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Sermon preached by Canon Andy Williams

Jesus turned to the crowds and said 'Don't follow me unless you're prepared to hate those who mean the most to you, give up everything you own and be willing to face torture and death.' If you didn't feel troubled when I read that Gospel passage then either you weren't really listening, or you need to be recommended for sainthood. This is tough talking from Jesus. And I have to confess to you that my heart sank when I saw that was the Gospel reading for this morning! Even if we allow for Eastern rhetoric which expresses things very starkly, we are left with a pretty serious challenge from Jesus. What are we to make of it? Well, the context in which he was speaking helps us here. He was walking, on his way to Jerusalem. He knew that what lay ahead of him in Jerusalem was suffering and death by the Roman method of crucifixion. Those with him were mostly his own people, his fellow Jews. Most of them hadn't counted the cost of being God's people. Israel had been called to be salt in the world; salt preserves and it flavours. Israel were to be the people through whom what is good and wholesome is preserved. They had been given distinctive values and codes of practice. Yet they had become like the nations around and so had lost their taste, as it were. That is why, says Jesus, I am calling you back to be the people of God, but now it needs a radical commitment, uncompromising and costly. If you're not ready for that, then don't follow me.

This week Helen Glover was speaking about becoming the world's No.1 women's rower. She won gold at the Olympics and nine days ago won the World Championships. But she only started rowing four years before the Olympic Games. Early on in training, her class was told, “look to your right, and to your left - you might be looking at a future Olympic medallist.” Helen says “I looked straight on, because I was determined to be that medallist.” She  admitted that it was costly, it took huge determination; other things had to be put on hold, and rowing is a demanding, painful sport.

Single minded devotion is what Jesus was calling his hearers to. Salt is only useful if it has kept its taste. Salt must be what salt is made to be so it can do what salt is meant to do. So it is with people of faith. There is a veiled warning here to his own people. Israel had been given numerous chances; many of the prophets had warned them not to become complacent. Yet still they had failed to see that by drifting from the Yahweh's laws they were drifting away from his protection. They became prey to surrounding nations. And it was happening again. Danger was close and to avert it needed uncompromising and costly commitment.

Christians today cannot ignore these warnings. With comfort can come complacency.  If there is nothing distinctive about us we have nothing to offer the world. We are not very useful. So this morning, let's again draw inspiration, from the power of the Gospel to  renew and refresh us. And by doing so I believe we may see more clearly how we ARE (by God's grace) useful to the world around. And let's do that by looking at a man whose very name means 'useful'. The Greek name Onesimus comes from a root which means 'beneficial' or 'useful'. In fact, Paul enjoys a play on his name when he writes to Philemon who owns the slave Onesimus. Do have a look at the letter. There are only 25 verses in this letter and we had 21 of them read to us. Look at vs. 10-11 “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” It's a bit like writing to a nephew and saying “You may have thought that Uncle Frank couldn't be trusted, but quite frankly he is very straightforward.” Paul is having fun here. But we need to understand the context and the characters.

Philemon was a prosperous Christian, a member of the church in Colossae. He was known to Paul, having been converted by hearing Paul preach. He had a slave named Onesimus who probably knew Paul also. After Paul had left Colossae, and was in prison, Onesimus ran away, taking some of his master's money, found Paul, and became a Christian. He had served Paul in prison because the arrangements allowed for that. But now Paul wants to send him back to his master, with a covering letter. And this is it. Paul wants to persuade Philemon to forgive Onesimus and take him back. It's brilliant stuff from Paul. And as usual, there is a deeper level of meaning. On the surface, this is what the letter is saying... Philemon, you are a dear brother in Christ and a respected church leader. I'm so encouraged to hear about your love for the saints. And I can't imagine you doing anything other than the right thing here, to forgive your thieving, runaway slave Onesimus and take him back. Yes, he was useless, but now Christ has transformed him he will be useful to you. By the way, you and I know that you owe your very soul to me, but I'm not going to press that point. I don't need to because I'm confident you will obey what is right.” He doesn't leave Philemon much room for manoeuvre! He also asks him to prepare a guest room as he's hoping to be released from prison soon. If Philemon had any thought of selling Onesimus to work in the lead mines, he was faced with the prospect of Paul's arrival: "Greetings, Philemon, and where is our dear brother Onesimus?"

But there's something more profound going on here. After his preamble, praising Philemon and reminding him that he is in prison for the sake of Christ, Paul comes to the point. “I am appealing to you for my child Onesimus.' This slave is now Paul's spiritual son, brought to new birth by his ministry. Just as Philemon had been. Both Philemon and Onesimus owe their salvation to Paul, they are Paul's spiritual sons; that makes them brothers. Before God, they are now equal. He leaves Philemon to work out what that means. Rather than address head on the whole thorny issue of slavery (which many philosophers at the time were challenging) Paul comes in over the top. New life in Christ brings in a new order; it changes our previous relationships. Leaders become servants and slaves become leaders. The pyramid is turned upsidedown.

In every generation the church must ask whether it is following the model of Christ or the model of secular institutions. If we get it wrong, we are like salt that has lost its taste.

And finally, Paul's clever play on words. Let's go back to vs.11: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.”  The conversion of Onesimus, in Paul's prison cell has resulted in his personal transformation: once he was useless (achrestos) but now he is useful (euchrestos). These two words frequently refer to a person's character more than to the quality of their work. It is because of what he has become that Onesimus is now useful. He is now 'euchrestos'. How? Because of 'Christos'. Yes, the Greek words are very close. Paul knows that.

And what is true for Onesimus is true for each of us. If we remain 'en Christos' (in Christ) we are transformed into Christ's likeness./ So if we hear 'useful' as 'busy or active' we need to think again: it's firstly about character. Yes, salt needs to be useful. But if we say “I'm getting on a bit to be useful”, then so was Paul. Or if we say, I'm restricted in my mobility, let's remember that Paul was in prison and Onesimus was a slave. Being useful is about living in Christ, allowing Him to live in us, and then giving ourselves wholeheartedly to what we (we and no-one else) can be and do.

As we prayed in our collect, may we be found steadfast in faith and active in service as we abide in Christ. Amen.

 

 


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