Jeremiah 34.8-10

Philemon 1-25

It’s Complicated

(Overlooked and Underpreached – VII)

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Let me see if I understand this correctly.  Paul has befriended Onesimus, a runaway slave who formerly belonged to Philemon, but has escaped. According to the letter we just heard though, it seems though Paul has convinced Onesimus to return to Philemon, to return to his slave master, equipped with little more than Paul’s hope that Philemon will receive Onesimus warmly and treat him like a brother instead of a slave.  In a day and age when you and I are having conversations about reparations for American slavery, about Black Lives Matter, about justice and equality and diversity and inclusion, how does this story from the Bible sit with us this morning?  How does it feel to hear one of the early church’s heroes interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that sends a slave back to his enslaver?  Is there any way we can reconcile the words we heard Diane read from Jeremiah – “that all should free the Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should hold another Judean in slavery.  And they obeyed, all the officials and all the people who had entered into the covenant that all would set free their sales, male or female, so that they would not be enslaved again; they obeyed and set them free.”  Is there any way we can reconcile the words we heard Diane read from Jeremiah with Paul’s letter to Philemon?  How can we hear that clarion call to manumission, to setting the captive free in the Old Testament, and then have to listen to Paul seemingly doing the opposite, sending a free man back to captivity?

Now I know this is Labor Day weekend, a time for us to kick back and relax and leave the labors of our lives behind for a day, but to me, Philemon is one of the most vexing books of the Bible, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it as we close our summer serries on the Overlooked and Underpreached books of the Bible.

Dr. James Sweet is president of the American Historical Association, and he recently landed in some academic hot water for an article he wrote for the organization’s monthly magazine.  The article is titled, “Is History History?”, and it addressed what Sweet calls a “trend toward presentism,” that is, contemporary scholarship’s contemporary habit of weighing the past against the social concerns and moral categories of the present.  “This new history,” Sweet wrote, “often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines.”  In other words, when we measure past realities against contemporary principles, we run the risk of ignoring or even negating the social rules and norms of our ancestors.  Now granted, some of those social rules and norms of the past need to be negated.  But how can we learn from the past, Sweet wonders, if, in insisting that it measure up to contemporary understanding, we deny its very validity?

Reading the history of the early church this way sure would come in handy, especially for this morning’s reading from Philemon.  Whether or not slavery was a socially accepted practice in the early centuries of the church, is anyone else uncomfortable hearing about Paul sending a former slave back into slavery?  This is an awful big ask on Paul’s part, that Onesimus go back to Philemon with little more than a handwritten note and an awful lot of hope.  If I were Onesimus, I would think twice about following Paul’s instructions.  Remember, Paul was formerly a rabbi and remained a Jewish scholar.  He would have known very well the Jewish strictures about slave ownership.  So what is this story trying to tell us?  As a former colleague of mine used to like to say when asked a difficult question, It’s complicated.

In 2008 I took a month-long sabbatical to Italy and spent a week in Rome.  While we were there, I visited the Mamertine prison, a small, cramped room just to the north of the Roman Colosseum, in the neighborhood of the Forum and tucked just under the Capitoline Hill.  What remains of the Mamertine prison are basically some shackles fastened to the stone walls, and a small round bar set into the floor; Mamertine’s prisoners were generally chained to one or both of the restraints.  Multiple times in this letter we heard Paul call himself “a prisoner for Jesus Christ,” “imprisoned for the gospel.”  It is likely that Paul wrote to Philemon from the Mamertine Prison.  So Paul, in his own captivity, writes a letter that intends to return a free man back to his own captivity. 

Add this to my complicated puzzlement:  Philemon, Onesimus’ owner, was a leader in the Colossian church.  His house was a home for a small community of Christians, including Apphia and Archippus whom Paul greeted in his salutation.  So a leader of the church owned slaves.  You won’t be surprised that I’ve been scratching my head this week wondering a) how to preach from Philemon and b) why I ever decided to use this letter in the first place.  Maybe, out of all the books of the Bible, Philemon deserves to remain overlooked and underpreached.

But then I realized I was coming to this story from the wrong direction.  I wanted to understand.  I wanted to ask this first century letter twenty-first century questions.  Which I think is important.  We can’t just write difficult parts of the Bible by saying they are culturally conditioned and don’t have anything to say to us any more.  This would not be honest.  But at the same time I realized that I was reading this letter for comprehension, so that it would make sense to me.  I was bringing a boatload of preacherly questions to the Bible and demanding answers.  Then I remembered something I’ve shared with you before, the theologian’s gentle reminder that when we come to the Bible with questions seeking answers, the Bible contrariwise comes to us with answers seeking questions.

Paul formed a special relationship with Onesimus while he was in Mamertine Prison. 

“I am appealing to you [Philemon], for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment… 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 for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord…  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.”

Paul has come to love Onesimus as a father does a child.  And he is counting on the power of that same love, the love of God in Jesus Christ, to remind Philemon that Onesimus too is a beloved child of God.  And further, that Paul’s love for Philemon and his church generates his powerful faith and trust that Philemon will do the right thing and welcome Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ.  The question-asker in me wants to object, “Well, this is easy for Paul to say, it’s no skin off his back whether Philemon welcomes his former slave in love or slaps him back in chains.”  But the answer the Bible brings to me, seeking its own question, is that the power of the love of God in Jesus Christ will do this.  Why would you ever doubt?

Martin Luther had this to say about Paul’s letter to Philemon:

“This epistle gives us a masterful and tender illustration of Christian love.  For here we see how Paul takes the part of poor Onesimus and, to the best of his ability, advocates his cause with his master.  He acts exactly as if he were himself Onesimus…  Yet he does this not with force or compulsion, as lay within his rights; but empties himself in order to compel Philemon.’

Paul effectively puts himself in Onesimus’ place – “If he owes you anything… I will repay it.”  It is a very Christ-like thing to do, and from start to finish, it is rooted in love.  Of course, the question the 21st century mind wants to ask is, “Did it work?  Did Philemon receive Onesimus as Paul implored, as a beloved child rather than a renegade slave?”  This is the question the Bible will not answer.  It is almost daring us to believe that love wins.

Yet, what the Bible does not – or will not – tell us, history will, so maybe history is not quite history after all.  Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in the early second century, wrote letters to churches very much like Paul did.  In his letter to the Ephesian church, Ignatius wrote, “In God’s name, I received your congregation in the person of Onesimus, your bishop in this world, a man whose love is beyond words.  My prayer is that you should love him in the spirit of Jesus Christ and all be like him.  Blessed is he who let you have such a bishop.  You deserved it.”  Once a former slave, Onesimus became the leader of the Ephesian church.   Bishop Onesimus – it has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

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