September 8, 2013 – Pentecost 16


Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 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. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.    For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.  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—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.



Pentecost 16  September 8, 2013     Philemon  


The apostle Paul writes to a church leader named Philemon, somewhere in Asia Minor, sometime in the late ‘50’s or early ‘60’s AD.  Paul’s writing from prison, a place he’s well acquainted with – four of his New Testament letters (counting this one) are written from jail.

Onesimus, the reason for the writing of this letter, is a slave, owned under Roman law by Philemon. Onesimus has met Paul in prison – maybe for the first time, or perhaps they knew each other from Paul’s visits to Philemon and the church that meets in his house. Onesimus has either just now become a Christian, or had some kind of ‘born-again’ faith-deepening experience. The name Onesimus means “useful,” a name sometimes given to slaves by masters. (Paul makes word-play with the name, saying the one who used to be useless is useful, now, in Christ.)

Onesimus has run away from Philemon (probably) – perhaps taking with him property that might belong to Philemon (maybe). Paul’s appealing to Philemon to receive Onesimus back into full fellowship, certainly – and probably also asking Philemon to set Onesimus free. (Probably.)

Every time we say “probably,” “perhaps,” or “maybe” it’s because even these few sketchy details are contested by bible scholars, sometimes rather heatedly. And in the absence of copies of letters back to Paul from Philemon or Onesimus – even the best and brightest bible scholars have to admit at the end of the day – nobody really knows exactly what’s been going down – or how we should interpret whatever has happened.

Which reminds me a lot of the fifties and sixties I lived through.

I remember talking with my mother about all the awful and highly questionable things I did when I was young, and mom saying, in a motherly way, “well dear, probably most of that was just the times.”

Bob Dylan sang the times they-are-a-changing – and Dylan helped lead a lot of us through a lot of changes – from folk music and civil rights to electric-guitars and hippy days and song lyrics that mystified and scandalized – on and on through lots of changes – till near the end of the ‘60’s – here’s Dylan again  – now singing his Nashville Skyline album – and the first song on the record’s a duet with Johnny Cash, who also wrote the album’s liner notes.

Probably you had to be there to appreciate the significance. I don’t remember the term being used yet, but America was deep into culture wars. And here at the height of the cultural civil wars of that decade, all-of-a-sudden, here’s my generation’s most notorious rebel leader – singing country music? with Johnny Cash?  The times really were a-changing…

It seems like no big deal – now that times have changed – but at the time it was big news – Johnny Cash singing on a Dylan album. Big news, soon after, when the Man in Black hosted Dylan on his national tv show. Dylan had been banned from network tv by the powers-that-be because he was considered too controversial for prime time. Johnny Cash, country music icon, however, insisted Dylan would sing on his show. And he faced-down the network.

Watching Cash and Dylan sing together on video footage, you can tell they enjoyed each other’s company. In fact they’d been friends for some years, admiring each other’s work.  All this was behind the scenes, though till Nashville Skyline…and the once-angry-young-man of folk-rock singing now with steel pedal guitar accompaniment about love is all there is, it makes the world go round…  One side-effect of that album and the Cash-Dylan friendship was some slight easing of the tensions in the wider culture (in my subjective observation). Mostly because one older, credentialed man of principle was willing to risk reputation and possibly career – for the gospel of reconciliation and friendship – cutting through the barbed wire of cultural borders.


We don’t know exactly what was happening in the situation Paul’s describing in this letter. But we do know this letter was written especially to one person, Philemon, but addressed also to the church that meets in his house. This letter was written to be read aloud to the whole church – with the whole church therefore sharing at least some responsibility for proper applications…

And to understand the applications the apostle has in mind, we need to flash-back to the ‘60’s AD, again – where here’s Paul, senior apostle of the church – staking his whole reputation on a slave – young man Onesimus, whom he calls his own son – a title he elsewhere reserves only for Timothy, his partner on many a gospel trip and co-author of many of his letters (including this one).

Here’s the self-described old-man-gospel-jailbird, risking reputation and influence, all for one run-away slave. Helping us understand – the issues raised here go deeper than just one man in one time and place…

Exactly what the apostle is asking is still debated. But here’s the apostle, telling the slave owner, Philemon, whom he calls his close friend and partner in the gospel – that when he, Philemon, looks and sees Onesimus, he should see Paul himself. Welcome him as you would welcome me. And if there is anything he, Onesimus, owes you, Paul says, run a tab – charge it to my account.

Don’t forget, brother, you owe your very life to me. I could play my apostolic-credentials-card and command you – but instead I’m asking you – do the right thing voluntarily, in love, because of our relationship in Christ.

