The Rev. Sarah Buteux
September 8, 2019
Luke 14:25-33, Philemon 1
Proper 18 Year C
Everyone says, this love will change you.
Well, I ask, isn’t that what loves supposed to do.
– The Weepies
Friends, our first reading this morning is all about the cost of discipleship. Jesus doesn’t just come into the world to save the world, he comes to change it, disrupt, and upend it.
He comes to give sight to the blind, set the captives free, and provide the poor with the good things they need by emptying the rich of those things they don’t really need at all.
And Jesus knows that as happy as that will make people on the outside and underside of the empire, it is going to greatly upset those in positions of privilege and power. Which is to say that Jesus knows his way is dangerous, so dangerous it will no doubt lead him to the cross.
He knows what he is about and he knows where he is headed and he is not about to drag people down that road before they know full well what it will cost them and those they love. And so one day, as Luke recounts it, while large crowds were following him, Jesus turned to them and said….
26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-33)
Jesus is clear. Discipleship is not for the faint of heart. Following in his way may well cost you your family, your respectability, your possessions, and quite possibly even your life.
Our second reading is not from Paul’s letter to Philemon, it is Paul’s letter to Philemon. The whole thing. It is the shortest book in the New Testament, but if this was the only epistle of Paul’s that had survived antiquity it would still give us a window into just how costly and disruptive following Jesus can be.
There are a few things that will be useful for you to know before you listen:
Paul wrote this letter from prison to Philemon who was the head of the house church in Collosae and therefore most likely a man of considerable wealth and social standing. In his letter, which would have been read out loud before the entire congregation, Paul asks Philemon to give up one particularly precious possession in the name of Christ, namely his slave Onesimus.
Although the letter is often vague and almost painfully tactful, it is commonly assumed that Onesimus is a runaway slave who eventually found his way to Paul. While tending to Paul in prison, Onesimus became a follower of Jesus.
Although it is clear that Paul loves Onesimus dearly, it would seem that he is sending him back, with this letter in hand, asking Philemon to not only forgive Onesimus for running away, but receive him back into his household not as a slave, but as a brother.
1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.
6I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.
12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.
15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.
19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. 23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
For the word of God in scripture.
For the word of God among us.
For the word of God within us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Time is a funny thing. When we talk about the past, about things that happened 1000 or 500 or even just a 100 years ago, it is easy to feel far removed from it all. But history shapes us far more than we understand or realize.
I’ve been dipping into the 1619 project of the N.Y. Times. Has anyone else been exploring it? Good. I encourage you all to look it up.
The 1619 project is a collection of essays, poetry, and literature, exploring the history and effects of slavery on the creation and shaping of our country; so named because in August of 1619 – exactly 400 years ago last month – the first slave ship arrived here off the shores of Virginia. The project is an exploration of how thoroughly this shameful, painful, horrific fact of our past continues to reverberate in our present.
400 years might seem like a long time ago, but when you take into account that slavery was legal for 250 years – that it was not abolished till 1865 – you realize that slavery was legal in this country for almost 100 years more than it has been illegal. (Really think about that for a moment).
When you take into account that slavery was legal here for 250 years, you realize that the practice of Slavery in our nation is actually older than the nation itself. The United States as a political entity is only 243 years old. So it is no wonder that this tragic chapter of our past haunts us and continues to shape the reality around us.
Had slavery been condoned for even a day, it would have been too long, but as you study the history you come to realize that one of the reasons it lasted as long as it did was because Christian slaveholders found ways to justify the institution by appealing to scripture.
And before I say anything about this letter to Philemon, you need to know that this letter was a huge part of that. A huge part for one reason and one reason only. Can anyone tell me what it is…from listening to the text?
Because Paul sent Onesimus back. Yes.
Because Paul sent Onesimus back: back to his master, back to the one from whom he had run away, back to the one who had the right to do to Onesimus whatever he wished… because Onesimus was not just Philemon’s man, his servant, his slave. By law, Onesimus was Philemon’s property.
