Sermon delivered on the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity the 4th September 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Deuteronomy 30:15-20     Philemon 1-21     S. Luke 14:25-33

S. Luke 14: 28 "Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?"

In our own day we are more likely to go through such an exercise of counting the cost as we consider building or buying a house or apartment, rather than a tower. I suppose that the function of the kind of tower that Jesus' teaching refers to is to provide a lookout point or watch over a landowner’s property. I used to dream that one day we might build a church with a tower and even a traditional spire, the concept of which perhaps also originated as a watch over and around the property, but I fear that not only when you sit down and count the cost, but also when you consider the possibility of damage from hurricanes and other tropical conditions, the spire part of the dream at any rate seems entirely likely to be unfulfilled.

Our Lord, then, compares sitting down and going through a proposal and working on it until one is able to commit oneself to it, to the level of commitment that following Him demands of a disciple. We should remember that a parable, which was His particularly characteristic way of teaching, demonstrates differences as well as flashes of similarity with the reality it is seeking to teach. Jesus does not try to put people off from following Him, in the way that an impracticable project should be changed or abandoned. He is telling us though that we must be prepared for following Him to be difficult sometimes, and He is telling us that in following Him we must be prepared not just for the beginnings of it but for the carrying of it through up to the very end. If we are going to break it off half way through, or otherwise let it defeat us, that would be no better than if we had never started. So things will get tough for the disciple of Jesus, and we now surely live in times in which difficulties of one sort or another have increased and in which, for instance, the armies of adverse opinions ranged against the Christian world-view can appear to be overwhelming. Be prepared, then, as a disciple of Jesus, for that feeling, when you realise that you are being called to cope with a level of difficulty that you had not really envisaged at first. At that point you are called to go on in the course of your discipleship. That commitment to go on was inherent in our commitment to believe and follow from the beginning. As we do go on we will find any area of our life, be it personal, financial or whatever, that we had thought about as if it were in isolation from the rest of our life, being drawn into our life's commitment. Our Lord's call for the renunciation of all our possessions that we heard in the Gospel is essentially a call for the renunciation of the independence of any area of our life. As St. Paul puts it in Colossians 1:17, He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. To the extent that we successfully keep some things separate and apart from Him, these things will fall apart. So when you come to prepare and offer your gift for the Offertory, and especially when we make remembrance of the offering of the full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice of the life of the Saviour, offer up also any area of your life that looks to be proclaiming independence for itself. The offering of that area will be an essential step in bringing it along with the rest, into your discipleship of the Lord.

Let us now consider Philemon, to whom St. Paul's letter is addressed which was read from in today's New Testament Lesson. Philemon was a resident of the town called Colossae, and he had previously become a disciple consequent on St. Paul's preaching in Asia Minor. He may have had a comparatively large house, because a congregation was now meeting in it. Like other reasonably well-off people of the time, he owned slaves or bonded servants. One of these, called Onesimus (a name meaning "useful" or "beneficial"), ran away from him and then came under St. Paul's influence, while Paul himself was under house arrest. Onesimus too became a disciple, and the letter of Paul to Philemon is a personal one, to be carried back by the converted and discipled Onesimus to his previously converted and discipled master.

We do not know what sort of master Philemon had been or had become, or whether this consideration has any bearing on why Onesimus had originally run away. It would have taken courage for him to return, because under Roman law the master had absolute authority over the person and life of his bondservant. Normally, severe and even vindictive punishment would be expected, especially as he may have taken some property when he ran away. But the return under St. Paul's instruction of the converted Onesimus to Philemon, and his bringing to his master the letter from Paul to Philemon that we have in our Bibles today was designed to bring about a profound change in this area of Philemon's life. Perhaps it was the first time that Philemon had really been brought face to face with the particular implications of the Christian faith, which was being preached regularly in his own house, either for the relationship between master and slave or for the ownership of bondservants in general. St. Paul wrote that if Onesimus was to remain with Philemon he should be to him "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother." The Apostle told Philemon he should receive Onesimus as he would have received Paul himself, and that he Paul would willingly pay any damage or debt incurred, though taking the opportunity of reminding Philemon of all that he owed Paul, being his child in Christ. Running through the letter is the implication that though he was free to retain Onesimus under an altered relationship, he would please Paul greatly by sending him back to him as a free man. Christian tradition suggests that this happened, and that in the course of time Onesimus became a bishop.

Philemon was being called upon by St. Paul to make a costly sacrifice, indeed to renounce the independence of this area of his life from his Christian discipleship. Through this situation God had staked out a new boundary in his claim upon Philemon’s life. I don't suppose it was a comfortable time for Philemon, and when such an adjustment is called for from us we do not find it comfortable either.

Yet, as God says in our Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy today, "I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil." Bringing some area of independence that remains in our lives into discipleship is abundant life to us, however uncomfortable it may at first be. Retaining the independence against the revealed will of the Lord, however, is death to us, and amounts to the sin of idolatry, because we are placing it in rivalry with the only God, and such rivalry to God is, according to Deuteronomy, death and evil. In ever expanding domains Jesus calls us, and we are called to call our fellow-men, to Christian discipleship and life.