25Now large crowds were traveling with [Jesus;] and he turned and said to them,26“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. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
We don’t often hear of Philemon. Of all of Paul’s letters, it’s certainly not the grandest or most universal. You won’t see Philemon quoted on bumper stickers or as the rallying cry of some movement of justice or reconciliation. You probably won’t hear preachers on the radio or TV lifting up this book as the basis for a new Bible study. If you were to look for it in the Bible, you’d probably have to look up the page number. It’s only one papyrus page long, no longer than a form letter, containing all of what we read today. Yet, I think that Philemon illustrates something that all of the other readings point to and I wanted to give the underdog a chance today. Plus, if you need a reason to take a nap later today, tell those around you that the Intern made you read a whole book of the Bible during church this week before you close your eyes for a Labor Day weekend snoozefest.
Calling the letter “Philemon” almost seems a misnomer because all the character Philemon does is receive the letter from Paul. The real actor in this book is Onesimus. We don’t know much about him other than the fact that he was a slave, he was the property, of Philemon, he has somehow ended up being with Paul, and he has undergone some kind of transformation. Paul writes that at one point he was “useless” (harsh words) but now Paul considers him to be his son. In this letter, Paul is urging Philemon to take Onesimus back as a brother.
To our ears, this might seem a little odd, though. Paul is sending Onesimus back to be a slave, to become Philemon’s property again. As a piece of property, he had no rights of his own – no rights to own land, start a family, make money, or pursue other work. Sure, slavery looks different today than it did back then, but the essential piece of slavery is a loss of humanity. But something we miss here, something that our modern minds don’t tend to pick up on, is the radical nature of this letter. Paul was under no obligation to write this letter. He had no reason to explain why he was sending him back or to advocate for his fair treatment once he was returned. The thing that is radical in this letter is that it exists at all.
This letter brings humanity back to a slave. Onesimus is given his personhood back. And the only reason for it is the transforming power of the gospel. When Paul claimed that Jesus died for all, even non-Jews, he meant it. That means that all people, regardless of if they were slave or free, Jew or Gentile, woman or man, all people are recipients of grace by the work of Jesus Christ. This transformation that Paul describes in his letter – moving from “useless” to “beloved” – and the transformation in how Onesimus is perceived in the world is a key theme for this week. Our readings deal with the reordering of our lives, the prioritizing of people, and the radical inclusion of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In our Deuteronomy text today, we see that follow God’s commandment doesn’t just deal with our own self-preservation. It doesn’t deal simply with making sure that we have enough, but that everyone of all generations has enough. This means that we are prioritizing God over our own interests. What God sees as important is now what we see as important.
In our gospel for the day, Jesus gives basically the worst sales pitch for Christianity ever. After a large crowd gathers to hear him teach, Jesus essentially says, “Listen up, folks. It’s not about you. It’s not about your family. It’s going to cost you and it won’t be easy.” I’m pretty sure that was not a best selling sermon for him. He says that unless we take up our cross, we cannot be counted as disciples. And that hurts. That flies in the face of the prosperity and safe place that we often seek. That names the reality that following God and experiencing the transforming nature of God’s grace is not always an easy thing. It means that sometimes we’ll be at odds with the world around us. It means that we’ll sometimes be asked to choose between our own self-preservation and the realization of the Kingdom of God. It means that there will be times when we have to reprioritize and relearn, which means also admitting that we don’t have all the answers.
Maybe one of the hardest things about this text is the fact that the cross that we bear is not our own. The cross that we bear is the cross of Christ. And the cross that we bear can only be carried with the strength of Christ. We don’t put a cross on anyone’s shoulders. It’s not our place to tell people what their crosses are. But, instead, it’s our responsibility to help them carry it the best they can while we let them help us with ours. This involves a radical transformation about who we are and what we are doing as disciples of Christ. If who we are is defined by our priorities, then we’re only setting ourselves up for isolation and fear of those outside the bounds of our definition. If, however, we define ourselves based on Christ, we find that this transformation is unifying.
Jesus is speaking in hyperbole in our gospel (hyperbole is a fancy word for blowing things way out of proportion). Jesus doesn’t want us to hate anyone, but he’s telling us that if we prioritize one group, if we separate and segregate, if we draw lines around us to keep us safe, we’ll likely find Jesus on the other side of the line, with the oppressed.
That’s where Onesimus found Jesus. In a world where he was property, in a world where he was a human in name only and not granted the same rights and respect as anyone else, he found that Christ was on his side. Christ’s love was not restricted or constrained by his social status and is not confined by yours. Christ died for you and rose for you, just as Christ rose for all. That’s the story of Onesimus and that’s the radical nature of God’s love.
At first, we may see Onesimus’ story as a transformation on his part, one in which he turns from being “useless” to “beloved”, from being a difficult person to a helpful, loving one. But maybe the biggest transformation is on the part of Paul and Philemon, that the great evangelist and rich slave owner would begin to see that the grace of God is not just for them, but for those who were even less than human. The grace of God comforted them, just as is comforts us, but also confronted them.
That is the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If the gospel is Christ doesn’t comfort you, you aren’t paying attention. But if the gospel of Christ doesn’t challenge you, you aren’t paying attention. The Word of God transforms who you are and the Word of God transforms how you see the world around you.
As we celebrate Labor Day, it seems fitting to read a story about a laborer. As we take up our crosses, may we experience the same transformation as Onesimus did and as Paul did. Amen.