Deuteronomy this morning tell us to choose life by loving the Lord and following his commandments; or, more baldly, “love the Lord or die.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to give up everything to follow him. Choose life, if you wish to, but leave all the baggage of possessions and relationships behind. Pretty bleak. Imagine how convinced, how sure of life in Christ you need to be to turn and leave everything else.
But in the middle, we have the whole of Paul’s letter to Philemon, the leader of a house church among the Colossians. This is one of those letters we’re pretty sure is really written by Paul. Paul, making a request of a house church—perhaps a dozen people. His request is to Philemon, particularly, but he addresses this to the whole group; it’s a public request.
How he asks isn’t the stern Paul we imagine, and—if you’ve ever played the game of Historical Figures I Wouldn’t Want at My Party, well, Paul is usually on the list. But here Paul is warm: I thank God for your love and faith; I have received much joy and encouragement from your love. And Paul—calling himself the prisoner of Christ Jesus from a Roman jail—calls this group to perceive the good they may do for Christ. And he asks, he asks them to do something. Paul, called and chosen by God to be the bearer of the Kingdom, of the good news to the world, asks, so that “your good deed may be voluntary and not something forced.”
Paul, the old man, a follower of the Christ long before Philemon and his household, is asking. And here is the first crucial thing in the epistle: there is asking, but there is not subordination to another, no domination of another. He asks. To ask means you may be refused, whether its “can I have that toy?” or “may I use the car tonight?” or “can I have that job?” Paul asks us, the church wherever gathered, to order our common life by asking. To ask—to reject dominance, to act with courage and humility, willingness to accept your companion’s answer. Just ask.
The second crucial thing in Paul’s letter is what he asks Philemon to do. Not just to free a slave and let a debt be paid rather than punished—though both are startling, against the customs of the time and place (in fact, I’ve tried, and I can’t think of a good analogy in modern terms for how out-of-bounds this request is, how much loss of face this action will mean for Philemon).
Paul asks that Onesimus, the runaway slave, once regarded as useless, a property, be accepted as a brother to Philemon (and the whole gathering under his roof), be accepted as Paul’s son—as Onesimus, and all of them, are now equally children of God.
What do you suppose Onesimus did in the household? I speculate, he didn’t have a fancy job like a steward or a butler. Maybe he mucked out stables or emptied Roman chamber-pots. He was “useless”, he was a runaway—therefore a criminal—but he is to be loved and treated as a brother, a moral and spiritual equal.
The letter to Philemon does not say “love the Lord so you may live;” it assumes that you love the Lord, and that you are learning what that life is like. It doesn’t say “give up your family to follow me.” It is gentle, persuasive, even playful. Gently, persuasively, playfully, Paul says: don’t live with each other as the world does, in the “reigning patterns of prestige, discrimination, and violence” of Paul’s time (only Paul’s time?). We are to live together as beloved brothers and sisters, to live together without seeking domination. That’s as hard as anything in today’s Gospel. Philemon listened. Where and how, in our structured society, our ordered institutions, can we find ways to do the same? Can we change ourselves? Can we accept our intended lives in Christ?
|Sep 4, 2016||Pentecost 16||Listen||Download|