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Pentecost 15 Proper 18C RCL September 5, 2010

Pentecost 15 Proper 18C RCL September 5, 2010

 Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139:1-5; 12-17
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

 This morning, Jeremiah makes an analogy. God is the potter and the people of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, are the clay. In his analogy, the potter has control over the outcome. If the clay is uncooperative and the potter thinks the vessel will not turn out well, the potter can mush the clay together and begin again. Judah is not being cooperative with God, They have strayed. But God the potter is portrayed as being willing to give them another chance if they show signs of wanting to shape up.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is still on the way to Jerusalem and death. He is trying to be clear about the cost of discipleship. Following him would cause all kinds of difficulties. There would be outright persecution by the Roman Empire, and there would also be rifts with family and friends. When Jesus talks about hating our families, scholars tell us the word might better be translated by saying that his followers must be willing to bring dishonor to their families. The new faith would not be held in high esteem in society at large, and following Christ could bring shame to one’s family. It could also bring death in times of persecution.

The Letter to Philemon is the shortest epistle in the New Testament. There is a great deal that is not made clear in this letter.  Paul is in prison.  Scholars tell us that he is either in Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea. There is reason to think that he is in Ephesus because that was the major city in the province where Colossae, the home of Philemon, was located. Philemon and the other people mentioned in the letter, are part of a house church in Colossae. We need to remember that church buildings did not happen until the third century after Christ.

Onesimus is a slave who belongs to Philemon. Some scholars think Onesimus has run away; some think he may have stolen something from Philemon, but, in any case, Onesimus has gone, probably to Ephesus, and has found Paul in prison and, through Paul’s ministry, Onesimus has become a follower of Christ.

According to the laws of that time, you were supposed to return a slave to his master. Paul is doing this. He is sending this letter with Archippus, and Archippus is escorting Onesimus back to Philemon.

Paul is following the letter of the law, but he is also adding several dimensions to the situation. First of all, in the course of teaching Onesimus about the faith, Paul has grown to love this young man as a father loves his son, and Onesimus has become useful to Paul in his work. Incidentally, Onesimus means useful in Greek.

Paul is probably under a type of house arrest. It appears that he can receive visitors; obviously he can write letters, and he continues to carry out his ministry from prison. Paul writes to Philemon, “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…So, if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”

In those days, if there was a dispute or problem, a third party often was asked to intervene. Paul is doing this, and he is saying that, if Onesimus has done anything wrong, Paul will make up for it.

Paul says that he had wanted to keep Onesimus with him so that he could be of service to Paul during this imprisonment but he preferred to do nothing without Philemon’s consent.  At the end of the letter, Paul writes, “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.”

Renowned scholar and theologian John Know of Union Theological Seminary in New York offers some fascinating and compelling ideas on this letter.  He believes that Paul, with great care and delicacy, was asking Philemon to free Onesimus and send him back to Paul. Dr. Knox has come to this conclusion through extensive research into other documents, particularly the letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in Syria.

What we think happened is this: Philemon did honor Paul’s wish. He sent Onesimus back to Paul in Ephesus. Onesimus was an eager student and he became one of Paul’s assistants, together with people like Timothy, Titus, and Silas. These assistants became leaders of the Church in the years after Paul died (65 A.D.)  One of Ignatius’ letters, written in 110 A. D.,  mentions that the Bishop of Ephesus, a man named Onesimus, came to visit Ignatius when he was in prison! There is good reason to believe that Paul asked Philemon to send Onesimus back to him and that Onesimus became one of Paul’s most valued assistants and eventually was called to be  a bishop. This might explain why, out of all the hundreds of letters Paul wrote, this letter, which is addressed to an individual, not to a church, was saved when people were figuring out what, out of all the writings available at that time, should be placed in the Holy Scriptures.

Paul does not come out and say slavery is wrong.  But this letter makes it clear that, in the church, as he says in Galatians “There is no slave nor free, no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus.” In the church, we are brothers and sisters. No one should dominate anyone else. There is a new order. 

This letter has great significance for us so many centuries later. Yes, we now realize that one person cannot own another, and that is very good.  But we are also called to treat each other as equals, as precious children of God, as beloved brothers and sisters. This thinking is at the center of the life of Grace Church, where there has been and is such attention to making sure that everyone is valued and included. We do not have slavery today in the United States, but there are so many ways in which there can be subtle or not so subtle power differentials. The gentleness and care and love with which Paul offers his proposal to Philemon should mark all of our interactions as Christians.  So often, the quiet, considerate, thoughtful request or idea, rooted and grounded in prayer, has so much real power and seems so true because it is so true.

Through the intervention of that skilled and visionary pastor, Paul, a slave becomes a bishop. What a story. St. Francis de Sales once said, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness. Nothing is so gentle as real strength.”

                                                           Amen.

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