Rev. Deacon Allen Batchelder
September 8, 2013, Pentecost XVI
Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-6; Philemon 1:8-20, Luke 14:25-33
From the Old Testament:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”
From St. Paul’s Epistle to Philemon:
I appeal to you for my child, Ones’imus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment. I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.
And from the Gospel of St. Luke:
So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.
It is always a good idea to take inventory of what you have from time to time; what’s important to you. Is it your family? Is it your job? Is it your material things; the things that you possess? Perhaps God is important to you? I hope so! And I hope you do this exercise sooner rather than later.
So, once you have determined what is important to you; what is of value to you; now imagine it’s gone! Well, that is what God expects of us, if we are to be His disciple; we have to surrender all to Him. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you literally have to give up everything, however, it does mean that you put God first in your life; and if called upon to give up something, you will do so willingly without hesitation.
In our epistle reading this morning, we have the apostle Paul a prisoner in Rome, and his friend Philemon was in Colossae, and the human link between them was a runaway slave named Onesimus. The details are not clear, but it appears that Onesimus robbed his master and then fled to Rome, hoping to “disappear” into the crowded city. But, in the providence of God, he met Paul and was converted!
Now what? Perhaps Onesimus should remain with Paul, who needed all the assistance he could get. But what about the slave’s responsibilities to his master back in Colossae? The law permitted a master to execute a rebellious slave, but Philemon was a Christian. If he forgave Onesimus, what would the other masters and slaves think? If he punished him, how would it affect his testimony as a Christian? What should Philemon do?
Estimates suggest that there were 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire, men and women who were treated like pieces of merchandise to buy and sell. The average slave sold for 500 denarii (one denarius was a day’s wage for a common laborer), while the educated and skilled slaves were priced as high as 50,000 denarii. A master could free a slave, or a slave could buy his freedom if he could raise the money (Acts 22:28).
If a slave ran away, the master would register the name and description with the officials, and the slave would be on the “wanted” list. Any free citizen who found a runaway slave could assume custody and even intercede with the owner. The slave was not automatically returned to the owner, nor was he automatically sentenced to death. While it is true that some masters were cruel, many of them were reasonable and humane. After all, a slave was an expensive and useful piece of personal property.
After Onesimus was converted, he was no longer “just a slave”; he was now Paul’s son in the faith and Philemon’s Christian brother! This does not mean that his conversion altered Onesimus’ legal position as a slave, or that it canceled his debt to the law or to his master. However, it did mean that Onesimus had a new standing before God and before God’s people, and Philemon had to take this into consideration.
Paul loved Onesimus and would have kept him in Rome as a fellow worker, but he did not want to tell Philemon what to do. Voluntary sacrifice and service, motivated by love, is what the Lord wants from His children.
As Christians, we must believe that God is in control of even the most difficult experiences of life. God permitted Onesimus to go to Rome that he might meet Paul and become a believer. Onesimus left for Rome a slave, but he would return to Colossae a brother.
Paul did not suggest that Philemon ignore the slave’s crimes and forget about the debt Onesimus owed. Rather, Paul offered to pay the debt himself. “Put it on my account – I will repay it!” Paul was willing to pay the price: to surrender all.
It takes more than love to solve the problem; love must pay a price. God does not save us by His love, for though He loves the whole world, the whole world is not saved. God saves sinners by His grace (Eph. 2:8-9), and grace is love that pays the price. God in His holiness could not ignore the debt that we owe, for God must be faithful to His own Law. So He paid the debt for us! Jesus surrendered all on the cross for our redemption. Are we willing to surrender all to Him?
In last Sunday’s sermon, we had Jesus eating at a Pharisee’s house and we learned that a person’s status in the community was important to some people. The closer you sat to the host, the more important you were; the higher status you had. These feasts were a way to climb up the social ladder. We also learned that God doesn’t care about our social status; He cares about those who choose to walk in His way; those who love Him and bring glory to Him.
When Jesus left the Pharisee’s house, great crowds followed Him, but He was not impressed by their enthusiasm. He knew that most of those in the crowd were not the least bit interested in spiritual things. Some wanted only to see miracles, others heard that He fed the hungry, and a few hoped He would overthrow Rome and establish David’s promised kingdom. They were only interested in what He could do for them. They were expecting the wrong things and offering nothing of themselves.
