Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday 8 September
The Art of Letting Go. The Rev’d Sue Grimmett
A few weeks ago the lectionary offered us the Gospel reading that included Jesus saying that he had come to bring not peace, but division, where fathers would be divided against sons, sons against fathers, mothers against daughters and daughters against mothers. At the time I rather gleefully celebrated that it was The Rev’d Dr Mervyn Thomas’ turn to preach.
So it seemed a bit like karma this week when I opened the Gospel reading to find, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” It sounds a hard teaching. If nothing else we should be aware that following the way of Jesus is not something you enter lightly, not something you consider, as Jesus says, without first counting the cost.
But I think it is important to ask not, does Jesus really mean what he says here about hating family, but rather, what does he mean by it? It is important always to remember that when we hear Jesus talk about relationships of marriage and family he is not talking exactly about our understanding of the Western nuclear family. Family in the ancient world was one of the big indicators of who you were and your status and influence. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel brings a strong emphasis on letting go of attachments- attachments to persona, to power and particularly to money.
But ultimately this all, including the part about hating your mother and father is about renunciation. Whatever label, tribal identity, or claims to status and honour we have forged for ourselves, we need to be prepared to release if we are to follow Jesus. To be a disciple is to have a new identity shaped by the alternative reality of the kingdom.
When I searched for a story or illustration for this idea, I discovered the lectionary had already given me one. The reading from Philemon is the only time we get to hear an entire book in the context of a service. We have the whole letter sent by Paul to Philemon, apparently a wealthy and probably powerful merchant of Colosse, who had, through relationship to Paul, come to be a follower of Jesus and now had a church meeting in his home. This letter, written by Paul from prison, was likely delivered in a bundle with the letter to the Colossians, with the expectation that they would be read out loud to the communities. The reason for the letter to Philemon was not a message so much as a person: Onesimus the slave who had somehow wronged Philemon, most likely by running away, or perhaps by robbing him.
And here is where we find a neat illustration for the identities we need to release, and the new way of being to which Jesus calls us. N.T Wright has said of this story, that if we had no other evidence of Christianity and the early church, this letter alone should make us sit up and think, “What is going on here?”1 Because with a close reading, and a bit of historical understanding, we can notice that there is something profoundly counter cultural in this message St Paul is asking to be read out to Philemon’s home church.
Wright opens his two volume work on Paul with the example of a letter written by Pliny the Younger, a Roman senator, about 70 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. The letter, written to a friend, contains a request to be kind to a third man, a social inferior who had been a slave. Apparently this ex-slave had wronged his friend in some way, and Pliny is appealing for mercy on his behalf. No doubt you can see the parallel between this letter and the one we have recorded in Philemon, but it is not the similarities that are remarkable. Pliny’s letter is full of condescension- he is after all at the top of the social ladder- and he is writing to his friend after having given a stern reproof to the ex-slave for his behaviour and warning him that this act of mercy in interceding for him is his last chance. It is a letter that reflects the same social dynamics as the letter to Philemon, and all the careful niceties of social distinction are being maintained.
This, however, is not what we find in Paul’s letter. While on the surface so similar, the core message is communicating something entirely different to the way the world is meant to work. While Pliny’s letter is advocating a patronizing attitude of mercy where the outcome for the ex-slave will be a peaceful restoration of social positions as they have always been, Paul’s letter presents a vision of trying life together in an entirely new way.
As Wright notes, there is a world of difference between saying, as Pliny does, “Now my good fellow, let me tell you what to do with your stupid freedman and then we’ll all be safely back in our proper positions” and Paul’s approach of ‘Now my brother, let me tell you about my newborn child and let me ask you to think of him, and yourself, and me, as partners and brothers.’2
As a slave of his time, Onesimus could easily have been condemned to death by crucifixion for his behaviour. Paul not only appeals to Philemon for mercy but asks him to receive and welcome Onesimus as one of the family. It is perhaps difficult to capture in our culture just how radical this position is, and how astonishing is the difference between these two letters. Perhaps Paul himself should be allowed to speak an even clearer word on this when he says to the Galatians; ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free; there is no “male and female”; you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ (Galatians 28). In Christ we are no longer bound by predetermined definitions of outward classification. We let go of our attachments to our socially created identities so we may live, sharing all in harmony with one another and union with God. The vision is nothing less than living out our lives together as a radical consummation of love.
Ultimately all that have been identity markers for us need to go if we are to allow the Spirit to make of us a new creation. Nothing can be left untouched in our lives. Are we all in? There seems no partial option given in following Jesus. He cautions us to first count the cost, because the cost is that we will never be the same again.
Counting the cost in Jesus language is that we must take our cross and follow him. But it is not about pursuing suffering– we must remember that it is this same Jesus who says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light and you will find rest for your souls.” Sometimes, though, that rest is found through letting go of what we have previously constructed to feel safe, or what we have previously relied on for comfort or self importance. Sometimes that letting go can be just too confronting.
What happens when we begin to surrender our attachments to self-will, power, possessions, money, popularity, prestige or influence? I think it is at this point of exposure that we may discover that another good word for attachment is addiction, which could just be another word for sin: something that harms us and keeps us from God and from one another. If we are honest, I think we would all need to admit we are addicted to something. To take up our cross is to embrace a spirituality of brokenness and reliance not on ourselves and our own abilities or possessions but on the power of God to transform and heal. Transformation does not happen through intelligence, willpower or moral perfection but through radical honesty, exposure, humility and surrender.
And why would we go in for such complete treatment? Perhaps because there is nothing else we can do. Perhaps it is because that in that moment when we are brave enough to just be ourselves in all our messiness, we discover that there is no condemnation but only more grace. Perhaps because we discover that in that place of grace, we are all one, and that, ultimately, is what it means to be free.
1 N.T. Wright Paul and the Faithfulness of God, (Fortress Press: Minneapolis), 2013, p 6. 2 Ibid.