Homily for 18C: Deut 30.15-end; Philemon; Luke 14.25-33
‘Choose life!’ urge all three of today’s related readings, and our culture has taught us well what this must mean. We recognise the hallmarks of a life fulfilled: the endless acquisition of branded goods and personal power, the pursuit of professional advancement, and a glamorous, exotic lifestyle that’s carefully logged on social media for all to see and envy. In short, life is about getting my own way all the time, dismissing any opposition to that process.
This is not quite the vision outlined for the Israelites by Moses. For him, choosing life is to turn one’s heart in faithfulness towards God, to be immersed in the will and ways of the Lord. God’s promised reward is more properly the simple outcome of human congruence with the divine: a just desert.
Jesus also, as he travels on towards Jerusalem for the climax of his earthly work, is keen that the large crowd with him should have a clear understanding of who it is that they are following, what his agenda and programme look like, and what they are to expect. He wants them to budget as carefully as a builder or a military commander for any commitment they feel inclined to make.
For example, choosing the life he offers may cost them their families: to love him may mean ‘hating’ them, as Jesus grafts them into the community of his Kingdom, taking them way beyond their primary biological allegiances.
This is not the only potential sacrifice. They must also release themselves from whatever possessions might constitute and represent their security and sense of belonging. Possessions possess, and must be abandoned if true liberty is to come to fruition. Jesus’ followers have a new home now in the household of faith, and look to the Father alone for daily sustenance and nightly shelter.
All of this is but prelude to the taking up and carrying of a cross (Luke 14.27). It is towards his own cross that Jesus journeys, and we who follow, follow him in this example. But what does the cross entail? Will it hurt like hell, or is it quite harmless now, tame and toothless behind a wall of metaphor and church ornament?
The outline of the cross has many forms, as many as there are people. It is not an extra entity in our lives, a stage-property to be found and wielded at the right moment in the drama. We need not seek it at all: the cross will find us quite naturally, in the ordinary people and events of our life. It is not so much a sinister intervention, more an ongoing invitation to live every moment in a Christlike way, in company with Christ as inspiration, pattern and goal.
When we carry our cross, the effects will have a similar quality as when Jesus carries his. They do not operate on the same level or share the same cosmic decisiveness, but they have the same life-giving tendency to set people free from their chains. When I carry my cross, new life springs up in my wake. Light seeps into darkness; joy leavens misery; slivers of hope shine in inky despair. I do not know why this should be so. But I do know that it is so.
My cross also costs me something of what Jesus’ cross costs him. It takes courage, a setting aside of fear; a readiness to see my own will put at the disposal of the Father. I need to risk the transformation of my desires (significant or petty), if I am to see a mighty blossoming of whatever lies dormant within me and others. I carry my cross as a woman carries a child, within me, part of me, bringing it to the full term of its birth, a sacrifice of time and labour to bring about new life (cf Luke 11.27).
St Paul uses the same language of carrying the weaknesses of others (Romans 15.1), and it is perhaps the hardest aspect of life in the Church. Hell is other people, especially when they take views on hard and contentious matters which are inimical to my own, or when they speak thoughtlessly or cause intense pain. We are rarely spared the throes of this process in the Church of England, as current headlines again testify. For release, as the Bishop of Grantham has put it, we look to God in ‘trust’ that a way out of the misery will open up. We carry our cross and one another in hope, knowing that the road towards change can be neither short nor easy.
Letting go of any certainties is never an easy process, as Paul’s Letter to Philemon demonstrates. Scripture suggests that Philemon does, in the end, choose life for Onesimus and for himself, by recognising that newly-baptised Onesimus, once his slave, is now a brother whom he must release even at the cost of his own status and stubborn self-understanding. He thus gives subsequent generations of Jesus’ followers a clear example to follow (Colossians 4.9). He carries (and is carried by) the Pauline group with sufficient patience to reach a reconciliation with himself, bringing to birth new relationships with the previously estranged. He has carried his cross and come to resurrection. The Christ who makes all things new has performed some of that work here, and we might look to him in expectation to do the same for us.
Of course, only you and I, gentle reader, know what it is we grasp so tightly that our hands cannot help us in the rest of our lives. By choosing the life that Christ offers, we will let go of many burdens, set aside many fears, and set free many slaves. This is the blessed and glorious work of the Cross. We begin, as always, by coming to the one who carried it for us, seeking from him the medicine our soul ardently desires.