Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sunday 4 September 2016 - Ordinary 23

Possible theme(s): The Cost of Discipleship

Sentence: 'Choose life so that you and your descendants may live' (Deuteronomy 30:19)


Servant God, grant us opportunity,
Give us willingness
To serve you day by day;
That what we do
And how we bear each other's burdens,
May be our sacrifice to you - Father Son and Holy Spirit.

Readings (related):

Deuteronomy 30:15-20;
Psalm 1;
Philemon 1-21;
Luke 14:25-33


Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Sometimes we Christians debate the idea of 'covenant', especially in relation to 'old covenant', 'new covenant' and whether there is any difference between these two covenants. Reading Deuteronomy and Luke today, we see at least one clear difference between the 'way of life' envisaged under the old covenant (the story of which is told in the Old Testament) and the new covenant (the story of which is told in the New Testament).

This reading sets out how life is to be lived in terms of the law of God. Obey God's commandments then you will live and be prosperous. Disobey them and you will die.

In our gospel reading Jesus offers a completely different take on prosperous living in the era of the new covenant: life is found by dying to self; eternal prosperity comes through renouncing possessions; following Jesus involves giving up family rather than securing wealth and ease of good living for them.

Why the difference? Has God changed his mind?

Yes and no. Deuteronomy and Luke are jointly focused on God's blessing, how to secure it and how to maintain it. Through Jesus the boundaries of blessing have shifted from the time of Moses: 'the land' is now the whole of the world, if not the whole of life lived under God's rule, i.e. the kingdom of God and 'length of days' (Deuteronomy 30:20) is 'eternal life'. Geography and chronology go out the window!

Further, obedience is still determinative. No one is blessed who does not obey God. But through Jesus God now asks of us an obedience to the way of Jesus rather than to a series of commandments. This way (paradoxically when Deuteronomy's conception of blessing in terms of physical life is considered) includes 'carrying the cross' or being willing to die to the physical experience of life.

Indeed Luke 14:33 makes a very strong point in relation to Deuteronomy. The old measure of prosperity (increase in possessions) is replaced by the new measure of obedience (true obedience comes through decrease in possessions).

Psalm 1

If we take this Psalm as the first of the psalms, i.e. not simply as the one that randomly begins the collection, then this psalms asks us to consider the foundation on which the rest of the psalms proceed. Thus the theme of 'delight in the law of the Lord' is a marker for what is to come. Indeed we see in many psalms, most notably in Psalm 119 (but Psalm 19 is also important), the theme of delight in the law of the Lord explicitly and repeatedly expressed.

But a less obvious point to make is that the psalms that follow, with their mixture of lament and praise, of prayer and confession, as well as aspects of wisdom, history and testimony, work for the reader in relation to the law of the Lord. Standing on the law is the platform for praise, the basis for confidence in prayer, the reason for lament (because obedience should result in blessing, so why curses instead?), explanation of unfolding history of God's people and so forth.

Philemon 1-21

Paul wrote many letters, some similar to others in his collection. This letter is unique because it focuses on a single and personal (rather than collective and ecclesial) issue: the resolution of Philemon's slave Onesimus' future. (Whether that future is unresolved because Onesimus has done wrong by running away, or has simply been sent to serve Paul for a while is not clear. However the latter scenario begs the question why Paul puts so much rhetorical/persuasive effort into the letter).

What the letter does have in common with Paul's other letters is its beginning and ending in which Paul mixes practical concern for and interest in the lives of individual members of the church while setting out his theology of church, a people called into being by God through faith in Christ (vv. 1-7; 22-25 [not part of the reading today]).

How might we approach this letter for a sermon?

One approach is to dig into what Paul says in relation to the themes of slavery and Christian brotherhood. What Paul says seems to be a very subtle way of undermining the whole system of ancient slavery for Christians. Paul does not attack slavery head on but makes the point that in Christ we are all brothers and sisters (masters/slaves; freed and free men/slaves; see also Galatians 3:28). When we understand that, and apply it to how we treat one another, then slavery is abolished in all but name.

Another approach is to dig into what Paul says about how Philemon (and Apphia and Archippus) ought to act: choosing to do good rather than feeling compelled to do so because Paul has laid down the law to them. From this perspective the letter is a model for how Christians might request other Christians to act.

Luke 14:25-33

Last week we saw a very challenging vision of radical discipleship laid down: disciples should open their homes and tables to the people who we least naturally invite to dinner, those not like us and those unable to repay the favour. This week Jesus continues in similar vein.

Remember that the context of the readings through Luke in these chapters is the so-called Travel Narrative, Jesus on his way to the cross, Luke 9:51-19:28. So on this particular journey, with large crowds 'traveling with him' (14:25), Jesus turns and says a few things about intentional following of him in the deepest purpose of the journey.

'Whoever comes to me and does not hate [family, 'even life itself'] ... cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.'


Our eyes may quickly read these words and our minds conclude 'That's pretty much what Jesus says in each of the gospels about dying to self.' Actually Luke includes here a target of 'hate' unknown to the other gospels: 'wife'. Also 'hate' is stronger than 'loves more than' in the most direct parallel, Matthew 10:37.

In one reading of this language, it is hyperbolic or exaggerated, so the point is (essentially the same as in Matthew 10:37): Jesus must have first place in our lives.

In another reading, however, there is only a trace of hyperbole, in the use of the word 'hate'. Literally, some followers of Jesus through the ages (and still today) experience separation from the most loved family members as a result of choosing Jesus. Some have even found following Jesus costly of 'life itself' when they are martyred for their commitment to Jesus.

Verse 27 offers an interpretation of verse 26: the key decision a disciple makes is not to divorce from one's spouse or to reject parents or children or siblings. The key decision is to 'carry the cross', that is, to live as one who is as good as dead (to self, selfishness, sin, distractions from the way of Jesus). Such resolute commitment to Jesus may have consequences: our families may hate us and reject us; a specific call to (say) overseas mission work may lead to physical and emotional separation from family (Luke may have had in mind, as he wrote, the example of Paul, see 1 Corinthians 9:5-6).

Jesus is a careful and caring master of his disciples and would be disciples. Through 14:28-32 we read his encouragement through easy to understand metaphors to carefully consider the 'cost of discipleship' (the title of a wonderful and important book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

Slightly surprising, however, is verse 33. We  might conclude Jesus' speech at this point with 'So therefore none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up everything you have' or similar. But Jesus is quite specific: '... if you do not give up all your possessions.'

On the one hand this is consistent with Luke's continuing concern re riches, wealth, possessions: they are a serious rival to God. On the other hand, from a literary perspective, this is not a neat, matching ending to the beginning point of this sermon on discipleship which began with the rivalry of affection for family members (v. 26).

Finally, Luke records for us a saying of Jesus about salt. The everyday salt we use in the kitchen is pure and we do not reckon on it going bad. Ancient salt, less pure, could go bad through the impurities in it. So the coda to the sermon on discipleship is this: become more pure in your discipleship lest you become an unsatisfactory disciple, in which case you will be useless to God.

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