We continue our summer sermon series “Faces of Our Faith” this week with a dramatic reading and the story of Philemon.
There was no recording this week, but the text of Sarah’s sermon follows the below scripture lesson.
Philemon –Common English Bible
1 From Paul, who is a prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus, and our brother Timothy.
To Philemon our dearly loved coworker, 2 Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church that meets in your house.
3 May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
Paul’s prayer for Philemon
4 Philemon, I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers 5 because I’ve heard of your love and faithfulness, which you have both for the Lord Jesus and for all God’s people. 6 I pray that your partnership in the faith might become effective by an understanding of all that is good among us in Christ. 7 I have great joy and encouragement because of your love, since the hearts of God’s people are refreshed by your actions, my brother.
Paul’s appeal for Onesimus
8 Therefore, though I have enough confidence in Christ to command you to do the right thing, 9 I would rather appeal to you through love. I, Paul—an old man, and now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus— 10 appeal to you for my child Onesimus. I became his father in the faith during my time in prison. 11 He was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us. 12 I’m sending him back to you, which is like sending you my own heart. 13 I considered keeping him with me so that he might serve me in your place during my time in prison because of the gospel.14 However, I didn’t want to do anything without your consent so that your act of kindness would occur willingly and not under pressure. 15 Maybe this is the reason that Onesimus was separated from you for a while so that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave—that is, as a dearly loved brother. He is especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord!
17 So, if you really consider me a partner, welcome Onesimus as if you were welcoming me. 18 If he has harmed you in any way or owes you money, charge it to my account. 19 I, Paul, will pay it back to you (I’m writing this with my own hand). Of course, I won’t mention that you owe me your life.
20 Yes, brother, I want this favor from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.21 I’m writing to you, confident of your obedience and knowing that you will do more than what I ask. 22 Also, one more thing—prepare a guest room for me. I hope that I will be released from prison to be with you because of your prayers.
23 Epaphras, who is in prison with me for the cause of Christ Jesus, greets you,24 as well as my coworkers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke.
25 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
There are three people involved here. Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. Onesimus is a slave. Philemon is his owner. Onesimus has run away from Philemon and ended up with Paul who’s in prison. The letter is from Paul to Philemon asking him to take Onesimus back
with mercy, as a brother, not a slave. Paul doesn’t tell Philemon he has to do this. He just asks him.
Slavery in the Roman empire was awful. At the time Paul wrote, more than a third of the population were slaves. Slavery wasn’t based on race. You ended up as a slave because of debt or war. It was illegal to aid a runaway slave. Slaveowners had the right to rape and brand slaves; owners would tattoo their foreheads to keep them from running away, and if they did runaway,
their owner had the right to kill them. So, Philemon has the law on his side.
He also has scripture on his side. There’s nothing in the bible that outlaws slavery or declares it to be bad. Both the Old and the New Testament assume slavery as a fact of life and they do not advocate for its abolition. This letter was used by both abolitionists and slaveowners to argue for their position.
I wish that were different. It’s a really disappointing thing about our bible. It’s especially disappointing reading something like this right now. This is the anniversary of the deadly white supremacist march on Charlottesville, and in the last year Tacoma has been targeted by local white supremacist groups. The legacy of racism, slavery, and white supremacy runs deep, and it’s not going away just because we feel bad about it.
I wish Paul had said, I’m setting Onesimus free, and if you want to be part of the church, you have to set all of your slaves free. The gospel and slavery are incompatible. No Christian can ever dare to own another human ever again. That’s what I want the bible to say.
But it doesn’t. Instead Paul wrote a letter where he asked Philemon to take Onesimus back “as a brother.” He doesn’t even spell out what that means. He didn’t tell Philemon what to do. He just asks him. And this is by far the most polite letter Paul ever wrote—and it’s to a slave owner.
Although, Paul did throw his weight around a bit. He addressed the letter to the whole church so that everyone would know what Philemon was supposed to do. Sort of like writing an email to Philemon, but copying the whole world. And, in between all the nice, flowery, flattering language, he also said things like, “I know you’ll want to do this. You’ll want to do this of your own free will. Of course you will. I won’t mention that you owe me your life.” I won’t mention that you owe me your life. How’s that for passive aggressive?
Paul used his influence, power, and persuasion he had in this letter. He forced the issue, and opened Philemon up to public shame. But he didn’t tell Philemon what to do or compel him. He just asked Philemon to love.
He said, I love you. I’ve always known you to be loving. I could tell you what to do, but instead I’m going to appeal to you on the basis love. I love Onesimus. He’s my own heart. Receive him as if he were me, love him like you love me. Paul leans on love.
I think it must have worked. I think that’s why it’s in the canon. I think for the early church it must have become this wild story of love working. Because if Philemon had gotten the letter, read it, and then killed Onesimus, no one would have kept the letter. It would have just been this sad story. So it must have worked. Philemon really did welcome him back as a brother.
