“I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do in Christ.”
Three Sundays ago, my copy of the New York Times landed on my doorstep. Following worship and our time of fellowship, I couldn’t wait to get home to dive into the interesting articles and enlightening stories. But one section of the paper grabbed my attention and has drawn me into a place of awakening unlike anything I have read in recent memory. It is a series of essays that lays out with clear precision the impact of our country’s decision to enslave in perpetuity a group of people and how that decision has affected every aspect of our American life from our economic and industrial power to our electoral system, to our food and culture, to our legal system, to our inequities in education, health care, housing, and wealth, to our houses of faith.
It all began, not in 1776, which we commonly celebrate as the birth of our country, but in August 1619 when a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans arrived at Point Comfort in the British Colony of Virginia. It is on this day that our country’s “defining contradictions” first came into the world. The arrival of these enslaved Africans began 250 years of a bestial practice where human beings simply on the basis of the color of their skin and the shape of their brow were determined forever to be property. The people who kidnapped them, transported them bound in chains across the ocean, sold them on the market alongside animals and furniture, bought them to be used as free labor, and claimed to “own” them to use them in any way that benefited their lifestyle and profits, knew they were human beings. But through a network of laws and customs, breathtaking in their cruelty and precision, ensured that these children, women, and men would never be treated as such. This system continues to stand today in stark contrast to our identity as a country of equality, freedom, and justice. 
The church has been complicit in this. Churches used scripture to declare God’s support for slavery. Churches divided along the lines of North vs. South. But despite their location shamelessly preached the gospel of Jesus Christ while refusing to acknowledge the basic human rights of black men, women, and children. Inside the churches, balconies were the place where black members were required to sit. Black members were disturbed during prayer to be disrespectfully reminded of and removed to their place at the back of the church. Seminaries such as my own, Virginia Theological Seminary, used the free labor of black children of God to build the school while refusing admission to black students until the 1950’s. We are not speaking of ancient history. Religious men and women bought and sold human beings to pay for improvements to their school and hospitals.
Our reading today from Philemon is a short letter written by Paul to a leader in a church he founded in Colossae. It is only 25 verses and seems to deal with a personal matter between Paul and Philemon. This scripture is read only on this Sunday in the church year. So it is an important opportunity to reflect how as followers of Jesus we must face and respond to our continuing struggle to see and regard all people as kin.
The letter is an intimate one. Paul and Philemon have a history. Paul addresses Philemon as a dear friend and co-worker, as a person who is offering hospitality in his home to the church in Colossae.
Paul writes the letter from Rome, the epicenter of empire. He says he is a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” not only because the Messiah had captured his heart, but also because he is physically imprisoned for his bold proclamation of the gospel. He opens the letter with good wishes and thanksgiving for their faithful work together in the name of Christ Jesus. Paul acknowledges the joy and encouragement Philemon has brought to him and other Christians.
Somehow in his time in Rome, Paul has encountered a man named, Onesimus. There is conjecture as to whether Onesimus has run away from his master, Philemon. But due to the brevity of the letter, one can also assume that Onesimus was sent to be with Paul to care for him during his imprisonment. However their meeting happened, Paul and Onesimus have become spiritual companions that transforms them both. Paul refers to Onesimus as “his child” and his “heart.” And now that he sees Jesus has welcomed Onesimus into the family of faith, he must be recognized everywhere as a beloved brother, no longer a slave.
Paul understands that in the context of the time, he must send Onesimus back to Philemon. But he hopes to create a different space for Onesimus in the church in Colossae. His letter puts to use his great rhetorical skill. Rather than calling on his authority as an apostle, he describes himself as a prisoner of Jesus and an old man. By diminishing himself he speaks not from a place of power, but to the love and faith that is working itself out daily in their community. Paul doesn’t emphasize his rights as an apostle and he doesn’t make his case based on the rights of Philemon as a slave owner. Instead, he holds up a higher standard for Philemon: one whose obedience and faithfulness to Christ Jesus is shown through his love for all God’s people.
