Scripture: Book of Philemon
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
July 17, 2016
The last two weeks I have been preaching on “Sabbath”. The first week was “Sabbath for the body”. Last week was “Sabbath for the soul.” I still have two more sermons on Sabbath to preach – “Sabbath for the mind” and “Sabbath for the heart”. I thought that July would be a great month to preach on Sabbath. In the church year, July generally is a time of rest, relaxation and vacations. Perfect time to preach on Sabbath, right? Not this July. Not with all that has happened in our country. As Sweet Honey and The Rock sings, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest, We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes. Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” We are taking a sabbath from the sermon series “Sabbath”.
With that in mind, I share a story with you about a game I played at recess in elementary school. Some of us would form a circle, holding hands, facing outward. All the others would stand in a larger circle, about 20 feet away from the inner circle. And ‘though I don’t remember the exact words, the inner circle would chant something like, “You’re out, you’re out, you can’t come in! You’re out, you’re out, you can’t come in!” Then the outer circle would charge with all of their might, trying to break into the inner circle.
“You’re out, you’re out, you can’t come in. You’re out, you’re out, you can’t come in.” It may be a game that starts in childhood, but it continues for the rest of our lives. “You’re out, you’re out, you can’t come in.”
In our scripture passage today, Paul, in perhaps his most radical letter of all time, writes a letter to Philemon, a slave owner, encouraging him to welcome his runaway slave named Onesimus home, into the circle of love and grace.
The letter to Philemon reads, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ” (Paul is writing this letter from prison), “and Timothy, our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co worker” (There is a special relationship between Paul and Philemon), “to Apphia” (traditionally thought of as Philemon’s wife) “and to Archippus our fellow soldier” (traditionally thought to be Philemon’s son), “and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul sends grace and peace to Philemon; in fact, he begins all of his letters with “grace and peace” – they are the two most precious gifts Paul can offer through God.
Grace is unmerited favor. Peace comes from the Hebrew word “shalom”. Shalom means more than the absence of conflict; it means the presence of wholeness, of healing, of well-being of reconciliation. Paul sends Philemon and his household grace and peace. Later, in the letter, Paul will be asking Philemon to be an agent, a radical agent, of grace and peace.
“When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received my joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother (verses 4 – 7).
Paul is getting ready to ask Philemon to do something huge – something that will radically turn societal norms upside down and inside out. And so Paul writes with a pen dipped in the inkwell of grace. Paul goes the extra mile to make sure that Philemon knows he is well respected by Paul. When people feel respected, conflict is lessened. And so Paul goes out of his way to assure Philemon that he holds him in high esteem and greatly respects him.
“For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love, and I, Paul, do this as an old man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (verses 8 – 9).
Note that Paul could have “commanded” Philemon on the basis of his position and authority but instead he chose to “appeal” to him on the basis of love. Under threat, people wither. With grace, people grow. Threat causes us to become tense, tight, nervous and anxious. We are not our best selves under threat. Grace sees the best in us. Threat is prideful and intrusive. Grace is humble and gentle. Paul decides to appeal to Philemon on the basis of love and grace.
“I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment” (verse 10). Holy Smokes! Paul, who once boasted about being a Pharisee of the Pharisees, the one who claimed to blameless under the law, the one who was so proud of his spiritual pedigree – this same man is now calling a runaway slave his son. He is speaking about Onesimus in a way he could have never imagined before his radical encounter with Christ Jesus.
“Formerly he was useless to you” (at least, he has been useless since he has run away from home) “but now he is indeed useful, to both you and me.” (Ironically, Onesimus names means “useful”). “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.” Paul knew that his request might well test Philemon’s heart, so Paul reveals his own emotion, confessing that Onesimus was linked with his heart. Paul dearly loves Onesimus.
“I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for awhile, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Verses 13 – 16). What Paul is asking of Philemon was unheard of in that day and age – receive your slave back who has run away – not as a slave but as a beloved brother, as part of the family! Not as a slave but as an equal.
I can imagine the trepidation with which Onesimus felt when he returned to Philemon. A runaway slave could have been branded with an “F” for fugitive on their foreheads and / or made to do double labor – that is if they were one of the lucky ones. Some runaways were beaten in the public square and others were thrown as food to be devoured by wild beasts in the amphitheater for the amusement of the crowds. Some were even crucified. And so Onesimus’ fate rested solely with Philemon. Given the various consequences of being a runaway slave, it is quite audacious for Paul to urge Philemon to take Onesimus back no longer as a slave, but now as a beloved brother.
