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Pentecost 16 Proper 18C RCL September 4, 2016

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

Our readings for today are thought-provoking, to say the least. Our opening lesson is from the prophet Jeremiah. God is the potter. We are the clay.  In our reading, God is calling the people of Judah to follow God’s will. More than fifteen hundred years later, God is calling us to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be people of justice and compassion.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is attracting huge crowds. He is continuing to point out how difficult it is to be a disciple of his. He is not telling us to hate our families. He calling us to have discipleship as a high priority. Choosing to follow Jesus in the early days of the new faith could mean being disowned by one’s family. Persecution of Christians has occurred over the centuries and is occurring even now. Following Christ is a decision not to be made lightly.

Our epistle is from the Letter of Paul to Philemon. This is an extraordinary letter. First, it is the shortest epistle in the Bible. We have read the entire letter today. Secondly, it is not addressed to a congregation but to a person. Third, there are many mysteries about this letter.

We really do not know where it was written. Paul was in prison, but scholars are still trying to figure out where Paul was when he wrote this letter. Some scholars think Paul was in Caesarea. Others think he was in Ephesus, which was a major city near Colossae, where Philemon’s congregation was located. Other scholars, including Herbert O’Driscoll,  think the letter was written when Paul was in prison in Rome.

Here is Paul in prison, not for the first time. Let’s just suppose that he is under house arrest in Rome. There is a Roman guard keeping watch, but Paul is allowed to write letters and even to have visitors. Somehow, Onesimus, an escaped slave, shows up at Paul’s door.

Paul welcomes this young man into his quarters. According to Roman law, Paul could be killed for harboring an escaped slave. As a follower of Christ, Paul obeys a higher law, the law of love and hospitality.

Onesimus has escaped from the household of Philemon, a wealthy man from Colossae. Philemon is the man who has made his house available so that the followers of Jesus can meet and worship. This is how the early Church began, in the houses of generous people who had the space to offer a place for worship and learning. Church buildings did not happen until centuries later.

We do not know why Onesimus has run away. We do not know why he goes to Paul. Perhaps he has heard Paul’s name mentioned in his home community and has sought him out. If Onesimus has had a problem in the house of Philemon, he might he coming to Paul in order to ask Paul to help him resolve this problem with Philemon.  The law provided for such mediation. If he is seeking this kind of help, Onesimus will not legally be considered a runaway.

As time goes on, Paul begins teaching Onesimus about the new faith. Eventually, Onesimus is baptized. Paul grows to love Onesimus very deeply. He writes that he has become the spiritual father of this young man, and he calls Onesimus “my own heart.”

But now, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. And here, we have another very important piece of the puzzle. Paul is Philemon’s father in the faith. Years ago, he instructed Philemon. They were very close, and we can tell from the letter that Paul is grateful to Philemon for nourishing the faith of so many other people. There is a great deal of love between Paul and Philemon.

Now we need to keep in mind that Paul has written, “In Christ, there is no slave or free, no Jew or Greek, no male or female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:22.)

Paul is saying that in Christ new relationships are formed between and among people. Once we come to believe in Christ, we do become brothers and sisters. Onesimus has become his son, his heart. Philemon is also his son in the faith, although Paul is careful not to ask any privileges because of that fact.

Paul is saying that the love of Christ which binds us together makes us equals, and he is asking  Philemon to grant Onesimus freedom to come back to Paul and help him. Onesimus actually means “useful,” and it is apparent that Onesimus had become extremely useful to Paul as a secretary and an assistant in carrying out his ministry, for that is what Paul is doing, even from prison. He is exercising a vibrant ministry of correspondence and receiving visitors.

As members of the Body of Christ, we are equals. We do not lord it over each other. We certainly do not own each other. Paul does not ask for the freedom of Onesimus in so many words, but he trusts that Philemon will read between the lines.

The risen Christ is in the space between us and among us. A new kind of relationship has been forged between and among us. We are equals. We are the infinitely precious children of God, and some of us are mothers and fathers to our younger folks in the faith, but we are also equals.

Beverly Gaventa writes, “By virtue of his conversion, Onesimus has become a brother in Christ, which necessitates that he be treated as brother. …One who is a brother in the Lord can scarcely be a slave in the flesh.” (Texts for Preaching Year C, pp. 503-504.) Paul writes, “If you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”

“In Christ, there is no slave or free no Jew or Greek, no male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” Amen.

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