A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2016:
This morning’s readings encourage us to step into the future to which we are being called in faith, even though our own future may yet be unmapped. They encourage us to learn from the example of Jesus’ disciples and Paul’s fellow workers. People, who deliberately chose to go away from familiar surroundings to new and unknown communities. People who left behind their family and friends to follow Christ. People who, like early explorers or cartographers, began to chart the world they saw, put the first ‘markers’ on the map of the church where the good news of Jesus has been proclaimed. It is their signposts that still us, and will allow future generations to follow in the way of the Gospel. Today, we give thanks for our call to follow in their footsteps, I’d like to spend some time looking at these early ‘markers’ and ‘signposts’ and think about where own journeys might lead to.
I love the letter to Philemon. It’s the shortest of the letters of Paul, and we heard all of it in one lesson. Our epistle reading, gives us a snapshot of how Paul conducted his ministry: both in the mission field and in his imprisonment in Rome. ‘I, Paul, appeal to you as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus’, he sets out at the beginning of his letter to Philemon, his ‘dear friend and co-worker’. Philemon was a leader in the Colossian Church, a Hebrew and Greek colony in Phrygia, a place in today’s Anatolia in central Turkey. Philemon and his wife Apphia had gathered a group of believers around them in their home in Colossae. They were members of the Greek community of Colossae, and probably had come to know about the God of Abraham through the large Jewish community in that city.
Through the work of Paul, and his fellow missionary Epaphras, they came to love Jesus Christ (Col. 1.7-8). Like many other Colossians, they had found themselves outside the Jewish covenant; they may have loved God but never felt that they could fully belong. And so for them, the good news of Christ Jesus, Jesus the Messiah, was good news for themselves. As non-Jewish believers they were told that in Christ, God calls people from all backgrounds to know, love and serve him. There, in their home city Colossae, they first understood what Paul, in his letter to their city churches, called ‘the riches of the glory of God’s mystery among non-Jews: that Christ is in you, and gives non-Jews the hope of glory’ (Col. 1.27). There, they first appreciated that in Christ, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all’, as Paul writes to the Colossians (Col. 3.11). And the way in which this mystery has been brought about, Paul tells the people of Philemon’s hometown, is when God ‘erased the record that stood against us, with its legal demands, and set it aside, nailing it to the cross’ (Col. 2.14).
During his missionary journeys, Paul continuously gathered around him people like Philemon and Apphia; people of Greek origin who loved God, who understood that Jesus was the Messiah, and who would support Paul in his ministry either as local leaders of the communities Paul founded, like Philemon and Apphia, or as fellow travellers in the gospel. One such fellow minister, whom Paul chose as his companion was Onesimus, Philemon’s and Apphia’s slave. Paul dispatched Onesimus on missionary journeys, ‘mapping out’, as it were, and getting to know the first nascent congregations, placing the first ‘markers’ for the Gospel in Asia Minor and Greece. And the markers of that mission are the fruits of the cross; the instrument of torture and death that was the means by which God unites that which was dispersed, restores that which was broken, and forgives that which has been distorted by sin. On their travels, Paul and his fellow missionaries literally take up the cross, in order to place it as markers of God’s presence, and God’s desire to heal and restore, in the communities to which they are being sent.
Let’s turn to Onesimus, the subject of Paul’s personal letter to Philemon. In his epistle to the Colossians, Onesimus is named as Paul’s ‘faithful and beloved brother’, and, equally importantly, ‘one of you’: Onesimus is a Colossian himself (Col. 4.9). This, too, is part of Paul’s missionary work: in order to map out the path of the gospel, Paul not only planted markers of the signs of salvation in the places he visited, but he identified local leaders in order to continue his work in his absence. And so, in Corinth, Paul would tell of the good news of the cross – the good news of barriers broken down, and relationships restored – and establish local communities centred around that hope. They are, as Paul writes to the people of Colossae, to ‘continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed’ by Paul’s servanthood of that good news (Col. 2.23).
Paul created these communities of the gospel by establishing churches in people’s homes, like the church that met in the home of Apphia and Philemon. And from those communities, he also identified key individuals whom he would take with him. Whom he would equip for ministry by enabling them to share in the work of planting the seeds of the Gospel in other communities. And then, having been equipped for their ministry, by sending them back to the places from where they came. Onesimus might have been a slave and servant Philemon’s household, but he is much more than that: he is a member of the household of faith; a member of the church led by Philemon and Apphia. More so, he he is a trusted minister commissioned by Paul to amplify the message of the cross, of God’s reconciling love, in the community he had called home.
