“Seek Peace and Pursue It” series
June 9, 2013
This morning we heard almost the entire book of Philemon. It’s such a brief book that it doesn’t even have chapters–only 25 verses. This poor little book gets overlooked a lot. If the pages stick together you can easily flip right past it in your Bible. I don’t think I’ve ever preached from Philemon before–not sure we’ve ever had any scripture reading from this book.
But this week I peeled apart the stuck pages and read this short letter from Paul and Timothy to Philemon and Apphia and Archippus and the church that meets in their house. I read the letter. Then I read it again. Then I got somewhat frustrated, so I read it again.
Every time I read it, it was only 25 verses long. Not long enough. There are things I want from this letter that it doesn’t give me.
For example, I want this letter to be church history. Paul says he writes it with his own hand, which is unusual. Did something happen to his scribe? Or is the letter that important? And where is Paul? In jail? Why? And what about this little house church of Philemon’s? How big is it? How old is it? What is their worship like? Who are Apphia and Archippus? What kind of work do they do? How did they learn about Jesus?
I would love it if this letter filled in a bit of early church history.
I also want this letter to be a slave narrative–a good story. Did you catch that intriguing line: “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” My guess is that Paul wouldn’t have written that if he didn’t have a pretty good idea that Onesimus had wronged Philemon in some way. Is Paul referring to Onesimus, the slave, running away? Or is there more to the story? And how did Onesimus manage to get away? How did he find Paul? What brought him to faith in Christ? And why in the world is he going back to his owner?
I would love it if this letter were a slave narrative.
But mostly, I want this letter to be a fierce tirade against slavery. I want fire and brimstone and pulpit-pounding. I want Paul to tell Philemon he is wrong to “own” another human being. That the institution of slavery is against the will of our Creator and everything Jesus taught. I want Paul to demand that Philemon free Onesimus–and any other slaves he might have. I want him to declare slavery incompatible with the Christian life now and forever. Amen.
While this letter does call into question the roles of slave and master within the Christian community, it is not the impassioned treatise against the global institution that I wish it were.
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This letter is not a historical text. It is not an adventure story. It is not a bold declaration against injustice.
This letter is a pastoral visit. It’s true that Paul names others in the introduction, but the “you” is singular throughout the body of the letter–these words are for Philemon. If Philemon had been geographically close to Paul, Paul simply would have called him into his office and had him pull up a chair.
This letter is a mediation between two church members in conflict. And in that sense it is a letter about peace–about keeping peace within the church community.
Peace within the community depends on peace among all the community members. We hear this message over and over in scripture. In Matthew 18, Jesus gives instructions about what to do when you have a conflict with a brother or sister in the faith.
In the sermon on the mount, Jesus says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
And in his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul writes: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women.”
Following Jesus’ lead, Paul believes the relationships between individuals within the church are important–both for the two individuals and for their community.
So in many ways, this letter is like a pastoral visit in writing. It is a letter for Philemon.
But it is also, of course, a letter for the entire congregation that meets with Philemon. And it is, through the working of the Holy Spirit, a letter for our congregation as well.
Paul’s basic claim here is the same as it is in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
At least here, Paul is not arguing for an end to the institution of slavery in the Roman world–however much we might want him to. But he is arguing for an end to distinctions of class and status within the church. Labels and status within the broader world do not apply within the body of Christ.
Philemon views Onesimus as a useless. Paul re-presents Onesimus as useful (which is what “Onesimus” means–a cute little word play). Philemon views Onesimus as a slave. Paul re-presents Onesimus as a son, as “my own heart,” as a brother.
The word of God and the testimony of the prophets make clear that there is a time and place for Christ-followers to address justice issues in our broader culture. There are times to speak out against slavery, racism, sexism, heterosexism, fear of foreigners, classism.
This little letter, however, helps us understand that the first calling of the church is not to speak out against injustice, but to actually live out the justice and peace Jesus taught. To live in relationships of equality regardless of how the broader culture–or even the law–says we should relate to each other. To share our resources with those in need. To welcome the stranger–whether they have legal citizenship or not.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, the church should be the headlights, leading the way toward justice.
Some of the light we shed may come in the form of history–or sociology or literary theory–any type of helpful academic analysis.
Some of the light we shed may come in the form of narratives–good stories told through word and image.
Some of the light we shed may be through prophetic words–institution rattling words and actions.
Scripture attests to a place for all of this.
Paul’s letter to Philemon, however, reminds us that much of our light comes not from what we say or write or preach, but from how we live. Especially how we live together. How we live together in love as brothers and sisters.
“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”