Scripture: Philemon 1-25
…and portions from MLK, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
January 15, 2017
Congratulations, you did it! You just successfully heard read an entire book of the Bible, barely two weeks into the New Year! The snarky part of me wants to note that you’ve just reckoned with one more book of the Bible than many of our conservative Christian brothers and sisters will read in all of 2017. But I need to be a better person than that.
Of course Philemon isn’t much of a book, or a letter for that matter. Many scholars label it as more of a postcard, a quick note from one friend to some others. It’s too short to be anything else. Which is exactly why I found myself reading it in July of 1989, when I was first struck by it like the proverbial bolt of lightning: I was just looking for something short to read as a devotion, something I could knock off quickly and get back to the day.
It was my shift to tend to the phone in the small front office room at the Door of Hope, a home for homeless families run by the Union Rescue Mission on Los Robles Ave. in Pasadena, the side of town they don’t show on the Rose Parade broadcast. The Door of Hope is a century-plus old sprawling three story that Union Rescue Mission supporters bought to better serve homeless families. The idea was and still is that keeping parents and kids together if reasonably possible, while dealing with the host of issues which led these folks to be homeless in the first place, gives them a better chance for success. Phone duty at the Door of Hope in the morning was simple: sit in the quiet office, answer approximately two phone calls, take a nap or do some reading. For a tidy sense of completion, a short read was in order.
That said, the little letter to Philemon does require a bit of unpacking. The early church leader Paul was in jail (again), somewhere, and wanted to forward some thoughts to his close friend and the postcard’s addressee, Philemon, his wife and co-worker, Apphia, another friend and maybe extended family member, Archippus, and others who were part of their house church community. It starts as a gush-fest, a bunch of compliments and encouragements to people who apparently do a good job of taking care of others, who “refresh the hearts” of many as expressions of their faith in Jesus. This probably has to do with practices of hospitality, of running a guest house of sorts, a room and meal for the evening provided to travelers on their journeys.
“For this reason,” Paul wants to up the ante by requesting something kind of big, confident that the people he’s addressing will be up to the task. It would be a favor on the behalf of another funny-sounding Greek-named individual, one Onesimus, a buddy of Paul’s now, while he is in jail. No big deal one would think, to receive another fellow Jesus-follower in the same way these hospitable folks received many. Except this request, if fulfilled, would require subverting one of the bases of the very social order of the Roman Empire and plenty of laws that supported it.
For it turns out that Onesimus was a slave. And he was not home, working under the order of his master, Philemon. And something had gone wrong to make the situation what it was.
Some historians have suggested that as many as one-third of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire were enslaved or indentured in some fashion. Roman authorities were thus very sensitive towards any movements that would challenge the social hierarchy as it was then found, with an eye to the ever-present threat of slave revolt. (Some of you have seen Spartacus or, more recently, Gladiator. The responses weren’t pretty when slaves tried to change things …) Slaves were of many different kinds and statuses and, for some, there was a real possibility of buying freedom at some point. Yet any general abolition of the institution of slavery “for the sake of the gospel” was an impossibility at that time.
But changing any unjust social reality starts with the small acts of subversion and resistance performed by a few people here or there, who begin to live out the better world they wish to see come to pass. They start living differently and encourage some of their close friends to do the same. And the best logic underneath it is the way of love.
It turns out that wherever Onesimus was on life’s journey, and however he got there, he was welcome with Paul. Biblical scholars have some fun speculating the possibilities of how this scenario came to pass, but what is clear is that Onesimus the slave-on-the-lam has somehow come to be of use to Paul while he is in jail. In fact, Paul has been instrumental in bringing Onesimus into being a follower of Jesus, same as Paul likely played that role at an earlier point for Philemon and Apphia. Dude gets around!
And all while often in jail for the crime of spreading the gospel of Jesus. So somehow Onesimus has not only become a follower of the Way but actually brings some useful skills to Paul, still ministering while imprisoned. Perhaps he has become Paul’s writing secretary; certainly he serves as company while Paul bears the rigors of being locked up. That’s something nice to have when facing an uncertain future at the hands of the authorities.
