Sermon given at 10.30 am. at Glen, Trinity 14, 9.9.07, LH & GH 4.9.16 T15/P18
Readings: OT/Epistle Philemon 1-21 Gospel Luke 14:25-33
Hands up those with: a fridge, a vacuum cleaner, a washing machine, a dishwasher, central heating.
Is having these things an issue in the 21st century? Do you see them as essential – or luxuries? But it’s not impossible that one day our descendants may look back at us and wonder how we could have caused such havoc to the environment by using these things.
We might look back to the 1st century and wonder how they could have thought it right to have slaves – but at that time slavery was just not an issue – they were just an essential means of getting the washing, cleaning, heating and cooking done in better-off homes in those days.
So when we look at Paul’s letter to Philemon it’s important to lay aside the rights and wrongs of slavery itself – otherwise we’ll miss what the letter’s saying to us today – and it’s nothing about issues like slavery, technology or the environment!
In his letter to Philemon Paul keeps using the phrase ‘in the Lord or in Christ’. He’s using the imagery of the church being the body of Christ – baptism is the point at which individuals enter into the body of Christ, and from then on it’s a matter of Christians growing into Christ, learning to love one another, to be part of one another – that deep sense of connectedness and love that’s an essential part of being church.
At some time the slave Onesimus had run away from his master Philemon – and ended up in trouble that landed him in the same prison as Paul – but through Paul’s care and teaching Onesimus had become a Christian.
Paul obviously developed an affection for Onesimus – as often happens when people help one another in a significant way. As Paul says, it would have been pleasant, and probably very easy, for him to have kept Onesimus with him – Philemon would probably never have discovered that his runaway slave had become a great friend and helpmate of Paul’s!
But Paul knows that relationships have been broken in the past and they need to be restored – broken relationships do not help the body of Christ to develop a deep sense of connectedness and love! Reconciliation is required so that they can all continue to grow ‘into the Lord’.
Slave owners in the 1st century were expected to show solidarity with one another – and returned slaves were imprisoned, whipped or even crucified in order to send a message to other slaves that escape isn’t worthwhile. So Paul was taking a huge risk in sending Onesimus back to his master.
The name ‘Onesimus’ actually means useful – and you can imagine that in the past, when he was planning to escape, Onesimus may well have been a surly, difficult slave, not exactly that ‘useful’!!! Certainly not as useful as a co-operative slave would be! But now things have changed, says Paul. Because of his new-found faith in Jesus and no doubt because of the love he’d received from God’s people, Onesimus has become helpful and useful. And if he’s useful to me, says Paul, think how useful he might be to you, Philemon, if you treat him with love and as a member of the body of Christ along with yourself!! Perhaps this is God bringing good things out of bad – but remember that a bit of my heart is in Onesimus now! And Paul offers to repay Philemon anything Onesimus had cost him, in order to put things right.
This story is, after all, about putting things right between people – and repayment is an important factor. And, as Paul reminds Philemon, in this case it isn’t only money that is owed – it’s to Paul that Philemon owes his faith and his relationship with God, some repayment to Paul is in order!
Basically, what Paul is doing in his letter to Philemon is asking him to look at the whole picture, before he decides what to do with Onesimus. After all, he’s asking Philemon to consider taking some really extraordinary and controversial action – and Paul knows that in the long run it will be much better for everyone, much better for relationships within the church, the body of Christ, if Philemon’s decision is his own, not one that’s forced upon him by a higher church authority.
But the fact remains that if Philemon did decide to treat Onesimus in a loving way, as if he were a brother in Christ, it would be a costly course of action for Philemon – you can just imagine what his fellow-slave owning friends would have said about it!!
Following Jesus means putting his teachings into practice – which is what Paul was encouraging Philemon to do – and that can be difficult and costly. But then, the things that are most worthwhile in this life are frequently costly. Think of any athlete – they only win their races or matches because they’ve been prepared to pay the physical, emotional and monetary cost of the training they have to undergo in order to succeed!
Reconciliation is a core part of the Christian faith. I like the picture conjured up by Tom Wright’s description of it: “On the cross Jesus hung with his arms outstretched between heaven and earth making a bridge upwards and downwards between God and the human race, and from side to side between all the warring factions on earth. Jesus’s achievement of reconciliation is put into effect when his people follow the same pattern. When people allow the cross to shape their lives, the love of God is set free to change and heal in ways we cannot at the moment even imagine.”
Paul’s letter to Philemon is like a letter to us – reminding us that we are called to be peacemakers in all sorts of situations – from little ones to big ones – AND that in order to bring reconciliation into a situation we are often called to stand in the middle holding out a hand to both parties in order to help them to move towards each other. Restorative justice can enable healing, it’s been in the news this week – a careful mediator helps both victim and perpetrator to understand what happened, why, and its effects.
In some situations both parties throw brickbats at the one in the middle – but it’s so worth it if it enables the two sides to come together in the end – if love wins out over the negative stuff and people are connected together in a deep and loving way. At Greenbelt last weekend Archbishop Justin Welby emphasised the importance of unity. He said that when an issue provoked strongly held opposing opinions it was really important that we learned to disagree well. With the latest media revelation about the Bishop of Grantham’s sexuality it’s important that we pray for our Archbishop – he is working so hard to hold the Anglican church together and he’s bound to get brickbats thrown at him!! Let’s pray for him, and for his family – and for our worldwide Anglican Communion.