

Giving up our possessions means coming before God in humility and asking to be formed in the ways of Jesus.  And that’s a significant sacrifice, and a cross to carry:  parting with our most precious opinions in order to be re-formed again and again into the people God would have us be.

It’s as if Jesus is demanding that we clean house inside of ourselves in order to make more room for what’s much more important—for what’s everlasting

Literally cleaning house is non-stop, isn’t it?  It involves not only the surface stuff like dusting and vacuuming and washing the dishes, but also the deeper stuff, like going through piles of junk that we’ve allowed to build up over many years and throwing out what’s no longer relevant.  It’s not very pleasant work.

So Jesus is asking us to clean our inner houses and to go deep, in order to make room for what’s important—namely pursuing the Christian life.  Throw out all the irrelevant junk in order to make room for God.  That’s what disciples are expected to do.

I started by saying that this gospel makes me feel like a hypocrite.  That’s because I know I’m so far from being the ideal Christian who’s totally committed to Jesus.  We’re all on a road of sorts, and we hope that with every year, every month, every day, we’re able to discard more and more distractions and dead ends, and to allow ourselves to be taken over little by little, and re-made.  But the work is slow, isn’t it?

St. Paul says that when we’re in Christ, we are a new creation.  Everything old has passed away and everything has become new.  [2 Cor 5:17]  That’s an assertion that proceeds right from this passage in Luke.  Following Jesus makes us new people, as it were.  The old junk must be discarded, so that Jesus will have room to move in.

This is the incremental work of the Holy Spirit, who walks with us, who is that tiny voice in our heads and guts reminding us of what God expects of us, and urging us to turn around when we’ve missed the mark.  Ask yourself today:  what inner thoughts or attitudes might I discard in order to make more room for Christ, who lives in me?

In our New Testament reading today Paul is at his most diplomatic and wily, sending back a fugitive slave to his owner.  And the slave and the owner are both Christians—new creations in Christ.  Paul’s counting on The New to have moved into what was old in the slave owner, whose name was Philemon.  And so he cajoles him to take back Onesimus as a brother in the work, and a fellow Christian. 

Now, this letter has been used in past centuries to justify slavery.  And that’s certainly a misreading of the Scripture.  Today we see the letter to Philemon as a strong encouragement to a fellow Christian and fellow disciple, who, Paul hopes, has been re-made so fully that now he could lay aside the old and make way for the new.  Now he could receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ.  We don’t know for sure whatever happened with Philemon and Onesimus.  We can only hope it turned out well for each of them.

So, yes, the feeling of hypocrisy in the preacher is strong.  But there’s great comfort for me and for all of us when we understand the meaning of the word “disciple.”  It comes originally from the Latin, and it means “a learner.” 

Being a disciple is being a learner—one open to being taught.  A disciple is open to being changed and formed much as clay is formed by a potter into something useful and beautiful.

And as disciples we’re constantly being shaped, formed, and challenged, so that we can indeed choose life over death, we can jettison the old values and self justifications that are not of Christ, we can admit we still have a long way to go.  And we can lean on the power of the Holy Spirit to complete in us a work that’s already begun.  Thanks be to God.