But what a risky gamble. Paul was breaking the law. But even more for Onesimus. I have to believe
Onesimus made the choice to go back, that just as Paul didn’t dominate Philemon, he didn’t force
Onesimus, either. That would have been abusive. For this to be scripture for me, I have to imagine that Onesimus was this wild, brave man who dared to love even his enemy and risk his life on it.
It’s wild, isn’t it? How do we apply this to our lives? Is the takeaway here that when we have a dicey
oppressive situation, we should not advocate for a structural solution, find a way to publicly shame the oppressor, put the vulnerable person at more risk, appeal to love, and hope for the best. Go and do likewise.
It doesn’t work as a model. I think that’s part of the point. It’s not a model to follow. It’s a story of how love worked itself out with real people in a real situation. Paul goes for love. Believes in love. He doesn’t get cynical. He believes Philemon can change. That’s risky. Cynicism is easier. You’re less likely to be disappointed. But Paul and Onesimus chose love. They believed in that to change Philemon. They bet their lives on it.
Which is lovely—in the bible. What about in the real world? There are serious issues in the world right now. There are lives at stake. Can we afford to play around with love?
It’s a fair question. And even so, I believe love is the most powerful, transformative force we know. I believe at the end of the day it is all we really have.
Paul writes from prison, where he will lose his life. He knows what’s at stake. He understands the
consequences of choosing love. And yet this is what he and Onesimus choose. They chose to love Philemon, even though he was a slave owner. That love changed Philemon.
Leaning into love, risking for love can change us, and change the people around us.
Last year one of our older members gave a testimony where she talked about a number of changes that have happened in her faith and her perspective over time. The one that caught my attention was when she talked about how she’d always believed abortion was completely, 100% wrong. And then she served on denominational committee that dealt with the needs of women. Through that she had the opportunity to hear other women’s stories. She heard story after story about need and fear and not having control of your body. She listened to these other women, looked into their eyes, sat with them, cried with them, she began to change her mind. Because she loved them. And that love changed her.
It was risky for those women to share their stories. And it was risky for this woman to tell her story about a topic as controversial as abortion. It feels risky to me just to use it as a sermon illustration.
But this is what love is. It’s risky. It’s powerful. Love changes us in a way nothing else can.
There’s no area of our lives where this isn’t true. Not just in political things. Even things that are ordinary and mundane are shaped by love. A few years ago our session, our governing board, was wrestling with a question about our property. It was just an issue about our building and money. Straightforward. Nothing touchy-feely. There was some controversy, but it was just about bricks and mortar. It wasn’t about right or wrong, or love. That’s what I thought. But one night, as session was reflecting on opposing views and the financial implications and the building and all of that,
one of them said this thing I never would have expected. She said, “Wait a minute, what does love
ask us to do here?” It totally changed our conversation.
What does love ask us to do? About bricks and mortar? About dollars and cents? What does love ask us to do? About how we spend our money, whether we stay late at work, how we treat a subordinate. What does love ask us to do? About the person who voted in a way that is utterly abhorrent to us? About someone who has power over us? What does love ask us to do?
Paul writes, “I’m sending Onesimus back to you, which is like sending you my own heart. Welcome him as if you were welcoming me. Welcome him as a dearly loved brother.” Paul’s asking Philemon to live out that most basic Christian ethic: love your neighbor as yourself.
—Which is really hard. We have trouble just loving our literal neighbors. You know, because they don’t mow their lawn right, or they have too many dandelions. We have trouble with loving our literal brothers and sisters. Because, they’re family.
To love someone who is in a wildly different situation from us, who is acting in a way that is unjust, even harmful. To love when love will cost us, money, respect, and maybe even safety. That’s radical.
It’s easier to retreat to righteous indignation, or political positions, or to call for systemic change. And we need systemic change. This is not to say that we don’t. We do. Desperately. That work is essential, powerful, and holy.
But it’s not the only work, or it’s not the ultimate work. Love is. This kind of love—risky love, hopeful love—that’s what makes work for justice, or systemic change, or just ordinary, daily work, powerful and good. Without love it’s empty and cynical.
It is risky to hope that people can change, to love them and not compel them. It’s wild to love people and not force our way, pull rank, overthrow.
I wish that Paul had advocated for the abolition of the entire slave system in Rome. Heck, I wish he’d advocated for the overthrow of the whole empire.
But he didn’t. Maybe he couldn’t. What he did still landed him in prison and got him executed.
What he did do was lean into love, at an almost cellular level: love with every breath; peace with every step; divinity in every person. An inmate and a slave dared to imagine that love could change even a slave owner. That kind of love is wild, and risky. It is the most powerful, transformative force we know.