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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 9/5

          I’ve never preached on Philemon before.  One Sunday every three years it’s part of the lectionary I suppose because it is one of the authentic letters of Paul and for that reason those who put the lectionary together must have felt obligated to include it.  Despite its authenticity though, you could argue that this letter really isn’t Bible-worthy.  It’s short; you heard the whole thing today except for the final greetings and closing.  Plus, it’s different.  It doesn’t get into any of the theological issues that dominate most of Paul’s other letters, it seems more like just a personal matter between two people. 

          As is the case with all of Paul’s letters, this one to Philemon is one side of a conversation and so we have to try to figure out what the rest of the story is.  In this case, the story seems to go something like this.  Paul was serving one of his periodic sentences behind bars, possibly in Ephesus, when he met Onesimus.  The indication is that Onesimus was a slave who belonged to a friend of Paul’s named Philemon who was the leader of a house church that Paul had been associated with.  We’re not told why Onesimus was in jail.  He could have been a runaway; there is also some indication that Philemon may have accused him of stealing some money.  But apparently Onesimus had served his time and was about to be released so to help him out Paul wrote this letter of recommendation for him to give to Philemon upon his return.

          While they were in prison together, Paul had apparently made a Christian of Onesimus and they had also become good friends.  Onesimus means useful and Paul plays on this saying that Onesimus has become useful  to him, that he’s not sure what he’s going to do without him.  It’s not clear exactly what Paul would like to see happen relative to Onesimus but at a minimum he seems to be advocating for reconciliation between the slave and his master.  According to Paul, as fellow Christians, the two needed to become friends.  “Receive him as you would receive me,” Paul says.  Or does Paul want Onesimus returned to him, so he can work with Paul once he too is released from prison?  Whatever Paul has in mind though, the indication is that he still believes that Onesimus in some way belongs to Philemon so it is up to Philemon to decide his fate and we don’t know for sure what that decision was.

          There is one story though, that’s told about St. Ignatius many years after this.  Ignatius was also in jail and while there the Bishop of Ephesus sent some friends to visit him.  Ignatius wrote a letter back to the bishop asking if a couple of these visitors could be allowed to stay with him.  In his letter he used some of the same language that Paul had used in writing to Philemon almost as if he were trying to remind the bishop of something that happened a long time ago.  The name of the bishop he wrote to??  It was Onesimus.  Was it Paul’s Onesimus?  Again, no one really knows, but it would make for a happy ending to the story.

          Happy ending or not though, the question remains as to whether or not this letter has any relevance for us.  One issue that tends to come up in commentary on this letter is slavery with that commentary often criticizing Paul for not coming down more strongly against slavery.  That kind of criticism has some merit but it isn’t totally fair as there were differences between first century slavery and slavery as it existed in this country, the most notable differences being that first century slavery wasn’t racially based, education of slaves was encouraged, many of them could own property and most could expect to be emancipated by the age of 30.  Still, slaves for the most part were regarded as inferior by nature but to expect Paul to share modern sensibilities about this fails to recognize that he was a product of his time, place and culture.

          The relevance for us though is that this letter could represent Paul’s struggle with a social issue of his time in light of the gospel he was preaching.  Most of the scholars have this letter written at a time when Paul’s theological ideas were pretty well formed, a key piece of that theology being summarized by the verse in Galatians that says, “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.”

          Based on these theological convictions, Paul must have seen that any kind of slavery ran counter to what he was preaching even if it was a milder form of slavery than what existed in this country.  Paul must have seen the inconsistency, but faced with a practical problem involving a friend of his and a well established social practice of that time, was he unwilling to carry his convictions through to their logical conclusion and forcefully call for Philemon to free Onesimus?  In some of Paul’s letters he comes across as pretty sure of himself, even arrogant, but does this perhaps reflect a more human, conflicted Paul who struggled with the implications of his faith just as we sometimes do?

          If so, it would put Paul in good company on the issue of slavery.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both believed the truth of “All men are created equal,” but they both owned slaves because number one, it was part of the society they knew and number two, because they benefited from them.  What they knew to be true didn’t lead them to call for abolition just as what Paul knew to be true didn’t cause him to take on the slavery issue directly.

          Slavery isn’t the presenting issue for us, but there are other issues that create conflict as we try to figure out how to live our faith.  Texts like today’s gospel seem to indicate that Jesus himself tried to help his followers understand that faith in him wasn’t always going to be easy, that living out Christian faith could get complicated.  Today’s gospel is always a tough one, starting as it does with the statement that you can’t be Jesus’ disciple without first hating mother, father, wife, children, brothers and sisters, even life itself and then ending with you can’t be my disciple unless you sell all your possessions. 

          Those two statements that pretty much eliminate everyone from possible discipleship are perhaps intended to illustrate the difficulty in putting faith into practice, pointing out the fact that taking Jesus seriously and following him had better make us stop and think about some things.  I’m going to be gone a few days not this week but next week to go back to Massachusetts and help take care of my mother.  I’m pretty sure that every one of you would say, “Yes, you have to go; family comes first.”  But is that what Jesus would say?  I’d like to think so, but maybe he’d say I’d be a better disciple if I stayed here with those I’ve been called to serve, that my mother is already being well cared for.  I’m going anyway, but some of the things Jesus said make me think that our certainties even about things we hold very dear, like family, can be questioned, that we’re supposed to at least consider our priorities concerning what is most important. 

Same with money and possessions; it seems unlikely that Jesus really expected people to sell all their possessions, but he talked enough about such things that again you have to conclude that he was calling for a serious reevaluation of priorities.  So the caution for the man building a tower and the king going to war to think through what they’re going to do before they do it applies to following Jesus too.  There will be things that come up that should cause us to think about what it is to be a disciple of Jesus and the fact that discipleship often does require a shift in our perspective, a reordering of our priorities.

Walking the walk can be harder than talking the talk which may be what Paul found in the situation he faced with Onesimus and Philemon.  He knew the truth of, “In Christ there is no more slave or free,” but the practicalities of that were not so easy for him.  What that does is to drive Paul and the rest of us back to dependence on God’s grace.  No one is going to do the discipleship thing perfectly.  We’re going to wind up conflicted and compromised so that our only hope is in God’s forgiving and saving grace.  Deuteronomy lays out the nice moral symmetry of “If you follow my commandments, decrees and ordinances you will be blessed; if you stray you will perish,” but that too drives us to dependence on God’s grace because we are going to stray.  We are going to fail to keep all those commandments, decrees and ordinances.

The journey of faith is not always easy and clear and the letter to Philemon indicates that that may have even been the case for the apostle Paul.  For all of us, there are and will be challenges and conflicts.  Some we’ll handle better than others; but there’s always grace; there’s always grace.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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