Slaveholders in America actually referred to this book as the Pauline Mandate and used it as an argument to bolster the Fugitive Slave Law that required law abiding citizens of any state to return escaped slaves to their owners.
They somehow managed to ignore all Paul’s words about Onesimus being like his child, his very heart. They somehow missed Paul’s request that Philemon receive him back into his household, not as a slave but as a brother. “Welcome him as you would welcome me” said Paul, and “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”
Paul was so confident in Philemon’s goodness that he trusted Philemon would do even more than he asked. But somehow, the pro-slavery camp missed all of that, and because they misread and ill-used these words so thoroughly, most Christians miss out on hearing these words at all.
But not today, Satan. The abuse and mis-use of this little epistle was tragic, but that should not keep us from re-claiming the truths that beat at its heart, truths that still have the power to call us to account and change us all.
Because here is the thing about the gospel of Jesus Christ: if you take it seriously it will change you. I don’t care how enlightened or progressive or woke you are. I don’t care if you’ve been a Christian your whole life. If you take the gospel of Jesus seriously it will continually cause you to re-examine every relationship in your life.
Your relationship to God, your neighbor, your enemy, your family, your possessions, your life. There is no part of you left untouched and unchanged when you allow the gospel into your life, because the new life that Jesus offers us connects us to the life of everyone around us.
No longer can you live for just yourself or your family alone, because in Christ we are all family – I belong to you and you belong to me. In Christ my resources are your resources as surely as they are George’s or Genevieve’s.
In Christ, I am not supposed to privilege the needs of myself or my immediate family over you and yours – which can feel hateful. It’s true. It is a hateful thing to disregard your own kin, to feel no more a sense of obligation toward them than you would to any other. It just is.
And yet, one of the most radical features of Jesus’ teaching is that we are all kin to one another, siblings in Christ, all children of one Father who art in heaven; that who I am and all I have belongs no more to me and mine than it does to you and yours. Following in his way means we are to be servants of all.
And I’ll tell you right now – I have been a Christian my whole life – and I’m not there yet. I am a follower of Jesus, but I am still a long way from becoming a true disciple.
So I am glad Paul is not around to write anymore letters. I am, because I’d hate to have one of his letters show up here addressed to me – a leader of the church- meant to be read in front of all of you. And yet, that’s exactly what happened to Philemon.
Paul’s letter to Philemon calls him out in front of his whole community and challenges him to demonstrate his commitment to Christ. And the fact that Paul sent that letter in the hands of Onesimus left both men with no place to hide. There was nothing theoretical about Paul’s request. There was no denying that Philemon’s decision would be of real consequence to the human being standing before him.
So before we go any further, take a moment to imagine the scene: Philemon, Onesimus, the letter, the congregation.
In front of them all, Philemon must decide just how far he is willing to go, just how radically he will let this Jesus upend his way of life, disrupt his place in his community, his understanding of family, his sense of who he is and what he owns, his power and his privilege.
In front of them all Philemon must decide if he is going to remain a loyal subject to the ways of the empire: a world in which men rule over women, masters rule over slaves, and Caesar rules over them all. A world where the father is the absolute head of the household and everyone must do as he says. A world defined by hierarchy, dominion, and retribution for anyone who steps out of line.
Not a perfect world – not by a long shot – but a world in which he, Philemon, is doing just fine, thank you very much, and already doing quite a lot for the church, in case you hadn’t noticed. A world in which he hasn’t legally done anything wrong and doesn’t technically owe anyone in this situation a thing.
As that letter was read aloud everyone would have begun to wonder: what will Philemon do? Will he claim what he owns, stick with what he knows, fall back on the status quo that serves him so well? Or, will he give all that up for Jesus?
Because let’s be honest: Philemon freeing Onesimus would mean giving up a lot more than a single slave. Freeing Onesimus would put him on the path to giving up everything… and that is a lot to ask. Jesus knew it and so did Paul.
