Sermon written and given by The Rev. Dr. Stephen L. White
The Epistle: Philemon 1-21
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.
We don’t often hear an entire book of the Bible read during our services. But, folks, today you got lucky. We just heard a reading from the Letter to Philemon which comes up in the Lectionary once every three years (Philemon 1- 21). The entire letter has twenty-three verses and we just heard twenty-one of them. You didn’t miss much because the two verses that were left out are at the end and they basically say everybody here says hi and God bless you. But wait, there’s more! This short letter poses some serious and fascinating problems and challenges for us. So, I’ll dispense with our usual custom of speaking on the gospel of the day and instead focus on Philemon and his slave Onesimus.
Let’s review the situation. Onesimus is a runaway enslaved man who seeks protection from Paul who is himself in prison at the time this letter is written. Onesimus is converted to faith in Jesus Christ. Philemon, the slave’s owner and the recipient of the letter, is apparently the leader of a household church and well known to Paul.
It appears from the wording of the letter that Onesimus has caused Philemon some kind of trouble, probably economic. Whether the trouble arises simply from his running away or whether he did something else, such as stealing from Philemon, we don’t know. But it is clear that Philemon would at least be justified in feeling he has been wronged by Onesimus’ defection. Roman law was quite clear about the relationship between slave owner and the enslaved person and the entire social and economic structure of the mighty Roman empire depended upon the preservation of that relationship.
In his letter Paul appeals to Philemon’s better angels. He asks him to receive Onesimus back not as a slave – as Philemon had a right to expect – but as a beloved brother, a dear one. That’s obviously a big ask, which Paul understands because after making this request of Philemon, Paul reminds him that he would be justified in commanding him, as his father in faith, to accept Onesimus back as a beloved one and not as a slave.
But Paul backs off from using the stick and commanding Philemon to do that. Instead, he uses the carrot approach and tells Philemon that previously Onesimus was useless to him but that now he is useful to both Philemon and Paul because Onesimus has been transformed by his new faith in Jesus Christ. So, Paul extends to Philemon an opportunity to be transformed too. Paul says: “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.” (v. 13-14). Your good deed, Paul says.
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.
Isn’t the same often true for us? We have opportunities given to us all the time to do a good thing voluntarily. How often do we seize that opportunity?
Consider this example from our own church’s history. Alexander Crummell was an African American who, because of his race, was driven out of an academy in New Hampshire, dismissed as a candidate for ordination to the priesthood by the Diocese of New York, and refused admission to The General Theological Seminary, my alma mater. Then, when he was finally ordained by the bishop of Massachusetts in 1844, he was excluded from participating in the diocesan convention.
The leaders of that academy in New Hampshire, the Diocese of New York, General Seminary, and the Diocese of Massachusetts all were given opportunities to treat Crummell as a beloved brother and they threw those opportunities away. The leaders of those institutions were given an opportunity, just as Philemon was, to act as though they had been transformed by the gospel of love of Jesus Christ. But they all chose to act by the comfortable social conventions of the times. They all blew it.
Crummell, however, was no quitter. He went on to receive a degree in theology from Cambridge University and then to become a missionary in Liberia, West Africa where he helped establish the church there with native clergy.
In this time and this place, we also are given opportunities to resist the unjust and repressive conventions and norms of our times just as Philemon was and just as those institutions connected to Alexander Crummell’s life were. We have the opportunity to resist discrimination and oppression in all its forms in our country and throughout the world. We have the chance to fight against the norms of our society that allow immigrants to be made fun of and discriminated against and even beaten and arrested. We are given the opportunity to work for justice and freedom for all God’s people even when we would have to go way outside our comfort zone and buck the system to do so.
We don’t know from this letter what choice Philemon made; we don’t know the rest of the story. We can see how Paul pressured him in this letter, and it would have been hard for Philemon to deny Paul’s request but even harder to go against the Roman social conventions governing slavery. We don’t know whether Philemon was strong enough in his faith to go against the strong tide of the Roman system. As I have mentioned, the empire depended upon slavery to exist. In this country we think of slavery in terms of the bondage of African descendents, which was an oppressive system of two races and two classes. But Roman slavery was more pervasive and a much more central part of the entire economic and social system than even African American slavery was, and much more complicated, multi-layered, and multi-faceted. It is doubtful that very many people ever thought to question the Roman institution of slavery. So, it would have been an extraordinary thing for Philemon to have embraced Onesimus as a beloved brother and not as a slave as Paul urged him to do. And I suppose that is the whole point of this story. Followers of Jesus are called to act in extraordinary ways. If doing the right thing were easy and always accepted as the norm, then everyone would do good, everyone would do the right and just thing and there would be no evil in this world.
We have to imagine that Philemon worried about what the neighbors would think if he did as Paul asked. He would have known that such a move would have been seen as extremely threatening to other slave owners and as undermining the social system of the day. After all, if you freed one slave, where would that lead? Where would it end?
But we also have to imagine that Philemon, as the head of a household church, a leader of the Christian community – a bishop – had something else to worry about. The contents of Paul’s letter surely would have been known to others. And the expectation that Paul had that Philemon would be transformed by the love of Christ would also have been the expectation of those Christians in Philemon’s household. They would be watching closely for Philemon’s reaction. Was Philemon’s talk of Jesus Christ just so much hot air, or did it make a difference in his life and the way he related to his world? Was he a hypocrite, or was his faith the real deal? I don’t have to tell you that there are countless examples in our own time of so-called Christians failing this test.
The only way for Philemon to have truly received Onesimus as a beloved brother was to manumit him, that is, to free him completely from any duty to him. If Onesimus had wronged Philemon, as Paul’s letter suggests, then Philemon would also have had to forgive Onesimus as well. These were the Christian things to do under the circumstances, but they would have been exceedingly difficult things for him to do. Paul was asking a lot of Philemon, just as Christ asks a great deal of us now.
The return of Onesimus as a Christian with Paul’s strong support gave Philemon a choice. He had to make a decision. There was the safe, socially acceptable, even legally justifiable choice to keep Onesimus enslaved and to demand redress of any economic grievance. And then there was the choice, informed by the gospel and the command of Jesus to love one another as God loves us, to free Onesimus and embrace him as a beloved one, as a dear brother. Would Philemon choose to deny his rights as a Roman citizen and slave owner? Would he play it safe and choose to deny his identity as a Christian, or be courageous and proclaim his faith through bold public action? His neighbors and his household church were watching and his choice would reveal whether or not he himself had truly been transformed by his faith in Jesus Christ.
The same is true for us. The world is watching us. And the world fully expects that we will cave in. Most people do. As we leave this holy place all eyes are upon us. We are challenged by the gospel of Christ to embrace all people as beloved brothers and sisters and by so doing free ourselves from the shackles of slavery. What will our choice be? Will we resist bigotry, intolerance, and injustice? Or will we accept the world the way it is? If we say we are Christians and yet act in the ways of a hateful and unjust world, we give scandal to all we say we stand for. Others are watching us. How will we choose?