TRINITY 15. PROPER 18. DEUT 30:15-END.  Psalm 1. Philemon 1-21. Luke 14; 25-33. 

Some may remember how at school the two team captains had to choose their teams on the field from whoever was available. They would take it in turns to chose the likeliest players, one by one, until the two teams were complete. There were always some  players no one really wanted; they were so hopeless and these were left till last, or not chosen at all. An uncomfortable experience for those unchosen ones.

However, the Lord isn’t like that. He chose His people, he chose all of them and he has chosen all of us to be his people today, chosen since baptism if not earlier, if not from before the foundation of the world; chosen and precious.

The Old Testament lesson we heard at Mattins describes the Covenant relationship between God and his people and it is a covenant of love. Love is a strange word in the English language – it covers a multitude of sins and of attitudes. That lesson from Deuteronomy which speaks of loving the Lord your God Is actually part of the formula of treaties between tribes and nations in the ancient Near East. The Commandment to love God isn’t the mushy, gushy, slushy, sentimental thing which love can be too often. It is heartfelt, loving, obedience and commitment, like between married people or people living under vows. That is the relationship we Christians have with our God. St Ignatius writes about the two standards as carried into battle by opposing forces – not in the sense of double standards sometimes used today. If we choose the standard of the Lord, it is a total commitment; of life until death.

The letter to Philemon is one of the most authentic, even enchanting, of all Paul’s letters. The names, Philemon and Onesimus, tell us a lot about the relationship between the two of them and Paul and, indeed, the way all Christians relate to each other, as brothers. Onesimus means useful, like calling someone Handy. Philemon is, of course, about love: “affectionate” - the form CR brothers use in signing letters to each other: “yours affectionately”.

If anyone wants to criticise Paul’s attitude to slavery, he or she should study the letter, with his reference to the freedman of the Lord in 1 Cor 7: 22 and Gal 3: 27-28, where there is neither slave nor free. Paul’s attitude to slavery was to change attitudes and at length to the abolition of slavery. What Paul is saying is that both slave and free, both Philemon and Onesimus, have this new relationship to each other in baptism; they are both adopted children of God.

It is in baptism that we have our covenant relationship with God. In baptism, we have been chosen - and we have chosen - to fight under the Lord’s standard and it is a total commitment. In the Gospel, Jesus spells out the choice and its consequences.

When Jesus  tells us we must hate even our closest and dearest, we remember he was speaking to a society where family relationships were all important (as they are in Africa today) and to parents to whom was total obedience, reinforced by the Fifth Commandment. When  He says “hate” he is using hyperbole; exaggeration when he says things like that. We have to be prepared, if needs be, not just to disobey but to hate – if necessary. I suppose most of us, when we think about it, who have reached any serious commitment to God, have had to go against the wishes of our families once they realised the consequences of our commitment, if not before.

Jesus in today’s gospel says more than this, though. He says we must be prepared to give up all our possessions. When whole families are dependent upon a few sheep or goats, a patch of land, a boat, giving them up means a life of total precariousness. For us it  may not have been too much of a struggle, though it means dependence on God, not on our bank balance. Not everyone has to give up everything, or anything but we must all be prepared to do so.

Then the talk of the cross, of life itself, can’t be glossed over so easily. “Taking up one’s cross”, “A cross we have to bear” are expressions which have become trivialised – can mean nothing more than an inconvenience or affliction. To Jesus and his contemporaries, it was quite simple, the cross meant death, the most agonising of all deaths, the death of a criminal.

Any commitment less than that isn’t worth much. It’s less than His commitment to us.

        Antony Grant CR