They’ll know we are Christians by our hate?
A sermon on Philemon 1-21 and Luke 14: 25-33 by Nathan Nettleton, 9 September 2007
The love of Christ draws us into a radically deeper set of love relationships, but don’t expect them to be understood by those outside the faith.
One of the classic songs from the 70’s ‘Jesus people’ era had a chorus that went “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” It was of course, a response to the words of Jesus. When he said, “I give you a new commandment: love one another,” he added, “If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13:34-35) Our readings tonight throw up some questions about that though. Here Jesus seems to be suggesting that if we’re fair dinkum about following him, we might end up with a reputation for hatred instead. But let me approach that indirectly through one of our other readings.
We heard was almost the whole of Paul’s letter to Philemon, and it tells us a lot about what Christian love meant in the early church. Paul says he has heard good reports about the love that Philemon has been demonstrating. He speaks particularly of Philemon’s love for other Christians, and he describes this love as something that refreshes people’s hearts, something that perks people up and reminds them that life is worth living. And having given him this big pat on the back, Paul sets about spelling out to him what he sees as the next big step that Philemon needs to take in expressing love. This step is one that tells us a lot about the radical and socially disruptive nature of Christian love in the early church. Paul calls Philemon to treat a man named Onesimus as an equal, as his brother in Christ, when up until then, Onesimus had been a slave belonging to Philemon in the same way that a horse or cow might.
It is probably not possible for us to fully imagine our way back into a culture that took slavery for granted and to understand what an extraordinary thing it was that Paul was asking of Philemon. Maybe if you could imagine a wealthy factory owner appointing all the labourers from his factory floor to his board of directors and matching his salary to theirs, maybe that might give us something of the feel of what this was all about.
Although Paul makes a big deal about asking Philemon as a mate to do this as a favour, he also makes it fairly clear that he doesn’t see this as a purely exceptional one-off kind of thing. Rather, he describes it as a duty that he could command Philemon to carry out. Clearly then, Paul sees our commitment to Jesus Christ as something that is going to rearrange our relationships in a big way. In committing ourselves to Christ, we are committing ourselves to the people who make up his body, the church, and to living in mutual love with them whoever they are. And we can take it as read that they will include people who we would never have chosen to even mix with, let alone love, had we not decided to cast our lot in with Jesus.
It’s a challenge, but it is an exciting and rewarding challenge. Faced with a world where many people are finding themselves increasingly isolated and where politicians and advertisers play on their fears and encourage them to bar their doors and lock out the world, the call to live as a part of a community that pulls down the walls and encourages us to push beyond the shallows into the deep waters of love, is an exciting invitation indeed. It doesn’t come easy though. Love is something that has to be worked at. Shallow love is easy and costs little, but the real challenges and the real rewards come to those who push beyond their comfort zones and invest some solid commitment and some solid work into building deep and grace-filled love.
If we are prepared to take that road, to follow Jesus into a new pattern and depth of loving relationships, we’d best be under no illusions that we’re likely to be thanked and applauded for it. Any time we take steps that are seen by others as socially disruptive, we can expect to be accused of irresponsibility and failure to do our duty.
This has been well illustrated over the last decade with the debate over what we as the Australian community should be doing about those who arrive on our shores as asylum seekers. The majority opinion seems to have been that our first duty is to look after the interests of the existing Australian citizens, and that we would be failing to do that if we allowed these outsiders into our country. The fear - and its not entirely without basis - is that every time we allow a boatload of asylum seekers into the country, we are sending a message to others that its worth the risk of trying to get here. Popular opinion says that if we let boatloads of impoverished and traumatised foreigners in, we will all end up paying for it in a reduced standard of living, because we’ll be paying for their upkeep, and in a reduced personal safety, because people traumatised by war can be unstable and dangerous. So, the argument goes, we owe it to ourselves and to our children and our loved ones to keep those people out and make sure the country is safe and comfortable for our families.
Now it is possible to pick holes in the arguments and prove that Australia is not nearly as at risk as many other countries, and to argue that international law imposes certain responsibilities on us etc etc. But at the end of the day, such an approach will achieve very little in terms of turning around public opinion, and our politicians are understandably driven mostly by public opinion, especially with an election looming. The reasons such arguments won’t get anywhere is because they don’t address the basic underlying attitude — the attitude that says that not only does love begin at home, but that it doesn’t go beyond home unless the interests of home are guaranteed first. It says that we have a hierarchy of responsibilities and we must not, under any circumstances, compromise the interests of those closest to us to extend love and hospitality to those further down the hierarchy. Once you begin challenging that attitude, you are not simply talking variations in social policy, you are talking about a total reorientation of our values and priorities and an embrace of a different world view. You are talking fundamental repentance.
When you advocate a love that turns slaves into equals and asylum seekers into citizens with the same rights as the rest of us, regardless of the cost, you are not going to be admired and applauded. The letters pages of the newspapers and the talk back airwaves will not fill up with voices saying “you can tell they are Christians by their love.” Instead the voices will say that we are failing in our duty to love; to love those closest to us. They’ll say we are putting at risk the interests of those for whom we have the greatest responsibility, those closest to us. They’ll say that we are failing to love our country, our families. They’ll say we are a bunch of bleeding hearts who don’t care enough about our children’s welfare. They’ll say we are advocating the destruction of everything our society holds dear, and that such an attitude has more to do with hate than love. They’ll say we are providing comfort to terrorists.
And that’s exactly what Jesus warned us about. In the original language and in more literal translations, the text of Luke 14:26 has Jesus actually saying that unless we “hate father and mother, spouse and children, sisters and brothers,” we cannot be his disciple. Obviously this is a perplexing saying, because Jesus’s ethic of love makes it unthinkable that Christians should hate anyone, let alone those closest to them. However, such hyperbole was a common form of making a point in the culture Jesus lived in. A contrast would be exaggerated to its logical extreme to make its implications apparent. Thus Jesus’s words may simply be taken (as some translations do) as saying “those who come to me cannot be my disciples unless they love me more than they love father and mother, spouse and children, sisters and brothers, and themselves as well.”
However, I think there is a bit more to it than that. The overall context of the passage is about counting the cost of following Jesus, and I think that that context suggests that the verse is not just about who we love most, but about facing the consequences of who we love most. And so I think Jesus is not just saying “love me more” but he is warning us that if we really live the life of discipleship, we’ll be accused of “hating” our families. That’s where it really begins to cost us. We may even be accused of it by our families, and then the cost is even more painful. To really love those who are not loved and welcomed by our society will almost inevitably be interpreted as hating our society, the values it stands for, and the people in it. None of us can give any kind of advance guarantee about how we will cope with such consequences, but Jesus is making sure that we don’t end up saying we’d been conned into discipleship without being shown the fine print.
He said that if we are not willing to risk being accused of hating our families and our community, then we haven’t got what it takes to follow him. The fact is that real love always involves risks. Real love always lies beyond our comfort zones. And a new community founded on risky, socially controversial, deep love is well and truly worth whatever discomfort and disrepute it takes. Jesus has gone that way before us, and as we gather around this table we are reminded that he was broken for it. But we are also reminded that on the other side of the deep waters of disrepute, scandal and death, lies the promised land where the new wine of love and mercy and peace is poured. And with the bread and wine of scandalous love, we are nourished for the unpopular journey into the ultimate love.