Paul goes on to say, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Yes, treat this runaway slave just as you would treat the greatest apostle of the gospel. “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self” (vs 17 – 19). Obviously, Philemon owes Paul something. “Yes, brother, let him have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ” (vs 20).
“Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (verse 21) – Much is required of followers of Christ. “One more thing – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you” (vs 22). In other words, just to make sure what I am asking has been done – I am going to come on a visit to see how your new relationship is going.
He then concludes with greetings from his fellow prisoner and apostles and writes, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you” — grace is ultimately what this letter all boils down to. Will Philemon welcome Onesimus into the circle of grace and love?
A lot has changed since the writing of this letter 2000 years ago. Heck, a lot has changed since the ending of slavery in our country in 1865. A lot has changed since the Civil Rights Movement in 1965. Last week, during our Summer Series, John Walsh shared a very meaningful presentation with us about the journey he and students from the U of R recently took as they retraced the steps of the Civil Rights Movement. Thank goodness that we don’t have segregated lunch counters and drinking fountains and restrooms any longer. Yes, a lot has changed. As Obama says, “Race relations have improved dramatically.”
We’ve seen signs of hope – an African-American president elected! But in spite of that election or maybe in part because of it – and the resulting backlash – we see that in 2016, racism is still real.
Racism is more than individual prejudice. It is more than simply asking ourselves, “Do I like black people or not?” It is systemic. Racism has been called America’s original sin – created to justify the brutal enslavement of human beings. Slavery is a system of demographics: who is on top and who is on the bottom. Slavery says that some people have more worth than others. In that sense, not much has changed. We see systemic racism in the disproportionate number of people of color incarcerated; we see systemic racism in the far too many incidents of black men being murdered because of the color of their skin, white people being given the benefit of the doubt, black people seen as guilty until proven innocent. The sin of racism is real.
And so though we come a long way since Paul’s writing to Philemon, we still have much to learn from his letter, even after 2000 years after it was written. First, God calls us to a new family one not based on race or biology, but on love and grace.
Secondly, this new family is rooted in egalitarian relationships. In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes, “In Christ, there is no longer distinction between male and female, Jew and gentile, slave and free (black and white) – we are all one.” That is perhaps one of the most radical statements in the entire Bible. There is no longer distinction – certainly there is diversity – God created us to be different from one another, but there is no longer distinction – that is, distinction in our worth, value and dignity. That is the what the Black Lives Matter movement is all about. People are offended by the Black Lives Matter movement. As though it is controversial to say that black people have the right to life. There are some who want to quickly refute that statement and say, “No, all lives matter.” Of course, all lives matter – but black people have been treated as though their lives do not matter. “Until the killing of black men, black mother’s sons is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons…” The Black Lives Matter movement is not about saying that only black lives matter. It’s about affirming that black lives matter, too. It is a statement of inclusion rather than exclusion. To be a part of the Black Lives Matter movement means that I hear the pains of those who have been oppressed. I hear the voices of those who have been ignored. I hear the injustice of those who have been abused for centuries. I hear the cries of people demanding to be treated with dignity. Those of us of white privilege would do well to simply listen to the voices of people of color.
Finally, says Paul, when we see division – as there was division between Philemon and Onesimus, we are called to be reconcilers, bridge builders – uniting opposing parties together in partnership for the health of all. On Tuesday, speaking in Dallas, Obama said, “With an open heart, we can worry less about which side has been wronged, and worry more about joining sides to do right.” George W. Bush, on Tuesday in Dallas, said, “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples and judge ourselves by our best intentions.” Two presidents who couldn’t be more different, Bush and Obama, both gave speeches on unity and reconciliation. If they can come together, I think that we can too. The Apostle Paul calls us to be bridge builders.
So, back to recess time in that elementary school yard. I was in first grade and my best friend was a girl name Kristen. She was holding hands in the inner circle. She knew I was not the fastest runner or strongest person and I rarely made it into the inner circle. She winked at me to run toward her when the charge began. The inner circle chanting, “You’re out, you’re out, you can’t come in! You’re out, you’re out, you can’t come in!” I charged. Kristen loosened her hand and I was in. Immediately the person next to her cried out, “Kristen, if you do that, everybody will get in.” Kristen smiled and I bet God smiled too. For that is our call as followers of Christ — to let everybody in!