So much so, that I will tell you right now: I bet no one in that congregation expected Philemon to go so far as to free Onesimus, anymore than you would expect me to sell my house and send all the proceeds down to help people in the Bahamas.
I bet that no one in that congregation expected Philemon to go so far as to free Onesimus.
Forgive him? Yes. Show him mercy? Sure. Keep him in his employ and possibly even send him back to serve Paul as a demonstration of his great generosity? Why not. But free him? That would have been a step too far.
I imagine they would have expected Philemon to do a good thing in this situation, a kind thing, a merciful, magnanimous thing. (Which, in the end, would not have really changed any thing at all, because frankly, that is exactly how we like things here in the church).
But Paul doesn’t ask him to do a nice thing. Instead, Paul is very carefully asking Philemon to do a radical thing. A new thing. Paul is asking him to give away not just what he owns, but to give away his power over this man, his position of privilege over this man.
Paul is asking Philemon to not just lift Onesimus up, but to himself take a step down, until they are both on equal footing, both brothers in Christ. One no better than the other. Each as precious and important as the other. A living, breathing sign of the new kind of Kin-dom Jesus came to usher in.
What Paul was asking of Philemon was almost unthinkable, as disruptive for him as it could potentially be for everyone around him. I mean, what would the neighbors think? What if their slaves ran away? What about the rule of law?
If word of this got out it could bring work to a stand still. It could lead to revolts, violence, chaos. People born on third base might need to learn how to pick up a bat! Make no mistake, this sort of radical forgiveness, this leveling of class and hierarchy, this counter-cultural show of unity and universal brother-hood could bring society to its knees.
And that’s just it. That is why the gospel is so dangerous. It shines a light on injustice and inequality such that you can’t look away anymore. It takes us straight to the places of shame and pain and human misery – all the institutional evils, the necessary evils, all those evils we feel powerlessly resigned to – calls them out for what they are, and cries “No Longer!”
It reminds us that whatever we are not changing, we are choosing, and that Jesus has shown us a better way. The gospel call us out – as surely as Paul called out Philemon – calls us out of our complicity and complacency and challenges us to throw over what we know in order to walk in the way of Jesus one costly step at a time.
So what happened? What did Philemon do?
Don’t worry, I looked it up, and the truth is, no one knows for sure. But the very fact that we have the letter at all is our greatest clue. If Philemon had ignored Paul, or simply forgiven Onesimus without setting him free, not much would have changed and the letter would have lost whatever power it might have had.
But we do have it, which is a good sign. We also have a letter from Ignatius that references an Onesimus who became the Bishop of Ephesus. If Onesimus had been a young man at the time this letter was written to Philemon, he very well could have been an old Bishop during the time of Ignatius.
We know that Philemon eventually became the Bishop of Colossae, and there is a beautiful symmetry in the thought that these two might have risen together to positions of such leadership within the early church.
We can’t prove a thing, because it all happened so long ago, but I’d like to believe that Onesimus was set free, that he held on to this letter – his writ of freedom if you will – and that this letter of emancipation was eventually canonized because in truth it is our letter of emancipation as well.
For as long as we view some people as better than others, more worthy than others, as long as we exploit others, dominate others, as long as we regard any evil as necessary, we are all still slaves…slaves to sin.
But as we liberate one another, forgive one another, reconcile with another, make peace with one another, lift up and empower one another, as we dismantle the systems and prejudices that cause us to hurt one another, we free ourselves and our world to become more and more the world God created it to be.
Time is a funny thing. When we talk about the past, about things that happened long ago, it is easy to feel far removed from it all. But just as the sins of the past have the power to shape us and the world around us, so to do the radical acts of courage, hope, grace, and resistance.
Paul wasn’t perfect, nor did he have the power to abolish slavery or misogyny or intolerance. But what power he did have, he used to sow seeds of doubt about institutions that perpetuated oppression, and in their stead planted seeds of liberation and hope. When we nurture those seeds, we transform a letter such as this – a letter which was good news for one man – into gospel for us all.