It is not often that I choose to take a closer look at Paul rather than Jesus but, I confess, this week’s gospel reading was a bit much, even for me. I had considered addressing the difficult sayings of Jesus, part two, as a follow up to my last sermon a few weeks ago, but then thought, we could all use a break from the difficult sayings of Jesus. Besides, I genuinely find the Philemon text much more compelling.
Paul is just so clever. The subtlety by which he addresses his friend, Philemon, is masterful. This single chapter contains the most exquisite guilt bomb in Christian history. Yes, that is a bold statement. Consider how he sets up his defense:
Onesimus, a slave from Philemon’s household, somehow finds his way to Paul and proves himself quite ‘useful’. Paul, aware of Roman laws about runaway slaves, sends Onesimus back, but with this letter describing very clearly how he should be treated upon his return. Addressing the letter to fellow leaders Apphia, Archippus, and “to the church in your house” ensures that this letter will be read publicly when they gather to share bread and wine together. Spreading thick his rhetorical skills, Paul reminds Philemon of his faithfulness toward Christ—however that’s been demonstrated in the past, we don’t really know—then appeals to him (pleads with him) to receive Onesimus back into the household as if he were Paul himself. (You see,) Where Roman law dictates that a slave is nothing more than property to be dealt with as the owner sees fit (even when it means punishment by death); Paul is calling the community there to adhere to a different law: the law of grace as proclaimed by Jesus and carried on by his disciples.
For Philemon and his community, what Paul asks of them is an entirely new way of existing following the way of the resurrected Christ. Jesus taught that according to the reign of God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first; those who are considered the least of society (essentially, nonpersons, like children and servants) are first in line for the gifts of the kingdom. Conversely, to be baptized into Jesus Christ is to drop the covering of status and wealth (if that is what one has), and to be clothed in him who was Servant of all. Paul first and foremost seeks to elevate Onesimus, like when he refers to him as “useful” which is a play of words with “useless” and “Onesimus” (a common name for servants then). As he raises up the servant, he subverts Philemon’s status, first by appealing to him on the basis of love (rather than giving a command), then offers him the choice to voluntarily do the right thing (keeping in mind that there is only one right answer for Paul). He suggests that Onesimus not only be received back into the household, but be treated as a guest of honor as Paul would no doubt be treated, even as a dear brother. Remember, this letter is read aloud to the household and the community that meets there. (See how clever Paul is?) Paul is placing heavy pressure on Philemon—the patriarch, top of the social pyramid, and now follower of Jesus—to seek to live an exemplary life not by Roman standards, but according to the teachings passed down by the disciples.
Now, at this point in a sermon, it is common to turn to the world in which we live and look for a parallel. However, there is virtually no analogy between the text of Philemon and how you and I navigate society. Although Paul chides Philemon using familial language, this isn’t like that time when you or I did something to incur a parent’s wrath—say, break your mother’s favorite Swedish record, for example, by accident. And, while slavery still exists in the world, we are at a point in history where (for us, here in the far left corner of the U.S.) it is not the socioeconomic status quo. We expect slaves to be freed, and perpetrators to be punished as a near future if not present reality. Even with these differences, there is an invitation to understand how and when we do hold a place of privilege or status.
And, to be clear, this is not a missive against all slavery, everywhere. It is, by definition, particular and occasional. Yet, with this one instance, we see a glimpse—more than a glimpse—of what it looks like to follow in the way of Jesus, where social and material relationships are turned upside-down (or at least sideways). Paul exerts his spiritual authority to imprint a new vision for humanity, when he strongly suggests that Philemon (a baptized believer) seek to eradicate class and caste restraints on his relationship with Onesimus. And, just to top it off, he adds, Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. [Oh, and by the way] prepare a guest room for me. . . [I’ll be coming to check on you.]
That pressure to do justice, to act out of faith and love, is a holy, prophetic pressure.
It is also horribly uncomfortable. Philemon no doubt felt it hearing Paul’s words read aloud in the company of others. He was faced with a choice of stepping into the vision that Paul set before him, or reverting to the familiar present reality.
Transformation, baptismal living, emerges as we step together toward Christ, each according to our gifts and simply who we are.
Have you ever had someone call out your deepest heart’s desires in such a way that hooked you in the gut? It is that feeling of knowing who you are beyond words, and a deep longing for integration/cohesion between what you do and what you believe about yourself. Perhaps your desires center around vocation and purpose in life, or maybe relationships and connection. Have you ever noticed just how difficult it is to pursue those desires? I find that among the clues indicating that I’m on the right path include, a) all doors open up mysteriously allowing me to move forward, and, b) everything feels as though it is going to heck. (Real conflicting.) For example, when I was accepted to a doctoral program, it was a beautiful and humbling confirmation that I occasionally get a good idea or two. Ever since then, life has presented an ongoing series of challenges (including the death of my estranged mother within the past couple years). As one who is going through a vocational crucible, I want to encourage you: pay attention to your gut level desires, pay attention when opportunities suddenly open up, pay attention when things get difficult. Never hesitate to ask someone to pray for you. Each one of us has something to bring to the table here. Some days it may be just our body, perhaps accompanied by a stream of tears, depending upon the week. That’s perfect. Other days we can bring a prayer to speak on someone’s behalf. That’s beautiful. All of it, all of what we bring each time contributes to something so much greater than the sum of its parts.
Gathering together to hear scripture and break bread—on Sundays and during the week—is one way we are formed together, encircled by God’s hands. By simply showing up you are participating in a vision of the kingdom, walking in faith and love together with others.
It’s come up in prayer, and I can sense it, too, that God is doing something here, at St. Luke’s, and it’s uncomfortable, but good. Good and hard tend to go together when it comes to growth and maturation. It’s as though our form is changing a bit. I mention that because some days we are like Philemon, having a place of authority/privilege, and it’s when we draw close to Onesimus that we find integrity of heart to pursue the work of the kingdom. When we gather together in communion we are united by God’s holy, prophetic W/word that of healing, wholeness, abundance of life that we can taste each week. It is a holy, prophetic word that points beyond what we can see each day, to a deeper reality of new life in the Triune God. Consider this: when we enter this space, there is the baptismal font where we can remind ourselves of our own baptism, and wet our appetites for God’s shalom, for peace, and for renewal not to hoard for ourselves but to spread out for all. Holy, prophetic pressure is the very thing that can ignite a passion for justice, starting within ourselves.
Recently, an acquaintance through Facebook posed a question regarding what to do with the pledge of allegiance as his daughter starts kindergarten. While this particular acquaintance is a devoted Christian, he is not one to conflate allegiance to a nation with allegiance to God. Later he posted his reflection on the ensuing discussion that centered around lessons learned from the civil rights movement. What struck me the most in his reflection specifically regarding the civil rights movement was how he described a pervasive underlying vision for a not-yet reality. He says this: “It is a movement rooted in living in the future you hope for, as if the lies of the present had already been defeated.”
This is Paul’s vision as he writes to Philemon: remapping kinship ties, ways of being with one another, and intimacies with the Spirit of God. This is the truth toward which we aim as followers of Jesus, here in this place: a constant invitation to walk our baptismal journeys. Each one of us is invited to the table, to live in this future-present / present-future, difficult though it may be.
 From Dan Heck’s reflection on the civil rights movement, and saying the pledge of allegiance posted online, “How my community of beautiful weirdos helped me hear my teachers from the Civil Rights Movement, and make our Pledge of Allegiance more honest” (Medium, 23 August 2019); https://medium.com/@danheck/how-my-community-of-assorted-weirdos-helped-me-hear-my-teachers-from-the-civil-rights-movement-66668de736be.