Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 3-4, 2016, for St. Peter Lutheran Church in Greene, Iowa. This week’s lectionary texts are Luke 14:25-33 and Philemon 1:1-21. For the shorter 10:30 Praise & Communion service, we only read the Luke passage and I skipped the part of the sermon on Philemon.
How many of you like parades? Sadly, Christin and I moved here right after this year’s River Days parade, so we missed that one, but there’s nothing quite like the excitement of a parade.
Most of the time parades are held for holidays, but sometimes they’re held in honor of someone coming back from an achievement, like soldiers returning from war, or a football team coming back from winning the Super Bowl. Sometimes there’s something like a circus parade to get the whole town excited for a special event.
In this story, there seems to be a bit of a parade going on following Jesus, but I’m not sure the people involved really know what kind of parade they’re in. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, where he knows that lurking behind the adoring, cheering crowds are enemies looking for an excuse to silence him.
I don’t know if he knows the details of what will happen to him, with his arrest in the garden, his sham trial, and crucifixion, but he knows the danger. He knows his earthly ministry is going to end soon. He knows what’s waiting for him in Jerusalem, and he’s told the disciples, but they don’t yet grasp what it means.
And the crowds have no idea what’s coming. They’re following him with joy and enthusiasm, because he’s been working miracles, healing people, feeding people, preaching. He’s a celebrity, and his fame is spreading!
A few of these followers have been with him for the long haul, like the 12 disciples and some of the women in the group, but most of them are probably only with him for part of the journey. They’ll follow him from one village to another, then go back home for the night. For most of them, this trip to Jerusalem feels like a circus parade. Only Jesus knows it’s the beginning of a funeral procession.
Most of these people have given no thought to the cost of following Jesus, and in this bit of the story we have today, he tries to clue them in. If you really want to follow me, Jesus says, you need to hate your family, even hate life itself, in comparison to me.
Following me, he warns them, means taking up a cross. It means abandoning your life for my sake. This isn’t something to get into half-heartedly, because if you follow me all the way, your life will change. He’s trying to warn them off.
In a very practical illustration, Jesus points out that if you start a project, you need to be prepared to see it all the way through. Before declaring war on your neighbor, figure out if you have the strength to win.
And in case they still don’t get it, he says becoming a disciple, following him all the way, requires giving up all your possessions. When you really want to scare people off, hit them in the pocketbook!
Following Jesus is a big commitment. Being a disciple isn’t something you can do part-time. There’s a cost to coming on this journey of faith with Jesus.
Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a book called “The Cost of Discipleship” put it this way: “When Christ calls a [person], he bids them to come and die.” That’s pretty blunt.
I don’t know how much you know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself, but he’s probably the most famous Lutheran of this century. As a pastor in Germany, he became increasingly concerned with the Nazi rise to power, and when much of the Lutheran church sadly accommodated Hitler and tried to work with him, Bonhoeffer broke away from the main church and was a leader in the “Confessing church” movement.
He wrote this statement about Christ bidding a person to come and die in 1937, as the Nazi agenda was becoming more clear.
In 1939, he came to America, but amazingly, he left on the last scheduled ship to cross the Atlantic as war broke out, going back to Germany to, as he put it, “share the trials of this time with my people.”
He wrote in a letter from the safety of America, “Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization.”
Back in Germany, Bonhoeffer became active in the anti-Nazi resistance movement, and in 1943, he was imprisoned. He was hanged in 1945, just two weeks before his prison camp was liberated, executed for being involved in a plot to kill Hitler. There is a cost to following Jesus.
Most of us will never be called to the kind of radical action Bonhoeffer engaged in. But if we’re going to follow Jesus on this journey, we should realize that it will change us. Following Jesus changes our priorities, our goals, how we see other people, and how we see ourselves.
In the reading from Philemon, we heard another way following Jesus makes a difference. Philemon is a Christian who has a slave, Onesimus. Tradition says Onesimus has run away, and somehow encountered Paul. Another possibility is that Philemon has sent his slave to care for Paul while Paul is in prison.
Either way, Onesimus is returning to Philemon, and Paul sends this letter to him. Our reading today is essentially the entire letter, 21 of its 23 verses.
In his letter, Paul appeals to Philemon to change how he sees his slave. Because Philemon is now a Christian, he can no longer see Onesimus as a slave. Instead, Onesimus is now his brother in Christ. If he claims to follow Jesus, then the way he treats other people needs to change.
This is a challenging text today, because in recent history, some people have used it to somehow claim slavery is ok, that Paul is commanding Onesimus as a runaway slave to go back to his master. It’s interesting, though, to look at how Paul writes. He doesn’t write like someone telling a slave to go back to his master. Instead, he writes commandingly, basically demanding that Philemon give up the power he claimed to have over Onesimus.
He repeatedly and not very subtly reminds Philemon that if he claims to be a follower of Christ, he needs to give up his slave and accept him as a brother. Choosing to follow Christ requires making sacrifices.
In a few minutes, we’ll celebrate Maddie Jean’s baptism. We’ll welcome her into the family of God, into the Church as a new sister in Christ. For those of us who are baptized, this is a good opportunity to think about what our baptism means, what difference it makes in our lives.
In the baptism service, we make some promises. When young children like MaddieJean are baptized, parents and sponsors make promises on their behalf, and then when they’re old enough, they have the opportunity to confirm those promises for themselves at their confirmation.
Baptism is a public declaration of our intention to follow Jesus. I wonder sometimes, if we actually knew the full cost of discipleship, if we stopped to count the cost, would we go through with it?
In baptism, we’re committing to grow in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God. We’re committing to bear witness to the faith we profess, and to live in the covenant of baptism, to lead godly lives. There’s a cost.
Following Jesus changes our priorities. It affects our whole life, the way we spend our time, the way we spend our money, even the relationships we value.
Committing to follow Jesus means saying no to lots of other options for your life. These are big promises, and they make a difference in the world! They make a difference in how we live.
Have I scared you off from baptism yet? I hope not, because there’s another part to it. God is also making promises in baptism. In fact, the reason we can baptize little kids is because it’s not up to them. God’s the one doing the work.
The only way we dare make our promises to follow Jesus is because when we fail, and we will, again and again and again, when we fail, God forgives.
In the waters of baptism, we say yes to the God who invites us to come and die, then we’re raised to new life. We are drowned in the waters of baptism, then God brings us out of the grave, cleansed, as children of God.
As Paul puts it in another letter, “when you were buried with Christ in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:12)
Listen for God’s promises. In baptism, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ, forever.
That cross is a symbol of death and of our failings, but more than that, it’s a symbol of God’s love, and God’s love is greater than anything we face, greater than our sin, greater than our promises, and even greater than death itself.
So I invite you to come to the waters of baptism to be reminded of redeeming God’s love for you, and to come to the table to be fed by Christ’s own body and sent out to share that love with others.