Proper 18, Year C – Philemon 1-21
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 4, 2022
In Matthew chapter 17, Jesus says, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. And nothing will be impossible for you.” Some take this to mean that if God doesn’t answer your prayers, you don’t have enough faith.
In Luke 12, Jesus says, "And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." Does this mean that if you “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit,” whatever that means, you have no chance of being reconciled to God?
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul says, "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers-- none of these will inherit the kingdom of God." I remember stealing a rubber stamp off of my teacher’s desk in kindergarten. This passage must mean that I won’t make it to heaven. And those who get drunk – it’s obvious what this means for them.
Lastly, hear these words from Paul in 1 Cor. 14: "The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says." Sorry to break it to you, Bishop Diane…
It has been common throughout history for believers to use passages of Scripture, usually taken out of context, to support their own belief system. Some even use Scripture to reinforce their own power over an entire group of people as a way of excluding others from being able to receive the love and the grace of God. The second lesson this morning is from the book of Philemon, a passage of Scripture that was commonly used to justify slavery.
Paul writes this letter from prison where he encounters a slave by the name of Onesimus who had, at this point, converted to the Christian faith under his influence while in prison. The traditional interpretation of this text is that Paul is asking his friend Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a slave, and forgive him whatever transgressions he had committed. And this interpretation was used throughout the centuries to justify slavery.
Paul addresses this letter not only to Philemon, Apphia (A-phia) and Archippus, but to the entire congregation of the church that meets in one of their homes. He uses plural pronouns when he greets everyone at the beginning of the letter, but switches to singular pronouns for the majority of the letter and appears to be speaking directly to Philemon. He says, “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet, I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love...I am appealing to you for my child Onesimus.” Paul speaks diplomatically in order to try to persuade Philemon to come to his own conclusion, rather than Paul forcing him to do it, even though he had the authority to do so.
Think back through your life, and think about who your favorite boss or teacher or priest was. The one you respected the most – the one you wanted to be like. The person you’re thinking of was probably like Paul: he or she didn’t lead by issuing edicts from on high, but instead, encouraged you and taught you and gave you the freedom to make your own decisions, even if that resulted in failure. Paul could have ordered Philemon to do what he wanted him to do, but he instead showered Philemon and the others with thanksgiving and blessings and encouragement, and then made his argument to try to persuade Philemon to make the right choice.
What exactly is Paul asking Philemon to do? In verse 13, he says, “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 that he was separated from you for awhile, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” Perhaps Paul is asking Philemon not to receive Onesimus back as a slave, but to receive him as a Christian brother, free from the bonds of slavery.
Although he’s asking Philemon to voluntarily commit this good deed, he isn’t shy in doing so. In verse 22, just after the last verse we heard in the reading, Paul says, “One more thing – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” He’s hinting to Philemon, and to the entire congregation, that he will be following up to see how this ends up shaking out! Watch out, I’ll be checking in personally to see what you decide to do!
The letter to Philemon is more than a “diplomatic coup” on the part of St. Paul, it’s his attempt to use loving, thoughtful language to urge two individuals who fall under his pastoral charge and authority who are at serious odds not only to be reconciled to each other, but also to model the new life in Christ to which all baptized Christians are called.
Reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon means that their entire relationship would change. The standards of the society of the day won’t cut it. Last week, we heard Jesus say, “Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The Christian life is one in which the standards of society are completely turned upside down. The slave is set free and welcomed as a brother, a fellow member of the family.
The Gospel teaches us that through our baptism, we are all welcomed equally no matter our rank, or income level, race, sexual orientation, moral decisions, or legal status. At our baptism, when we are received into the household of God, we are no longer defined by any of those labels, but instead as brothers and sisters – equal members of the family. Our identity is no longer found in human labels and categories, but instead our identity is found in the love of Christ. In other words, we find our identity in the One who loves us and adopts us as beloved children. Paul says elsewhere, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.”
What good news of joy and liberation for you and me! And yet, as we heard in today’s gospel lesson, this Christian way of life doesn’t come without a cost. Jesus says that whoever comes to him without hating their family members cannot be his disciple, and the same with whoever does not take up his cross and follow him.
In this passage, there isn’t ambiguity or an opportunity for “alternate interpretations.” This particular passage is very clear in its question: are you in, or are you out? Jesus, in this passage, has no time for games or compromise. If you’re going to embark on seriously engaging with the Christian faith, be prepared to pay the price. Not only the price of an hour-and-a-half of your time on Sunday mornings or a sincere and generous financial pledge – that’s all challenging enough – but the price of wholehearted devotion to a cause so compelling that it will demand your whole life.
No matter how literally we take Jesus when he says to hate our family, carry our cross, and sell our possessions, God is calling us today to die to ourselves and live for Him. He’s calling us to make the choice that we made (or that was made on our behalf) at our baptism today and every day. Week after week, day after day, we put on our baptism anew, if you will, and as we do, we build spiritual habits over time that can break our perceived need to acquire more things, our petty jealousies, our demeaning stereotypes of each other, our prejudices and hatreds. Moment by moment, with each small choice to follow Christ, God transforms us little by little into Christ’s likeness…into the image of God seen fully in our forebears Adam and Eve before sin and death came into the world. And as that happens, we begin to see others the way Christ does. Rather than judging people by their rank, income level, skin color, sexual orientation, or even bad moral decisions, we begin to see them as brothers and sisters in the family of God that bear the same image and likeness of God as we do.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 41.
 Galatians 3:28
 From a sermon preached by Richard B. Hays at Duke Divinity School on August 31, 2010. http://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/news/2010-09-02-hays-sermon.pdf
 Galatians 3:28
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