So, we are all back from summer romps; we’ve started school; we’re trying to get back into our “normal” fall routines; and we start with a bang—a reading from the book of Philemon (or Philemon—both are right). I know that Paul is heavy reading. So, if you couldn’t gather what was happening, here are my “cliff notes.”
1) Philemon is a faithful guy that was converted to Christianity by Paul, so, as Paul put it—Philemon owes him everything.
2) Philemon, it appears, owns a slave named Onesimus.
3) Onesimus somehow left Philemon and ended up with Paul who was in prison and became what Paul calls “my child” (another convert).
4) Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon (with this letter addressed to Philemon and the whole church) with the strong request that Philemon now regard Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother (impling that Onesimus gain his freedom). Paul says, “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
Let’s just be straight about this. From the earliest times, there have been those who have argued that the book of Philemon should not be in the canon. But it is.
And, even more unnerving is the way the book of Philemon was used by those who supported slavery as a twisted example that Paul (and therefore the church) was ok with slavery if only you treated your Christian slaves “as brothers in Christ.” That logic doesn’t pass the smell test.
So what do we do with this book? Do we pretend it doesn’t exist? Or, as one commentator who you know well says, do we NEED to read it because it shows Paul as a “consummate theologian of reconciliation; that it contains an indispensable first word, if admittedly not the last word, about the incompatibility of the Christian gospel with the ownership or exploitation of fellow human beings; and it makes unavoidable our wrestling with the question of how Scripture functions for Christians today as the living word of God.” Or my take-away for you:
#1 Paul got it right. #2 Paul got it wrong. #3 We are the Philemon of today.
What do I mean? #1 Paul got it right. Paul had a glimpse of what being in Christ was all about. He waxes eloquent about how in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Because of our faith, because we follow Jesus, the old is past, and behold the new has come (also a Paul quote, from 2 Corinthians 5:17). We are, to use the evangelical terminology (first found in the gospel of John), “born again.” Life has changed. We have changed. And that change isn’t just a warm fuzzy feeling inside. It has consequences for how we live our lives, how we relate to other people and our world, even who we truly are.
I think Paul could have pointed Philemon to the gospel lesson we read today from Luke, where Jesus tries to warn people that this following him business is no joke. The sound bite has become “Take up your cross.” But I think the stark reality is more the last line, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Wow. That’s something to think about.
So Paul got it right. Being “in Christ,” being a follower of Jesus, being a Christian, calls us to something more than what we have been. It calls us to repent, to “turn around,” and change our relationships, reconcile ourselves, to one another and to our world. And Paul, for all my grumbling about the damage his letters have done, is the one who has painted the vision of what we become in Christ in such beautiful words.
But #2 Paul got it wrong. Caught up in his exquisite vision of what we can become in Christ, he underappreciated how stubborn sin is in our world. For all the beautiful words that Paul penned about “in Christ” there was no more ethnicity; “in Christ” there was no more social inequality; “in Christ” there was no more sexual hierarchy; we have had 2000 years AD, in the year of our Lord, with Christianity as the religion of those who led the world, and there is STILL racism, and sexism, and way too much poverty.
Paul got it wrong because in his letter he asks Philemon to do him a favor. To be his best self, and to live into the reality of the Kingdom. We don’t know what happened between Philemon and Onesimus. But we do know that many of our first US Presidents had slaves. We do know that human trafficking and exploitation of women appears to be rampant, even still, when it comes to men of power. All we have to do is open our eyes and we will see the devastating effects of poverty in our own rich communities, much less around our world.
I think Paul got it wrong, because he didn’t know that his words would be mangled and turned inside out. “Let the women keep silent” is what is quoted. “I’m sending Onesimus back to you…” was what slave holders held onto. I have to think that Paul knew his voice was important. I just think he wasn’t clear enough—he didn’t flesh out the context enough. He assumed everyone knew him, knew what he was talking about, and that no one would elevate one paltry statement and leave out the enormous bedrock of change that being in Christ necessitated (in his mind). Paul probably never thought that there would be millennia of those who called themselves Christian and yet perpetuated the very evils he thought Christ overcame.
So Paul got it right. And Paul got it wrong. And #3 we can’t think it has nothing to do with us. In our own lives we need to hear the call of Jesus. The call that says, everything you think is yours, can’t be more important than me. In our own lives we need to hear the pleading of Paul. The pleading that we repent, that we turn away from our own prejudice, from our own covered eyes, from our own delusions that our world, that our country, that our community is better than we really are. In our own lives we need to be convicted once again. In our own lives, in the life of this church, we need to figure out how we are going to help right some of the wrongs of this time.
I am not deceived into thinking that our little church, even as “mighty” as our love can be, will be able to finally solve the problem. But I think this morning that Paul and Jesus give us some direction in the way we are to go. Jesus reminds us that it will be hard, and will require sacrifice from us. Paul begs us to remember that we do not do these things as independent contractors, but that “in Christ” we have become a part of a community, a far flung community—a family that is tied together in God’s love.
So welcome back. We have work to do.
Thank God we have been given a vision of what the world could look like, in Christ. May we strive to make it so.
Thank God we have been chosen to be a blessing to everyone we meet. May we emanate that blessing far and wide.
Thank God we are shown mercy and forgiveness and given the chance to turn our lives around, again, and again, and again. May we, in turn, be as generous and patient in our dealings with those around us.
Thank God for the story of Philemon and Onesimus. May we be strengthened to see the short-comings of our ourselves and own world, even as we pray that in Christ we might be and do more than we ever dreamed.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.