As people of faith, it is our responsibility to know what is written in our sacred texts, and to know how these texts are being used or misused in the name of faith. It is also our responsibility to discern what is really going on in the sacred texts, and not make assumptions to make it fit our culture and society now.
August 29, 2021
Pastor Heather McColl
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.
This Sunday’s sermon, Philemon, Philemon 1 wraps up our “Faces of Our Faith” worship series. And I would be remiss if I did not name that this short book has done a lot of damage over the years. During the years surrounding the Civil War, this book was used to support slavery. Many who owned slaves or who supported slavery argued that Paul condoned the owning of slaves because he sent Onesimus, a supposed runaway slave, back to Philemon. This argument was widely accepted by society at that time.
Unfortunately, it was not just in the years surrounding the Civil that this argument was accepted. For generations, this letter to Philemon has been used to write laws, to enact practices, to support structures which allowed others to be treated as less than. This unethical practice happened because, like so many other books and letters found within our Bible, like oh I don’t know say…1st Corinthians 14: 34-36, not to be too specific or anything, this unethical practice of misinterpreting scripture happened because somewhere along the way in church tradition, someone interpreted the text to fit the social norms of his community at a particular time.
Thankfully advances in biblical scholarship have corrected many of these incorrect interpretations. However the damage still remains. It is still creating brokenness in our midst. It is still being used as permission so that one group can see another group as less than. The damage from misinterpreting Scripture by people of faith is, dare I say it, one of the largest roadblocks to bringing about God’s Kingdom here on Earth.
All of this is background for our conversation about this letter to Philemon, and why we have these conversations about the writings in our Bible. As people of faith, it is our responsibility to know what is written in our sacred texts. It is our responsibility to know how our sacred text is being used or misused in the name of faith. As the people of God, it is our responsibility to undo the damage, to take an impartial look at our texts within its context. It is our responsibility to discern what is really going on in the text, and not just what we assume it to be because it fits our culture and society now.
So that is what we are going to do….we are going to take a look at this letter to Philemon within its context and discern what Paul is saying in this beautifully crafted letter whose words are still as relevant today as they were some two thousand years ago.
Like all the letters found within our Bible, when it comes to the letter to Philemon, we only have one side of the conversation. We must fill in the gaps as we go. Now this usually means there are a lot of theories surrounding the reading of the text, and this one is no different, especially around the question of whether or not Onesimus was actually a runaway slave. Nowhere in the text does it specifically say Onesimus ran away.
One theory of is that Philemon sent Onesimus, his slave, to Paul while Paul was on house arrest. Paul was allowed visitors and being an old man, would need a lot of help. The theory goes that Onemisu stayed longer than what was agreed upon while helping Paul. Paul realizes this mistake and tries to correct the situation, going as far as saying if there was any wrongdoing, or if money is owed, Paul will pay it.
Again this is a theory. All we know is that a servant/slave of Philemon’s named Onesimus crossed paths with Paul and was transformed. He became a Christian. All we know is that Paul does send Onesimus back. All we know is that Paul sends Onesimus back with this letter which contains an artfully crafted rhetoric designed to change the narrative.
In this letter, as we are reading it, we realize that Paul is walking a very delicate line. Philemon is a part of the community of faith in Colossae. He is wealthy. The church of that community meets in his house. He is a leader in the church. He has financially supported Paul’s ministry. And he is not someone which Paul wants to create friction with as a fellow apostle.
Yet, Paul is quick to point out that he could command Philemon to honor his request but he would rather Philemon do the right thing. Paul states that Onesimus is now a Christian, Everything in their relationship has changed. This change means that no longer are they to operate by the rules of this world. From now on, they are to operate by the values of the Kingdom of God.
In this letter, “Paul pushes and challenges his readers to see the full humanity of Onesimus. Paul does not do this perfectly, still blinded by the societal structures of the day, but he does take big steps toward justice here—steps toward equality and love—and we are called to do the same.”
You see, although this short letter does not contain deep theological discourse like many other books of the Bible and although this short letter does not contain words of comfort and renewal we as people of faith often turn to in times of despair, what this short letter does contain is is that it speaks to an important part to our beliefs as disciples of Christ.
It reminds us once again that we as servants of Christ are a part of this world but we are not of this world. We operate by a different set of values, values such as love and grace, values which frame all of our relationships with one another, no exceptions. This short book reminds us as communities of faith there is not anyone who is better than any other. Slave or free, woman or man, young or old, no longer matters. We are all part of the Body of Christ. All are welcome at the Table. All are seen and embraced as Beloved Children of God, regardless of what labels this world places upon us.
Or let me say it this way…as a minister, everyone wants to talk religion with you wherever you are. It is the blessing and the curse of this profession. And this past week was no different. At a gathering on Tuesday night, I was talking with someone and it came up that I was the minister of this particular church. Suddenly the dynamic of the whole conversation changed. It went from friendly to very standoffish. This person was quick to tell me that they are not religious, that they had grown up in a religious household, and they didn’t believe in that stuff any more.
When I heard this, my heart hurt. I wanted to ask what happened, what changed but if I had my guess I probably knew the answer. My guess is that again, what was supposed to be used to teach love, grace and acceptance was used to teach separation and division.
But that was not the only incident. Another happened yesterday. At another gathering, someone was talking with me and she shared that her son was not baptized because the church where she attended would not allow relatives from another religious tradition to be part of the service. She simply said, my son is not baptized and he has no godparents to help guide him along his faith journey. Again, my heart hurt. Again, I wanted to ask what was the reasoning behind all this but again if I had my guess, I probably knew the answer. My guess is again, what was supposed to be used to teach love, grace, and acceptance was used to teach separation and division.
Again this week, I find myself standing up here before you with no good answers but what I do know is that if we read our sacred text and come up with anything which does not cultivate love for all of God’s people, then we are reading the text wrong.
I keep coming back to Paul’s words to Philemon… “I am sending him who is my own very heart, back to you.” “These are strong words to describe another—words saturated in love and hope, words saturated in connection and promise.” These are strong words which call us to see each other not as the world sees us but as how God sees us.
These strong words remind us that all justice work begins by believing we are all part of the Body of Christ, that all are welcome at the Table, that all are Beloved Children of God, regardless of what labels this world places upon us. These strong words remind us that we are called to practice grace and acceptance for that is the way of the Kingdom of God. These strong words remind us that they will know we are Christians by our love. May it be so.