When Paul discovers, however he does so, that Onesimus and Philemon have a past and that not all is well, he makes a tricky choice that serves as the meat of this postcard. He would like for Philemon to receive his wayward slave back, not punitively (the death penalty would have been an option if Onesimus had run away), nor even as the slave that he had been, but as something far greater: a “beloved brother.”
Now you can chalk this up as something nice, obvious, hopeful, etc., etc., etc. Love, love, love. Blah, blah, blah. Those Christians always talk about love but we know how quickly that all goes out the window when it comes to wanting to get in bed with worldly authorities, playing the power games and obeying the social status quo. That equality stuff? There’s always heaven. This world is complicated. How is my 401k doing in the stock market?
But what Paul is requesting isn’t justice postponed or denied. It’s a whole different way of living in relationship, a better way. “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, 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.” (vv. 15-16, emphasis mine). Onesimus is not to be welcomed back into his old status as a lesser in the caste system of the Roman Empire. He’s to be beloved kin NOW, a peer, a fellow sibling in the family that is their local church. And that is to apply in all aspects of life “in the flesh.”
This is hard. MLK knew that. In his magisterial “Letter from Birmingham Jail” he powerfully, yet non-coercively appeals to some fellow clergymen from Alabama who wondered if the Civil Rights movement was pressing forward too fast and that demonstrations were counter-productive. From his cell he wrote some words down that get to the heart of what people of conscience must reckon with if they want justice to roll down like the waters and righteousness like the living stream. So now, for your pleasure and challenge, a day before our nation commemorates Rev. King’s birthday, some excerpts from his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: (read excerpts from “Letter from Birmingham Jail”)
MLK knew, like Paul did, that for the beloved community to be truly inclusive those with some power and privilege would have to let go of some things in order to fully welcome others whom the powers that be have determined as lessers. For Philemon it would be to receive Onesimus back as beloved kin and ignore the Roman statutes of difference for slaves. For the white clergy in Birmingham (and those like them) it would be to get off the sidelines of “concern,” stand up and act in solidarity with their African-American brothers and sisters as they non-violently protested and resisted the various unjust laws of segregation. Eating, singing, worshipping and learning together in ways that developed friendship would undergird this new and present day of enjoying one another both “in the flesh and in the Lord.”
What was different about me than the people whom I was serving at the Door of Hope? At the core, nothing. I knew that. Sure, I had won the genetic lottery, been born into a loving family with means that valued education and didn’t come with much baggage. For the most part, the script of my privilege had gone according to plan. The residents of the Door of Hope (and their children) had not been so fortunate for a while if at all, their lives and circumstances leading them to a place at the margins of our society.
If we want God to show up, it’s good of us to show up. In the years that I have been a part of things here at RUCC, I think that in many regards we were at our best when we worked together for marriage equality. But while that was good and right and just and necessary and the work of LGBT equality is far from done, for most of us in this room it was also of direct benefit to ourselves or some near and dear to us. That’s alright. The Civil Rights Movement was propelled by a bunch of folks who had decided that they had waited long enough for justice delayed and denied, for their right place in American life as full and equal participants.
So either directly, as in Birmingham with MLK and company, or like Paul as a stake-holding ally, we act and pay for the change that we want to see happen. (Our checkbooks and bank accounts, perhaps even our retirement portfolios are in the game too.) These times may demand no less. And that should be exciting!
There are countless good ways to go to work. Let’s stop spending much time on Facebook and go and tutor a kid at the Boys and Girls club. Let’s work with Family Service Association to help with what they see needs to be done. Go and become an election delegate so that we can have the direct representation to our political processes that we want (thank you Dianne!) Treat those at work who are subordinate to you as you would want to be treated. Bless those of you who are teaching children in tough schools (or tough kids in any schools) for education remains the greatest leveller in our place and time.
Except, perhaps, the direct and personal friendship that comes from love, the love that is extended to all in Jesus, modeled again by Paul with Onesimus and Philemon, and put forth by MLK as he ended his jailhouse letter, that “in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” After all, done this way, there’s nothing wrong with making any nation great.