Scripture | Luke 4:14-19 | Galatians 3:28 | Philemon
The reading we’re about to hear is one we don’t hear often. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever preached on it. It’s a short letter, just one chapter, written not to a community but to a particular Christian named Philemon.
The story behind it is this: Paul is in prison – probably under house arrest – though we don’t know where, the letter doesn’t say. With him is a runaway slave named Onesimus. Actually, we don’t know a lot about the situation, how Onesimus came to live with Paul, or what their relationship was. But we do know that during his time with Paul, Onesimus became a Christian. Now Paul is writing to Onesimus’ owner, Philemon, to ask for his freedom.
Slavery was common in the Greco-Roman world. Slave-owners’ rights were strongly protected by law, and it was illegal to interfere with slavery, particularly by helping a runaway slave. Escaped slaves who were returned could be punished by death.
That’s the background to our next reading. Now let’s listen again to the Word of God.
From Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
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 much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
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. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.
Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 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 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.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 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. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
To say that Paul was being audacious is an understatement. Politic, yes; diplomatic, yes. But oh, the hutzpah! Look at how he argues the case that Onesimus should be set free.
- He was useless to you anyway. (Really?!)
- Since I’m imprisoned, and you can’t help me directly, you should let him stay with me as your surrogate.
- I could command you, but since I know you’ll do the right thing, I’m going to ask you nicely instead.
- If you’re really in this with me as my partner, prove it by doing this.
- Having a slave is nothing compared to having a brother, and he is your brother in Christ now.
- And if you think he owes you anything, it’s on me; though, by the way, you owe me your life.
Paul did have confidence!
But he had more than that. He had a profound sense of the way Christians should live, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When I was in seminary I took a New Testament course on “Women, Race and Class in Paul’s writings.” It was based around one verse in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
- Galatians 3:28 (NRSV)
I found myself thinking about that class when I read the letter to Philemon again – and even more when I heard which anthem the choir would be singing today. The early church drew the circle wide, indeed; so wide that people didn’t know what to make of it.
In the early church people served side by side who never would have even spoken to each other before. Slaves became free and were treated as equals. Women had roles of authority and leadership. Poor and rich sat down at the same tables together, which was unheard of back then. Churches cared for people that were considered useless to society – widows with no one to support them; babies who had been abandoned; people who were too sick or disabled to take care of themselves. No one had seen anything like this before.
It wasn’t idyllic – all you have to do is read Paul’s letters to know that living that out was complicated and messy, and there were LOTS of disagreements about what was appropriate when you started stirring the pot like that. But there was no going back to the old ways.
It wasn’t that somehow the early Christians were naturally more open-minded people, or magnanimous, or nicer than anybody else. It was what they believed Jesus wanted for the world. They believed Jesus was bringing in the kingdom of God, a new creation. They believed his “mission statement,” when he read from the Prophet Isaiah in his home synagogue:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And they believed the Spirit of the Lord was upon them, too. Their mandate from Jesus was to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoners [Mt. 25:31-46] … They believed Christ’s circle included all nations [Mt. 28:16-20], so they took the Gospel far and wide, first to the synagogues and then to the “Greeks,” or Gentiles – the non-Jews in the Hellenistic world. They had to figure out quickly, on the fly, what was essential to the Gospel and what was just window dressing, letting go what were their parochial preferences and keeping the center in Jesus Christ.
And then, like Paul, they pushed – hard – to bring everybody to the Table as equals. Jew and Greek. Slave and free. Male and female. None of those boundaries belonged any more. Inside the circle only one thing mattered: they were one in Christ. Brothers and sisters, together. Someone who was once your slave should be more than free: he was your family.
You know, I cringe every time Christianity is presented as racist, sexist, anti-Semitic… because at its core, it’s the opposite of all that ugliness. And yes, I am painfully aware that through the centuries the church has been all that and worse. But please don’t think that comes from the Bible, or – worse – from Jesus himself. Don’t ever believe it if someone tells you that’s what it means to be Christian.
Because what Christ envisioned – and what Paul tried to create – was this: that people would come from East and West and from North and South, and sit together at table in the kingdom of God.
Because that’s how wide the circle is in God’s world.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church