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.
The spiritual insights of children never cease to amaze me. Maybe they are so wise because they have more recently come from God and have not yet crowded out the divine with their ego.
Over the summer I shared Bible stories once a week in the daycare program at the congregation I serve. The Director of the program asked me to start with the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12 which begin, Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
With the older children, I began by explaining the meaning of “Blessed." Rather than connoting something holy or sacred, it's really a cheer--something more like "good for you!” I asked the children, “Why would we say, ‘good for you!’ to someone who is poor or sad?” A 4th grader immediately raised her hand and said, “because then God can help you!” I almost asked her to come up and finish the Bible lesson. It was clear to her than when we are need, we are more open to receiving God’s help and that's really good for us. If only I could see it so clearly when I need help instead of pushing myself to try harder.
A couple weeks later, I was finishing a Bible story with the Pre-K-Kindergarten class. At the end of the story every week, I told them the most important thing to remember was, “God loves us no matter what!” After saying a closing prayer, a little four-year old boy asked if he could say a prayer. Of course I agreed. He earnestly folded his hands, bowed his head and tightly squeezed his eyes shut and prayed, “Dear God, I love you no matter what!”
I wanted to say, “Good for you, God!”—a cheer for God to receive this complete, holy love which did not waiver. I haven’t always been able to offer that simple prayer in my faith journey.
I find myself re-visiting these pearls of wisdom from the children. Such heartfelt, spontaneous expressions of faith remind me to rely upon God’s wisdom and power rather than my own, and to return the love God showers on me, no matter what pain or difficulty life brings.
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Recently I went to visit Cheryl, who lives in a nursing home. She’s had a hard life and is much younger than most of the residents. On this particular day, Cheryl blessed me with wisdom I will never forget.
We sat on her bed and I opened my portable “lunchbox” Holy Communion set so we could share in the Lord’s Supper. Cheryl had just gotten back from a group trip to Wal-Mart and was well stocked with two of her favorite items: Diet Dr. Pepper and cheese puffs. As I began to set up Communion, I realized I had forgotten to re-stock the kit; I had plenty of grape juice, but was completely out of Communion wafers. I asked Cheryl if she had any crackers or bread we could use instead. She reached for a bag and asked, “Can we use cheese puffs?” Why not? I thought; the wafer and juice become holy through the presence of the risen Jesus, not the elements themselves. Cheryl put two cheese puffs on the little plate, and then she said, “This will make all of the other cheese puffs I eat even more meaningful!”
And meaningful it was—because she really captured the true essence of our “holy communion.” It’s not just that this particular meal made from grains and grapes is a Sacrament when joined with Jesus’ promise and his command to share it; the real point is that every morsel of food we eat is replete with the presence of God who created it, Jesus who redeems it, and the Spirit who dwells within it. Cheese puffs helped Cheryl make the connection from the Communion table to every table in a way that a Styrofoam-like wafer with a sip of juice may not. The next time I came for a visit, she asked if we could use Diet Dr. Pepper, so we did. Talk about being fed.
[Written with permission from Cheryl]
Photo Credit: getutz.com