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Overlooked: Philemon (Philemon 1:1-25)

July 14, 2019


So, you know how, in high school, they always have the senior class vote for superlatives? Class clown, most likely to succeed, most likely to be famous, etc. well, when I was in high school, in my senior year, I was voted “most changed in 4 years.” And I think there was a lot of truth in that. When I came in as a freshman, I was unathletic, didn’t know anybody, was super quiet. But by the time I was a senior, I had become an all-state athlete, one of the popular kids, I was very outgoing, I had friends in every social group and not just sports. I had changed a lot. But that change is almost hard to capture when you see someone almost every day for several years, right? 

What I’m really curious about is what folks will think of how I’ve changed since then. I’m only two years away from my 10 year high school reunion. And if I changed a lot in the 4 years I was in high school, it’s nearly incomprehensible how much I’ve changed in the last 8. When I graduated high school, I was headed off to college to study to be a firefighter. I guarantee no one would have ever thought I’d end up going to Princeton or being a pastor or living in Pennsylvania or being married with kids. Time spent apart kind of puts a magnifying glass on the changes in someone’s life, and that’s kind of what happens in our text this morning. Onesimus and Philemon are apart for a season and, when they come together again, things have changed. They’ve both changed and their relationship has changed and what that looks like and why it’s important is what we’ll be talking about this morning. 

So, this letter from Paul to the leaders of a house church is relatively short. One might even say it’s the typical length of a letter you or I would write. Some of Paul’s other letters — the two letters to the Corinthians or the letter to the Romans — are much longer. They really seem to faff on a bit toward the end. But in this case, the letter is short and to the point. And once Paul gets past the initial pleasantries and salutations, he says this: “When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.” 

Now, there’s a couple things going on here. First, there’s this idea of “remembering.” I’ve mentioned this before — this is an important concept for the Israelites in the Old Testament. There’s a constant *pattern* of the Israelites forgetting the covenant with YHWH and going astray, and YHWH remembering the covenant he made with the Israelites and having grace and mercy on them. And even beyond that, it played an important theological role in terms of the afterlife. For certain strains of Jewish thought, “life after death” merely meant that you lived on in the memories of those who loved you. All that is to say this act of “remembering” is important to these early communities. So, Paul says that he always thanks God when remembers Philemon in his prayers because of Philemon’s love for all the saints.

Now, Paul is praising Philemon for his hospitality to the other Christians who are with him and gather in his home community. From reading what Paul says about this, Philemon just crushes it when it comes to hospitality. He’s on the ball with the pre-service coffee; he only serves homemade baked goods for the after-service fellowship time. He’s up and greeting people and making people feel welcome. He’a amazing, right? But, then Paul goes on to say this: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” 

Hospitality toward those who are insiders of our church community is only as good as the hospitality we extend to outsiders. In other words, hospitality is useless if we’re not reaching out and inviting new people in. That’s what Paul is saying here. “You’re doing great things with those who are already on the inside; now it’s time to do great things with those who are on the outside.” I’ve said this before — if this faith and this community and the ministry we’re trying to build together here is really important to us, we would be talking about it! We would be talking about Jesus. If this faith and this community and the ministry we’re trying to build together here is not a priority, that’s fine. But at least own up to it. We can’t be instruments through which God build’s his kingdom here if we refuse to go out and share our faith. Paul is taking aim at Philemon’s lack of initiative to go and help bring new people in. 

Now, I know we’re kind of allergic to this. It’s difficult to talk about our faith. And I totally get it. I’m not perfect at it, either. But there’s something to be said about what I mentioned last week — we have an opportunity to be a beacon of light. I’ve never failed to be surprised by the number folks I’ve met who don’t realize that there are alternatives to the kind of conservative evangelicalism that’s so rampant in the States today. A lot of people don’t realize that there are churches who affirm and celebrate LGBT+ folx. A lot of people don’t realize that there are churches who actually care to engage in social justice issues. A lot of people don’t realize that churches like Beaver Memorial exist. We have an opportunity to minister, not only to those who are already here, but those who aren’t. 