Too bad the Man in Black’s gone to heaven to sing with his beloved June Carter Cash (a Methodist) and the saints in heaven. Because this letter would make a fine country music ballad. And who could write it better than Johnny Cash? Like Paul, though not always for the same reasons, Johnny spent a lot of time behind bars –  because of his addiction to pills at one time, then, later, singing many concerts in  prisons because of his Christian love for those locked up. When he came back to Christ and the church in earnest he wrote a book about the apostle Paul, produced a movie of the life of Jesus, and taped himself reading the whole new testament. Johnny Cash knew the gospel; his better behavior wasn’t accidental. Later (probably partly because of Johnny Cash’s prayers and example) Bob Dylan also became a Christian and made several albums of Christian songs. Just imagine the two of them, singing The Ballad of Onesimus and Philemon.  But maybe now it’s up to us to write that song, and sing it.

Too bad we don’t have a copy of the letter back from Philemon, thanking Paul for persuading him to do the right thing, to help us with the writing of the song. But probably that’s to be expected. Probably one reason Paul doesn’t come right out and say bluntly he’s asking (practically demanding) Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery is because the church was already suspected of being a serious threat to the Empire. A letter openly advocating freedom for a slave wouldn’t make it past prison censors – and might get Paul executed.

Historians estimate about a third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves. As much as another third may have been slaves at one time. The Empire ran on slave labor. Roman slavery wasn’t based on race, and it was more flexible than North American slavery. Slaves could sell themselves into slavery, and buy themselves and others out of slavery. But slaves were still regarded as property. Masters could do whatever they wanted with slaves without legal penalty. Roman slaves could be executed for escaping. There was a huge cultural gap between slave and free.

The empire was already recognizing the subversive nature of the Christian message. The word was getting around that in the church slaves were welcomed as equals with masters. In spite of different words found in different New Testament letters – Colossians cautioning slaves to obey masters – Galatians saying “for freedom Christ has made you free” and “in Christ there’s neither slave nor free” – the most consistent message of the church was that all – slaves and masters, Jews and Gentiles, men and women – all are equal in Christ. The empire wasn’t quite cracking down all the way yet on the Christian movement, but it was watching closely…And putting Paul in prison frequently, on suspicion that he was not a friend of the empire…

Which is why the apostle Paul’s using indirect language. He needs to get this letter delivered past the empires’ social network police. And his language is very polite at first and persuasive throughout – because he’s asking a wealthy man with a lot to lose – slaves and a house big enough to host the whole local church – to risk at least his reputation, perhaps even his financial future – all for a slave – all for Christ.

If your business world friends who depend on slave labor for their business know you’re soft on slavery – sorry, buddy, but – chances are some won’t do business with you. And friends don’t ask friends to run risks like this – unless it’s for Jesus…

And the ballad of Philemon and Onesimus – is the story of two Christians from opposite ends of the spectrum, with the apostle standing between them, anointing both for ministry in the one church. Not saying just get along on whatever  common ground you can find. But saying to both – go ahead, risk it all for Jesus…

Which I’m sure Onesimus did by carrying this letter to Philemon. Which I’m sure Philemon did – since I can’t imagine this letter making it into the New Testament if he said ‘no’ to Paul. And ancient Christian tradition says both Onesimus and Philemon later went on to become bishops of the church… thus the letter became scripture.

But what is this letter saying to us? How are we to apply it’s lessons? The Roman Empire’s ancient history. American slavery’s over. Thanks be to God. Now what does this scripture say to us about application?

One thing I’m taking away – is the reminder – that in the church, as in the world, we’ll have differences and disagreements about nearly everything imaginable – from simple matters like bible interpretation, to the more difficult hot-button-topics – like what color should we paint the church kitchen?

Every church probably experiences, sometime in it’s history, situations similar to the one described here in Philemon. Situations we don’t want to describe in detail in writing. Situations where we, members of the church, have differing, strongly-held views that clash.

And the letter to Philemon and the church that meets in his house is a reminder – first, to choose our words carefully and be as persuasive as we can – because at least 99.9% of the time, none of us, not even the apostles – (certainly not me) – can order another Christian to do the right thing and make it stick. We depend on voluntary obedience to the law of Christ.

Secondly, this letter reminds us – faith in Jesus will involve us, inevitably, in giving up rights and privileges – so others may live the same kinds of lives we’d like for ourselves. Roman slavery is ancient history – but billions on this earth are still enslaved to the forces of darkness and death – enslaved in child labor and extreme poverty, enslaved in the sex industry, enslaved to addiction…And Jesus still asks us to see each and everyone as a beloved child, sister, brother…

We won’t always agree on how to hear the word of God and obey it. Like Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, each of us comes to the gospel with our own history and angle of vision. Among his first disciples, Jesus chose one nick-named “Simon the zealot” – the name given political radicals of the day. He also chose a tax collector, Levi, working for the Roman empire, from the other side of the spectrum. Jesus’ main opponents during his ministry were Pharisees, the religious authorities of the day. After his resurrection Jesus calls a Pharisee – Paul – to lead his mission to the nations… Given all the places we’re coming from, it’s no wonder we don’t agree on everything all the time… But –

One thing we should always be able to agree on – is that the love of Christ looks like – [arms outstretched] – Jesus on the cross for us –

And all of us – working out the details together – of taking up our cross for Him and one another…

Looking always to Jesus, together…who is our Peace, our Lord, our Friend…

Thanks be to God.  Amen.