God, who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit upon your Church in the burning fire of your love: grant that your people may be fervent in the fellowship of the gospel that, always abiding in you, they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
NOBODY could have accused Jesus of deceiving those who were drawn to him by his teaching and power of healing. He signalled repeatedly that closer association with him would bring hardship and suffering (Luke 9.23-27, 57-62; 14.25-27; Matthew 10.34-39). The future he offered was not to be entered into by people who doubted their ability to stay the course.
When, in Luke’s narrative, he makes a third attempt to convey this message, he adds two illustrations (Luke 14.25-33). In the first, a man contemplating the construction of a watchtower must do the calculations that will confirm the feasibility of the project. Leaving the building half-finished would be an invitation to mockery from neighbours who would read this as the reward of extravagant folly. The second example also involves avoiding loss of face. Much better to make peaceful terms with a powerful enemy than to be humiliated in battle.
The conclusion that might be drawn from this is that Jesus is seeking an elite following, made up of disciples with special powers of endurance and a clear understanding of suffering. For the many who know that they are not made of the stuff of martyrs, this suggests the bleak prospect of a second-class relationship with Jesus.
That, however, would be entirely contradictory to the picture that Luke has developed so far. Jesus’s response to suffering is always to heal (Luke 4.31-41; 5.12-26; 6.6-10, 18; 7.1-17; 8.26-56; 9.37-43); nor does he demand that everyone whom he encounters should join him on the road. In fact, he discourages the Gerasene demoniac, urging him instead to stay at home and tell his fellow villagers what Jesus has done for him (Luke 8.39).
Jesus does not set people up to fail; nor is there only one way to be a disciple. Jeff Astley writes that discipleship is a call to service, besides learning and following (”Forming Disciples”, in Rural Theology, May 2015). It is a conscious choice of life (Deuteronomy 30.15), and some who follow do so to death itself. Its primary call is, however, to the “death of the old self”.
What is radical about this is the adoption of a new set of values. Astley goes on to point out that not all disciples joined Jesus on the road and gave up home, family, and possessions. Even those who did become fellow-travellers were not perfect: they failed to see the obvious; they squabbled over status; one of them denied him (Luke 22.54-62).
For the contemporary Church, it is important to avoid rigid distinctions between those who stay at home, and those who follow Jesus on the road. He recognised as disciples a circle much larger than the Twelve, the “representatives of Israel as it should and would be”, as Astley puts it.
Paul’s Letter to Philemon concerns an individual who had probably been sent to him by a Christian leader as a servant to ease his time in prison. In Paul’s company, he had become a disciple in the true sense, learning from the apostle the faith for which he was prepared to suffer.
Craig Wansink prefers this theory to speculation that the slave Onesimus had run away from Philemon, or become estranged from him. A slave-owner would not have known the whereabouts of a runaway, and yet Paul assumes that Philemon is aware that Onesimus is with him (Philemon 10).
Had master and slave become estranged, it would be unlikely that the two could have been reunited on more equal terms (Philemon 15-16), and Paul writes as though he has deprived Philemon of someone with considerable capacity (Craig Wansink, “Philemon”, in The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, 2001).
The purpose of this carefully phrased communication, which commends rather than instructs, is to encourage Philemon to engage Onesimus — whose name in Greek means “useful” — to play a genuinely useful part in the church that meets in his house. More word-play follows. Onesimus had formerly been “useless” (achrestos) to his owner. Now he has become extremely useful (euchrestos) to Paul.
Anyone who heard the letter being read aloud — which was the customary way of passing on written news — when the Christian assembly met, could easily have heard “achristos” and “euchristos”. This would have suggested that Onesimus had gone to Paul not believing in Christ, but had, during his time with him, become full of Christ. In this new identity, he promises to be genuinely useful.
Paul appeals to Philemon’s generosity in realising this by recognising Onesimus as a co-worker in a new order, which looks beyond the distinction between slave and free.