Now, after Paul exhorts Philemon to do this, he starts talking about this other guy, Onesimus. I’m going to string together a couple chunks of text, but Paul says this about Onesimus: “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment [this probably means that Paul taught Onesimus about scripture and the  Torah]. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me…perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother…” A few technical details about Onesimus. First, Paul actually makes a pun here — in Greek, Onesimus means “useful.” So, by saying that he used to be useless but now is useful, he’s making a play on Onesimus’s name. 

Second, the mention of Onesimus gives us a clue as to what and where this house church is. This name is only mentioned in two locations throughout the entire New Testament. It’s mentioned here, obviously, but it’s also mentioned in the letter of Colossians. Colossians is one of Paul’s disputed letters, which means we’re not sure if Paul actually wrote it. I’m convinced Paul did not write Colossians. But in any case, in the fourth chapter of Colossians, we see this: “I have sent [Tychicus] to you for this very purpose, so that he may encourage your hearts; he is coming with Onesimus, the faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.” So, we can at least venture an educated guess that the house church Philemon is affiliated with is a part of the Christian contingency in Colossae.

So, when we take a step back and take a survey view of the letters traditionally attributed to Paul, we begin to see the interconnectedness of them, as well as the real, honest, raw issues they’re addressing. I remember when I was in seminary, I was in a class where we were studying Paul or something, and I asked a professor, “Why is Philemon even in the bible?” A lot of folks have this extremely theologized view of how the bible came to be formed and how the exact books collected are the ones God wanted collected. And I just don’t really buy it. The books of the bible were written by sinful, imperfect men and compiled by sinful, imperfect men, and I think there’s any number of factors that could have played out differently and given us a different bible. But, regardless, this is the bible we have, until the church decides to get together and change it. And my question still remained, why is this book in the bible? It seems pretty short and not-that-pragmatic of a text for the church. But my teacher responded and said, “the letter’s position on slavery is the reason it’s in the bible.” And, 20/20 hindsight, I think that’s exactly right. 

Because when we look at the passage we just read, we see this sentence, “perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” Now, the historical backstory between Philemon and Onesimus is a fuzzy one, but it’s clear that Onesimus was some kind of slave or bond servant of Philemon who had run away. And in his travels, he apparently ran into Paul and became a disciple, and so now Paul is telling Philemon: Listen, put away your anger; put away your pride; put away your sinful desire for retributive justice and welcome Onesimus back into your community, but not as a slave this time, but as a brother. 

The ideas of identities and barriers breaking down in light of Christ’s work is a common theme in Paul’s writing. The best example of this is in his letter to the Christians in Galatia: “…for in Christ Jesus, you are all Children of God through faith…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.” Jesus’s ministry here on earth was one which aimed to tear down walls. Walls of hatred; walls of self-assurance; walls of separation; and yes, walls of identities. Because walls are safe and Jesus isn’t interested in safe. He’s interested in salvation. He’s interested in liberation. We do our best, in life, to build these walls around us which block us in and, more often than not, they’re tied up with our various identities. I’m a Christian; I’m a husband; I’m a pastor; I’m a theologian; I’m an activist. And these can be helpful titles and identifiers at time, but if it leads to my being oppressive and unloving of others, then it’s time to tear those walls down. 

But the great contradiction is that they were never really there in the first place. We can try to build these walls all we want but Jesus never stops knocking them down. And at some point, this is bound to hit close to home when we’re forced to look someone in the eye and count them as an equal. Maybe it’s a coworker that always gets under your skin; maybe it’s a family member you’ve lost your relationship with; maybe it’s someone with a different political or religious identity than you. And, much like Philemon and Onesimus, counting someone as less than you, as less human than you, as less deserving of dignity than you, basically makes them a slave in your mind. And that is something Jesus never fails to take aim at. 

What Jesus accomplished on the cross and in his resurrection is the work of liberation. And the first-fruits of this liberation is always the physical, lived histories of oppressed bodies. People of color, women, LGBT people — Christ’s liberation belongs to them first. But, beyond that, this liberation also belongs to those with oppressed spirits and enslaved minds. And whenever we find ourselves or others in those spaces, we have an obligation, as followers of Jesus, to take up that work and make it our own. That’s what we did on Friday night at the Lights 4 Liberty event, and that’s what us here at Beaver Memorial going to continue to do. There are enslaved people everywhere around us. Let’s pray that we’re presented with opportunities to welcome them in as brothers and sisters. 

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