Paul was so effective in calling others to share with him in taking up their cross and follow Christ because he called to himself many co-workers. In today’s epistle, Paul writes of ‘Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers’ (Philemon 1.24). Now, Paul has charged his faithful assistant Onesimus to tell the Colossian church ‘about everything here in Rome’ (Col. 4.9). Onesimus, whom Paul ‘wanted to keep with him in Rome so that he might be of [continued] service to me’ (Philemon 13), is being sent back home to reinforce the good news that by Christ’s death on the cross people are no longer kept apart from one another and God’s love. And, importantly, for the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, that through the same self-giving death, we are set free from all bonds: there is no longer ‘slave and free’, Paul writes to Onesimus’ home community (Col. 3.11). And he appeals to Philemon that he would extend the same freedom he has received in Christ to his slave, and enable Onesimus to be set free to undertake the work of ministry: ‘no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother … in the Lord’ (Philemon 16).
The key to this transformation, this change, from slave to beloved brother in Philemon’s household; from member of Philemon’s church to Paul’s emissiary of the good news, is the cross. As Jesus tells the crowds in today’s gospel reading (Luke 14.25-35), it is taking up that cross, carrying that sign of reconciling love, and placing it as a marker, a signpost to God’s love, that is the hallmark of a disciple, a follower of Christ. People who follow Christ in this way allow themselves to be transformed: their relationships are changed – their ties to families, friends, and – in the case of Onesimus, their owners – can be transformed when they take on themselves the symbol of Christ’s self-giving love; the cross. And so a slave may become a free person under the law of the land, and all those enslaved to the powers of evil and death may be freed to live. As Paul writes to the people of Onesimus’ home town: ‘you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, Christ has now reconciled in his own body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him’ (Col. 1.21-22).
Today’s readings invite us to become part of that transformation; invite us to become people who live out, and make known, the power of reconciliation as co-workers in the gospel with Paul and those who shared his ministry. They invite us firmly to anchor the news of the cross as ‘markers’ in our own communities, by living out, and celebrating, in this place the good news that in Christ nothing can hold us back from the reconciling love of God. More so, they invite us to become messengers of that love who go out from here into the world around us; invite us to be partners in mission with Paul and the apostles, in charting out the areas where that love has not yet been proclaimed; setting up signposts to the cross in the places to which God calls us and through the activities and ministries with which he entrusts us.
Our taking up this invitation calls on us to take up the cross and find in it the symbol of our life and strength; call on us us to trust and to take risks. And in so doing, we may find that it is at the point at which we respond to Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow him, and take up Paul’s invitation to be emissaries of the cross we receive, that the promises of God to his apostles of past generations will touch our own lives: that God will walk with us, equip and strengthen us, and sustain us on our journeys. As we hear about how others followed God in the past, we are encouraged ourselves to ask where it is that God is leading us – in our own lives and in the life of our Cathedral. And then to enter, like the twelve disciples, like the Jerusalem apostles, like Onesimus, Philemon and Apphia, like Timothy and Titus, Luke and Mark, Demas and Aristarchus, and the other companions of Paul, with renewed confidence into the uncharted future that may lie ahead of us.
When Simon the fisherman became Peter the Apostle by following Jesus into his new life, he was told that he was to be the rock on which the church would be established. When Saul the Pharisee became Paul the Apostle by following Jesus into his new life, he set his horizon equally wide, brought new communities of faith into being, named them and charted them for the first time, so that through his ministry all the world might hear the life-changing message of the cross (2 Tim. 4.17). I invite you to think about how you might step into the yet unmapped futures that lie ahead of us, how you might journey, and whom you will ask to accompany you as you travel. I invite you to seek to deepen your relationship with Christ, to watch out for the signs of transformation through the ministries of this place, that, as Paul prays, ‘the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive the good that we can do for Christ’ (Philemon 6). Above all, I invite you to pray about how you will respond to Christ’s call to be his ambassadors: people who are sent out to make known how Christ’s good news can transform real lives and communities—our lives and our community here in this place, so that we truly may be a place of transformation for our city and diocese.
© Andreas Loewe, 2016