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The Authority of Love
Sermon on Philemon 1-21
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Philemon is one of those “books” of the Bible that will probably never show up in a Jeopardy question. Tucked away between Titus and the Letter to the Hebrews, this little epistle of twenty-five verses is easy to overlook. Even the name is unfamiliar – Philippians we know, but what is this….filet mignon?
And the mystery only deepens when we begin to read the letter. It’s like hearing one end of a phone conversation. All we can do is try to infer what is going on, and hypothesize a likely scenario.
When we do begin to understand, the letter can be painful to read. Onesimus is a slave and Philemon is his owner. Both are members of one of Paul’s churches. Paul himself is in prison. Traditionally scholars have thought that Onesimus had run away from Philemon and sought help from Paul. We don’t know that, though; Onesimus may not have been a fugitive; he may have been seeking Paul’s advice in a dispute with his “master.” All we can say with reasonable confidence is that there has been trouble between Philemon and Onesimus. Onesimus has done something amiss, perhaps stolen some money, and Paul is trying to get them back together. So he writes a letter to Philemon with a specific request, and gives the letter to Onesimus to carry to Philemon.
How could Paul do such a thing? He himself is in chains, and he sends a fellow Christian back into bondage? How could the great apostle of Christian freedom, the one who wrote, “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” (Gal. 3:28), send someone who had come looking for help back into slavery?
It’s not an easy question to answer. Paul was a person of his times, and slavery was one of the hard realities of the ancient world. Whenever one country conquered another, the victors would enslave the defeated
. Slaves were considered to be the spoils of war. In the Roman empire, slaves had little protection under the law – owners could mostly do what they liked with their slaves, and the penalties for running away could be severe.
So it is hard to justify Paul’s sending Onesimus back based on what we know, but it is also clear that Paul was not expecting Philemon to mistreat Onesimus. In fact, he is counting on Philemon to receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.” It’s not explicit, but there’s a suggestion that Paul is asking Philemon to give Onesimus his freedom. At the very least, Paul expects Philemon to receive Onesimus with gentleness, to see him as a brother in Christ.
Paul appears confident that his expectation will be met. In this triangle of Paul, Philemon and Onesimus, even though he’s in prison Paul seems to have all the power. Onesimus has the most to lose; he is totally vulnerable, and dependent on Paul for protection. Philemon, though wealthy and powerful enough to own slaves and have a church in his house, appears to be in Paul’s debt as well, in a different way. It’s likely that Philemon, like Onesimus, became a Christian under Paul’s instruction. So Philemon and Onesimus have something in common.
Paul had a unique and privileged position with respect to both these men. He was their teacher, mentor, and spiritual guide. He could have invoked his ecclesiastical authority to command Philemon’s compliance with his wishes. Instead, he writes, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” In other words, instead of ordering Philemon to do right by Onesimus, Paul wants to help Philemon find in himself the impulses for mercy and righteousness.
Paul seeks to reconcile the two men by renouncing his own authority and appealing to the power of love. He refers to Philemon as his partner and brother; to Onesimus as his child and his “own heart”; and, most amazing, to the relationship between slave and slaveholder as a relationship between two brothers. The whole letter is rich in the language of love and kinship.
For all his expressed confidence, this was a risky move on Paul’s part. Philemon could have rebuffed Paul; he had both law and social convention on his side, and would have been thinking of his own honor and reputation. He could have decided to punish Onesimus the minute he showed up on his doorstep, and Paul would have been responsible for the unjust suffering of a brother in Christ. But Paul trusted Philemon to understand that his new relationship to Jesus Christ changed everything. It changed the way parents related to children, the way husbands related to wives, and the way those in power related to the powerless. If you were in Christ, you understood power in a whole new way, because when you’ve chosen to put Christ at the center of your life, and to obey him above all others, it changes everything.
It changes the way we use our influence over other people. It means we no longer use our authority to tell them what to do, but to help them answer the demands of love. In Paul’s own ministry it often meant that he renounced the power he had to allow others in the community to flourish.
Where did Paul get such an idea? Maybe he was thinking of the words of a hymn that first-century Christians used to sing in worship. Paul liked this hymn so much he used it in one of his other letters:
Christ Jesus,…though he was in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6-8)
Paul looked at the cross of Jesus and saw a pattern for how members and leaders of the church should be with each other. Some people will always have more power than others, but sometimes they will use their power best by giving it up, because that is what Jesus did. Looking at the cross of Christ, Paul gave up his power over Philemon, and expected Philemon to give up his power over Onesimus.
Paul had a lot of influence in his churches. I think it’s hard for us Presbyterians to appreciate how much influence a single person could have in the day-to-day life of the church. We are wary of too much ecclesiastical authority, and for good reason. But Paul knew how to use his authority in the right way. He used it to call out what was best in the communities he founded. In the case of Philemon and Onesimus, he used his authority to refer them to the reconciling, transforming love of Jesus Christ. He counted on their seeing that love as the powerful force that bound them together as “brothers,” not master and slave. Certainly, the letter raises a disturbing question: how can Christians relate to each other as brothers and sisters but still tolerate an unjust social order? I think Paul was able to do that because he saw all social orders as passing away under the new age that Christ had inaugurated. We know, of course, that the old age has not yet passed away, that unjust orders still exist, and so Christians need to fight against injustice whenever they find it. But we can also see that Paul, in his day, was revolutionary.
As we look forward to a new education and program year, I think of Paul’s powerful example in the church of his day. Those of us who are in leadership positions can use our influence as teachers, mentors and spiritual guides in ways that foster loving relationships in this church community and call out the gentleness and righteousness of those we guide.
You may have noticed as we read the letter that even though Paul was addressing a specific request to Philemon, the letter was not for his eyes alone. Paul fully expected it to be read by other church members. What we would consider to be a private matter was brought into the community. That is because Paul knew that none of us is able to follow in the way of Christ all by ourselves. We need each other to help us respond to the imperatives of love. We need each other to remind us of our duties and responsibilities toward each other, so that we can be the kind of community in which we know, on a daily basis, that we are bound to each other as brothers and sisters and partners. Life in Christ is shared life, family life. In a few minutes we’ll celebrate this family life by coming together at Christ’s table.
I’m glad we have this difficult little epistle with the funny name. It helps us to see how, a long time ago, the gospel got shared and worked out through a very odd matrix of “family” relationships: Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus. The gospel still gets worked out that way, even now, even through people like us.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
September 8, 2019