The letter is addressed to Philemon, Apphia, and Archippus who may be the leaders of this faith community. But the opening and closing of the letter shows that it was intended to be read aloud to the entire house church. This letter was written and sent close in time to the letter we know as Colossians So while the decision about Onesimus is left to Philemon, the letter would be made public in a space where Paul’s other letter would be echoing in their minds.
And what would the people of the church in Colossae have heard? Two of the major themes of Colossians are that “all things hold together in Christ” (Col 1:17). And that the Gospel is reconciliation. In Jesus a new family is established, “there is no longer Greek or Jew…slave or free…but Christ is all in all!” (Col 3:11)
Paul is claiming for Onesimus a radical reorientation of his identity in this community. No longer is he simply “useful,” a cog in the machine of the household. Onesimus is now a beloved brother. He is kin, a member of the family. Paul now sees, and invites Philemon and his community to see that despite a former relationship as master and slave, they now stand in shared kinship. And in this transformation, is the glorious embodiment of the gospel.
What happens in these Christian communities is a matter of life and death to Paul. He is not writing letters just to be concerned with proper theological or ecclesiological ideas. Paul is a pastor. He cares deeply for these communities because in them the seeds of resurrection are planted. In them lies the embodiment of the gospel–places where Christ is visible–places where the kingdom can be experienced.
Paul wants Philemon to see Onesimus with new eyes, as a brother in Christ and this has ethical and social implications. If Onesimus is a brother in Christ, he must be treated as a brother and that means he can no longer be held in slavery. Slavery is incompatible with the gospel of Christ. All parts of the body of Christ are equally valued, and are to be equally cared for. Inequality is an abomination in the body of Christ.
This letter is as important today as it was 2000 years ago. In it, one who was overlooked, seen only as being “useful” to another, is welcomed into the full family of Christ. This letter calls to our hearts to remember that no child, regardless of their skin color or place of origin is unworthy of love and being met withcompassion. This letter reminds us that no young person, regardless of their skin color or neighborhood is unworthy of love and being met with compassion. This letter reminds us that no person regardless of their ethnic background or faith practice or person they love or way they express their gender are unworthy of love and being met with compassion. Because in Christ no one remains invisible, separated, less than human, diminished, illegal. In Christ, all are beloved children. In Christ we are all a part of the body. In Christ, each one of us becomes kin.
Two Sundays ago, members of our community joined our sister community at St. Paul’s in Stockbridge to ring bells to remember those 20 to 30 enslaved Africans who were forcibly brought to our country in 1619 to be owned and used as slaves. In this act, we spoke in the words of Paul, “on the basis of love…receive this person not as a slave but as a beloved brother.” In this act Bishop Doug Fisher reminded us, “We are looking back so we can redeem ourselves and move forward.
This week, my seminary, Virginia Theological Seminary, set aside $1.7 million for a slavery reparations fund. Dean Ian Markham said, “As we seek to mark the seminary’s milestone of 200 years, we do so conscious that our past is a mixture of sin as well as grace. This is the seminary recognizing that along with repentance for sins, there is also a need for action.”The income from the endowment funds for reparation will be put to use in a variety of ways, from encouraging more African American clergy in the Episcopal Church to directly meeting the needs of any descendants of the enslaved Africans who worked to build the seminary. Bishop Eugene Sutton of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, spoke in favor of reparations when he said, “Everyone living in our great nation has inherited a mess created by the institution of slavery. None of us caused this brokenness, but all of us have a moral responsibility to fix it. An act of reparation is an attempt to make whole again, to restore, to offer atonement, to make amends, to reconcile for a wrong or injury.”
How will we as followers of Christ Jesus respond to this call to see every person as kin? Thanks be to God for giving us scripture that reminds us that in Christ we are all one. Thanks be to God for giving us a community that walking together we can boldly stride toward God’s glorious promise of freedom for all.
The 1619 Project. The New York Times Magazine, August 18,2019.
“The Sound of Truth and Reconciliation.” The Berkshire Eagle. Monday, August 26, 2019.