A Sermon on Philemon preached September 4, 2016
Anyone who’s been a parent, or loved a child deeply, knows the anguish and the anxiety of releasing your child into the world. Of sending them across the state or across the country to move into the next phase of their life, be it college or their first job.
I received this kind of concerned letter from a parent a couple of weeks ago—well, actually, it was a message on FB, but in today’s world, that constitutes a letter! A friend in Kansas City wrote and shared that her daughter was moving back to North Carolina for her senior year of college. My friend wondered if she could stay at our house in St. Louis as she traveled across country. We were delighted to help and she is now safely arrived at school and taking classes.
It’s a letter that most of us have both written and received—seeking the blessing of someone else’s love for our child, and sharing our love for someone else’s child.
The book of Philemon is also such a letter—a letter written by the Apostle, Paul to Philemon. Paul writes as Onesimus’ Father—not his blood relative—but instead, as his father in the body of Christ, his father in faith who brought the Gospel message to Onesimus. Rather than being sent by mail ahead of time, Onesimus carries this letter in his pocket as he travels from Paul, who was imprisoned in a different town.
The circumstances of this letter are different from the one my friend sent, because Onesimus is Philemon’s slave. But at its core, this really was the same letter for it carried in the anxiety and anguish of a parent sending her child into the world. Onesimus has left Philemon—we’re not sure why or how—and fled to Paul who is the founder of the Christian community that gathers in Philemon’s house.
More than a simple night of lodging, this letter carries in it life and death for Onesimus. In the first century, a slave who has left his master and owner without permission, would have been severely punished or even put to death for his transgression (this is part of our own history in this country). Imagine the fear and trembling with which Onesimus traveled—wondering if this short letter in his pocket is sufficient to persuade Philemon to spare his life and not give him the punishment allowed by law.
In the letter in Onesimus’ pocket, Paul reveals to Philemon that Onesimus has become a believer in Jesus Christ, and because of this, appeals to Philemon to do away with the owner-slave relationship. Paul encourages Philemon to forego his legal rights as a slave-owner, and instead, to transform their relationship to one of brothers—as equals—in the body of Christ. Paul is asking Philemon to live out his admonition in Romans 12:2: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
“I am sending you my own child,” says, Paul, "'my very heart'—a precious one whom Jesus loves and forgives and saves—so change your thinking Philemon, expand your mind, for when you change how think about Onesimus, you will be freed to behave differently toward him—not as one who commands his behavior, but as one who loves him in Jesus Christ.”
Paul invites Philemon into the hard spiritual work of walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. Paul beckons Philemon to leave behind social stratifications and class privileges and instead to live by 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.
“Philemon, it’s not enough that you believe in Jesus’ love, forgiveness and power,” says Paul, “Jesus asks you to be his love, forgiveness and power. Let go of your rights and the vengeance or anger that goes with them, and change your behavior, your relationship with, and your treatment of Onesimus.”
Paul adds, “I could command you to do it—for I am in authority over you, but I want you to choose it through the power of Christ who dwells in you. Can you receive this son of mine, my own child, my own heart, into your home and care for him as your own child rather than a slave?”
As in so many other passages, Scripture does not give us the satisfaction of telling us the end of the story. What happened? Did Philemon forgive Onesimus and love him as a brother in Christ? Did the church gathered in his house, let go of their assumed “right” to decide who is in and who is out, and follow Paul in being transformed by the renewing of their mind in Christ to act out of love and forgiveness?
The only answer we have is the one we ourselves choose. Paul’s letter asks us if we will forego our societal or class rights and privileges to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul’s letter asks us to extend the radical hospitality of Christ himself in our relationships, communities and churches. I fear that the very public use of Christianity as a moral club with which to ostracize and demean those we find distasteful or too different is finding more currency today. I fear the politics of hatred spouted by those who claim to be Bible-believing Christians is becoming a more powerful voice than the voice of grace and love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
My husband Dan, serves a Presbyterian church in a small town. A church member told him the story of a young woman who found herself in a situation like Onesimus. Although covered in tattoos and piercings, she was seeking a loving and forgiving relationship with Jesus, so she visited one of the churches in town. After the worship service, the members of that church literally asked her not to come back. They thought it was their right to decide who was in and who was out.
But doesn’t she, like Onesimus, have a letter in her pocket? A letter from Jesus himself that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive her and love her as you would your own child.
And doesn’t every immigrant fleeing war or abuse or sex trafficking or hopelessness have a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love him as you would your own child.
And doesn’t the gay, lesbian or transgendered student in your family’s school have a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive her and love her as you would your own child.
And didn’t Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and every other young African American man in this country, whom we have been taught to fear in so many ways, have a letter in their pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love him as you would your own child.
Can we expand our thoughts, can we be transformed by the renewing mind of Christ and love them, care for them, help them, with dignity and with agape love?
Paul makes one final promise in his letter for Onesimus: "If Onesimus owes you anything, any money for labor lost, charge it to me. And when I come back to you, I will pay the price of whatever he owes."
Paul himself is walking the walk instead of just talking the talk. "I will pay the price myself." Paul is the living example of the love of Christ in action, in real life, in real relationships.
We hear in Paul’s own transformed heart, the promise of Jesus Christ to all of us. As Bible-believing Christians, Paul calls us to join him and Philemon in relinquishing our rights whether of citizenship or church membership, whether of privilege or class status, and instead, allow Jesus to transform our minds and our lives around the love of Christ who has paid the price for us.
We can be the Pauls and Philemons of the church today, embodying the love and radical hospitality of Christ himself. For don’t we each have a letter in our pocket from Jesus himself, that carries life and death and says, this is my precious child, my heart. Please receive him and love her as you would your own child.