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Pentecost 16 Proper 18C RCL September 8, 2013

Jeremiah 18:1-11

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

Philemon 1-21

Luke 14: 25-33

In our first reading for today, again from the prophet Jeremiah, we have the metaphor of God as the potter, shaping the life of God’s people. If we, as individuals and as a nation, seek the direction of God, we can allow God to mold and shape our lives and our life together in accordance with God’s will.

In our gospel, we are now back on the road to Jerusalem. Herbert O’Driscoll suggests that perhaps the crowds are growing too big and that Jesus wants to cull out those who are just curious and appeal to those who are in for the long haul. In any case, Jesus is telling us that following him is not easy. If we want to follow him, discipleship has to come first. Scholars tell us that the word translated as hating our families does not really mean hate in the sense that we think of it. The meaning is that we have to put following Jesus first. He is talking about a sense of priorities. Jesus is not calling us to hate our families.

This morning, though, I would like to focus on the reading from Paul’s Letter to Philemon because it has so much to teach us about the early Christian community and about our life in Christ.

Paul is under house arrest in Rome. He is still active and busy. Scholars point to many letters which he wrote during this time.

A young man named Onesimus arrives at Paul’s door. Onesimus is a runaway slave. Scholars tell us that, according to the law of that time in the Roman Empire, Onesimus could have been killed for running away and that Paul, in welcoming and sheltering Onesimus was committing an illegal action punishable by death. Yet we know that Paul is extending hospitality to this young man, something our loving God calls us to do. This is a higher law than the Roman law.

At first, Paul has no idea of the background of Onesimus, but, as time goes by and more of the facts emerge, Paul realizes that Onesimus is owned by a devout fellow Christian named Philemon, someone Paul has known, someone Paul converted and nurtured in the new faith. Philemon is a leader of the Church in Colossae, a community dear to Paul. Talk about a small world situation!

So here is Paul becoming a mentor and guide to young Onesimus and finding out that Onesimus belongs to someone else whom Paul has also mentored in the faith.

As time goes on, Paul realizes that Onesimus has many gifts, as all of us do, thanks be to God. Perhaps Onesimus is able to be a secretary to Paul and copy his letters. We do not know the details. Paul comes to love Onesimus as his own son, as his own heart.

And yet Paul knows the law, He knows that Philemon has the legal right to come and capture Onesimus and take him back to Colossae.

So Paul decides to send Onesimus back to his master and to beg Philemon not to kill Onesimus as a criminal who has run away but to welcome Onesimus, not as a slave or as a possession, but as a brother in Christ.

Paul is an expert on the law, and he also acknowledges that while Onesimus has been away, Philemon has suffered a financial loss because he has not had the services of Onesimus. So Paul offers to pay Philemon for this loss.

Because Paul has been Philemon’s teacher and mentor and because Paul has a high rank in the community, he could command Philemon’s obedience to his request, but he does not do that. He describes their friendship as brothers in Christ; he recalls all the good work they have done together in the past to spread the love of Christ; he commends Philemon for his ministry in the community at Colossae; and then he calls Philemon to be obedient to the values of the kingdom of Christ. Paul says that, in sending Onesimus home to Philemon, he is sending his own heart, and he asks Philemon to welcome his slave as he would welcome Paul, his teacher and mentor.

This letter, so real, so practical, so deeply emotional, expresses the theology of our Lord’s shalom. The last shall be first, the first last. Jesus is turning the world upside down, and we see it happening in this letter from Paul to a beloved brother he has nurtured in the faith.

Paul gave this letter to Onesimus to take back to Philemon in the hope that Philemon would welcome Onesimus home, not punish him.

Paul, a Pharisee and a Roman citizen, knew the power of the law, but he also know the power of a higher law, the law of love in Christ. We don’t know what happened to Onesimus or to Philemon, Did Onesimus return to Philemon and give him the letter? What did Philemon do? We do not know for sure. But we can imagine.

Here we see Paul building the new community, In his Letter to the Galatians, he writes, “In Christ, there is no slave nor free, no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, but we are one in Christ Jesus.” Here he is living out these words.

Loving and gracious God, you are always seeking us; you are always loving us. Help us to be open to your guidance. Help us to seek and do your will. Help us to build the new community of love. Help us to follow where you lead. Amen.