Jesus turned to the multitude and preached a sermon that deliberately thinned out the ranks. He made it clear that, when it comes to personal discipleship, He is more interested in quality than quantity. In the matter of saving lost souls, He wants His house to be filled (Luke 14:23); but in the matter of personal discipleship, He wants only those who are willing to pay the price: to surrender all.
A “disciple” is a learner, one who attaches himself or herself to a teacher in order to learn a trade or a subject. Perhaps our nearest modern equivalent is “apprentice,” one who learns by watching and by doing. The word disciple was the most common name for the followers of Jesus Christ.
Jesus seems to make a distinction between salvation and discipleship. Salvation is open to all who will come by faith, while discipleship is for believers willing to pay a price. Salvation means coming to the cross and trusting Jesus Christ, while discipleship means carrying the cross and following Jesus Christ. Jesus wants as many sinners saved as possible, so “that my house may be filled,” but He cautions us not to take discipleship lightly, for there is a price to pay.
To begin with, we must love Christ supremely, even more than we love our own flesh and blood (Luke 14:26-27). In our Gospel reading it states: “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” The word hate does not suggest positive antagonism but rather “to love less.” We should love God the most, and then ourselves and our families. Our love for Christ must be so strong that all other love is like hatred in comparison. In fact, we must hate our own lives and be willing to bear the cross after Him.
What does it mean to “carry the cross”? It means daily identification with Christ in shame, suffering, and surrender to God’s will. It means death to self, to our own plans and ambitions, and a willingness to serve Him as He directs (John 12:23-28). A “cross” is something we willingly accept from God as part of His will for our lives. When you follow the Lord, you never know what will happen next.
God instructed Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house so that he could hear God’s words. The potter sat before two parallel stone wheels that were joined by a shaft. He turned the bottom wheel with his feet and worked the clay on the top wheel as the wheel turned. As Jeremiah watched, he saw that the clay resisted the potter’s hand so that the vessel was ruined but the potter patiently kneaded the clay and made another vessel.
As the potter has power over the clay, so God has sovereign authority over the nations and His people. His actions are always consistent with His nature, which is holy, just, wise, and loving.
Jesus gave three parables to explain why He makes such costly demands on His followers: the man building a tower, the king fighting a war, and the salt losing its flavor. The usual interpretation is that believers are represented by the man building the tower and the king fighting the war, and we had better “count the cost” before we start, lest we start and are not able to finish. However, Campbell Morgan suggests that the builder and the king represent not the believer but Jesus Christ. He is the One who must “count the cost” to see whether we are the kind of material He can use to build the church and battle the enemy. He cannot get the job done with halfhearted followers who will not pay the price.
Discipleship is serious business. If we are not true disciples, then Jesus cannot build the tower and fight the war. “There is always an “if” in connection with discipleship,” wrote Oswald Chambers, “and it implies that we need not [be disciples] unless we like. There is never any compulsion; Jesus does not coerce us. There is only one way of being a disciple, and that is by being devoted to Jesus.”
If we tell Jesus that we want to take up our cross and follow Him as His disciples, then He wants us to know exactly what we are getting into. He wants no false expectancy, no illusions, and no bargains. He wants to use us as stones for building His church, soldiers for battling His enemies, and He is looking for quality.
After all, He was on His way to Jerusalem when He spoke these words, and look what happened to Him there! He does not ask us to do anything for Him that He has not already done for us.
To some, Jesus says, “You cannot be my disciples!” Why? Because they will not forsake all for Him, bear shame and reproach for Him, and let their love for Him control them.
In an age of unconcern and indecision, the prophet Jeremiah was burdened and decisive, and God honored him. Humanly speaking, his ministry was a failure, but from a divine perspective, he was an outstanding success. We need men and women of Jeremiah’s caliber serving in the church and the nation today. There’s a price to pay: to surrender all, but there’s also a crown to win.
Let us pray:
Grant us, O Lord, we pray thee, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.