Right from the moment that God called Jeremiah to serve as a prophet, God made it clear that Jeremiah would often be bringing bad news to the people. The reality was that God’s People in the Northern Kingdom of Israel were not living very faithfully towards God or lovingly towards one another. And Jeremiah got the unpopular job of warning them to shape up or experience God’s power against them.
The wonderful metaphor of God working on us like a potter carefully and gently transforms a lump of clay into a beautiful and useful vessel can easily lose the clear, harsh judgment that Jeremiah was announcing against an unfaithful People.
It’s not just that God wants to smooth out our rough edges or give us a fresh coat of paint. Jeremiah is talking about a much deeper and greater transformation… from self-centered, selfish, self-loving people… into people who love God and want to show that love by caring for others, by putting others first, by loving our neighbours and the stranger who is in need.
We’re talking about big changes here… transformation… That’s what God wants to do in our lives, and God has the power to do it too… like a potter who can not only smooth out a rough edge, but who can choose to squash the pot that isn’t turning out right… to squish it and pound it work it into useable clay, and begin again… to form it into the beautiful vessel that it was always intended to be.
Our Gospel reading today comes from Luke, and it is another challenging passage. It’s a text that emphasizes the radical transformation that is required when we choose to live in relationship with God and as followers of Jesus.
The Gospel writer explains that large crowds were following Jesus on the day that he shared these teachings – these warnings about the challenges that come with following his way of life. I suppose there were large crowds following Jesus because his teaching was exciting. I suppose they were hanging around because he’d been healing and helping a lot of people. Maybe they thought that something good would happen to them too, if they stayed close to this Jesus.
But Jesus quickly dismisses the idea that becoming his disciple is going to come with lots of benefits. He makes it clear that being a disciple will require them to give up a lot. In contrast to the evangelist who promises that when we become Christians our lives will be blessed and happy, Jesus emphasizes the challenges… the things that will have to change… the things we will be required to give up!
Unlike our societies today, that promote “family” as more important than anything else, Jesus says: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple… None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Wow! Jesus is asking for a lot! Jesus is asking us to put God and God’s will and God’s work before everything else in our lives… before our work, before our stuff, before our favourite pastimes, even before our families. Because if we put any of those things… even the best of those things before God, then we are worshipping idols.
Jesus says that we might as well know this before we get started down the discipleship road. We might as well know what we’re getting into. Like a builder who estimates the cost of the whole tower before he starts working on the foundation, or like a king who figures out what chance he has of winning before he engages in a war… Jesus is inviting us to open our eyes and see what following his way of life is going to require of us. It’s going to require ALL of us actually, our hearts, our minds, our time, our talent, and money… our lives. It’s a matter of putting ourselves in the hands of the potter, and letting God shape and direct and transform our whole lives.
I’m reminded of a church sign that I once saw outside a local congregation. They were advertising the fact that they were offering a 5 p.m. worship service on Sundays, and the sign said, “5 p.m. Worship: It Fits Your Lifestyle.”
Great! 5 p.m. worship on Sundays instead of the traditional morning service. There’s nothing wrong with that. Worshipping God can happen any time of day and any day of the week. But, “It Fits Your Lifestyle?” I don’t know if they thought that through very well.
Because from what I read in the Gospels, there’s very little that Jesus asks of us that will “fit our lifestyle.” Rather, we are called, over and over, to let our lives be radically transformed by God’s demands and by God’s hands.
We can’t just take a little bit of God and fit God into the spaces in our lives where we have time and space and interest. No, God is challenging us to let our lives be shaped by God’s requirements so that we will become what God has made us to be.
That’s huge! And that’s challenging for us, if we take the message seriously. But we should not be overwhelmed because we know that God is the one who is going to transform our lives. Today the psalmist reminds us that God knows us completely, and loves us as we are. And so we can trust that God will help us and direct our ongoing transformation.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
The psalmist reminds us that we belong to God. It was God who made us and gave us life, and we were wonderfully made. In fact, we do not need to be afraid that our lives have gone too far off God’s course. We do not need to worry about God crushing us as a failed project and beginning again. All we need to do is to place our lives, once again, into the hands of God, and allow God to work on us.
I want to tell you about another life that was transformed by God. There was a man named Onesimus who lived around the time of the apostle Paul in the first century CE.
We don’t know very much about Onesimus, but we know that he was a slave, and his name “Onesimus” meant “useful.” I suppose he must have been “useful” to his master, Philemon, at one time. Perhaps he was a good, capable slave who did all kinds of things to help Philemon and his household. Perhaps he lived up to his name and was “useful.”
But something happened, and Onesimus left his master, Philemon. I think, perhaps, he ran away. Maybe he did something wrong and didn’t want to face his master. Maybe he owed some money to Philemon and couldn’t pay it back. Maybe he just didn’t want to be a slave anymore. But for whatever reason, Onesimus left, and he was no longer useful to Philemon.
Well, sometime after Onesimus left Philemon, he met the apostle Paul. Onesimus met Paul and he became a Christian. In fact, Onesimus became one of Paul’s co-workers, and he became very useful to Paul during Paul’s time in prison. Onesimus probably visited Paul regularly, brought him food to eat, and delivered messages between Paul and others in the early Christian Church.
Everything we know about Onesimus and his former master, Philemon, we learn from the short letter that is in the lectionary this morning, written by Paul from his prison cell to Philemon. Paul asks Philemon to let Onesimus return to live with him and work with him. Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. Onesimus has been transformed, and Paul is asking Philemon to change as well.
The practice of slavery that was normal in the first century is perhaps hard for us to relate to. The idea that a Christian could have been a slave owner is shocking. But this text is not really even getting into slavery as an issue. It’s a letter from a time and place where slavery was just the reality.
But what becomes amazingly clear is that Christianity calls us to be transformed. Onesimus is transformed from a slave into a brother. He is changed from a man who could be useful to a human master, into a follower of Jesus who became ultimately useful for God’s purposes of spreading the Good News about Jesus Christ.
Philemon is called to be transformed from a slave-master into a brother as well. He is challenged to give up being an owner of possessions (slaves) and to welcome a Christian brother in a new relationship. We don’t know whether Philemon takes up the challenge or not… how he responds to Paul’s letter… but I hope that Philemon was willing to let go of some of his things and to let God use him also.
Let us give thanks today, for the ways that God has already transformed our lives… teaching us and directing us to love, and care for, and serve our neighbours in need. And let us place our lives in God’s hands once again… that God may continue to work on us, and shape us, and mold us into the very image of Jesus Christ our Lord.
If God is the potter, and we are the clay, let our lives be transformed into beautiful and useful vessels, that we may bring glory to God and serve God’s purposes in this world. Amen.