A sermon preached at http://www.briarwooodpresbyterianchurch.ca on September 8, 2013
O God, we bless you and thank you
for another September,
another time to gather after a summer,
another to be together in your presence;
Startle us, O God, with your truth,
and speak to us your Gospel
for our lives.
In Jesus name.
It used to be that people actually write letters. I know it sounds arcane, but they would actually use a pen, write on something called paper, and in their own handwriting pen a message to a friend or loved one, then mail it.
When we lived in the U.K., you could buy special airmail letters. / They were one piece of paper. Thin. But you could write on both sides. And when you were done you could fold it up into an envelope and mail it just like that, with the postage already on it. Just for the fun of it, I would use these once and while, to write home. And I would find myself, because it was one piece of paper, squeezing in as much as possible on each side, then folding it up, and dropping it in one of the red royal mail boxes.
Today’s scripture is a letter too. It’s only 5 paragraphs. Short for the NT. A few words squeezed onto a old letter. But one that shakes the foundations of a society with the Gospel of Jesus.
It’s written by Paul. He’s in prison. Probably in Rome. He’s 55-60 years old now. A lot of his work in planting churches behind him. And in prison, he comes somehow in contact with a slave who has likely stolen money and run away. His name is Onesimus. And in this letter, Paul writes from prison to this slave’s owner, Philemon, encouraging him to receive Onesimus back into his household no longer as a slave,
but as a beloved brother in Christ Jesus (v.16).
Now this / is / a situation that should NOT be filled with gratitude, love, forgiveness or kindness. It was not OK for a Roman slave to run away. It was not OK for other people to take them in. Slaves could be crucified. People who helped them could be made to pay the owner compensation. And slave owners who acted in ways other than harshness and severity would be seen as weak, as dishonored in their own houses and communities.
So this letter. This situation that Paul finds himself in. This is not fine.
Quentin Tarentino put out a movie last Christmas called Django Unchained. In one scene a group of slaves from the south of the U.S. in the 1800s are shown on a forced march. They are in chains. They are treated terribly. Their feet, without shoes, are bleeding. They are thirsty. Their owners shout insults at them. And whip them. And when a vigilante comes out of the forest and sets them free. Wounds their owners. And the slaves are faced with the choice of how to treat their owners. And the how scene plays out is one that is far, very far, so very far, from the kind of response and reaction Paul writes about in this letter when he says to Philemon, the owner
receive him no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother
and when he writes about Onesimus, who ran away,
I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. v. 12
It’s a radical kindness and forgiveness when there should / be hate and aggression.
It’s that kind of letter, this letter to Philemon.
And it’s that kind of Gospel.
I think the three characters in this letter, who have already met, have some helpful things for us, as we try to live out, the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our own lives.
First, there’s Paul.
Paul, is a man, who is completely taken by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He describes himself not as an apostle, or an amazing church planter, or speaker, or even a successful tent maker, which was his trade. Paul describes himself first in this letter, as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. He sees his life, his current situation, as completely caught up in Christ. Even though he’s in prison. Even though he’s not sure where he’s life is going to lead. Even though he’s not in great health, but something has been bothering him that has not healed. Despite and IN all these things, Paul sees his life in Jesus Christ. Christ is not separate. A Sunday from x to x a.m. kind of thing. He is in prison in Rome, but describes himself instead as a prisoner for Christ.
We are, West Islanders / for Christ.
We are, commuters down the 20 / for Christ.
We are, makers of ethical decisions at work, / for Christ.
We are, seniors / for Christ. Students, Parents, Friends, / for Christ.
We are, in poor, good, perfect health, / for Christ.
We’re invited to see no separation. No compartments. But Christ in every part of life.
But Paul, also helps us with something else. Paul shows us what it’s like to be / an advocate.
Paul lives out the Gospel of Jesus, like this. He advocates, he pleas on behalf of, he stands in, he helps a brother. He takes up his pen, and puts his own self, his own reputation, his own character, his own wallet!, on the line. If he owes anything, Paul writes to Philemon, if Onesimus the slave owes anything, charge it to my account. Paul is an advocate for a man who has no rights, no standing, and is unable to do anything about it.
And as Christians, I think that’s helpful. Living out the Gospel, we’re invited to be advocates for those who need it.
It’s hard, almost impossible, not to think of one Christian in particular who was an amazing advocate. He gave his life to a cause. And I want to read you part of his speech, that helped to change the course many lives, who had no voice, and the course of history.
Spoken to House of Commons, 12 May 1789
“When I consider the magnitude of the subject which I am to bring before the House—a subject, in which the interests, not of this country, nor of Europe alone, but of the whole world, and of posterity, are involved: ….I must speak of the transit of the slaves in the West Indies. This I confess, in my own opinion, is the most wretched part of the whole subject. So much misery condensed in so little room, is more than the human imagination had ever before conceived…. A trade founded in iniquity, and carried on as this was, must be abolished, let the policy be what it might,—let the consequences be what they would, I from this time determined that I would never rest till I had effected its abolition.”
A Christian. A modern day advocate for others. How is God calling us to be advocates today?
Second, there is Philemon.
Philemon, who receives this letter is helpful to us, I think, because he is a man who practices forgiveness. And does it, when it makes no sense in the least. Remember, He is the one owed in this situation. He is the one wronged. He is the one who has lost.
Here is a man, whose name actually means. Love of brother. And here is a man, who faced with this decision. Extends forgiveness and kindness radically, well beyond custom. Well beyond expectations. But does so completely.
I just picture a Christian here in Philemon who is known by love. Acceptance, forgiveness and grace surround him. They are a force in his life. Forgiveness and grace are a power in his household and on his street.
Could it be, that we’re being called, to forgive radically, completely; when we know it is not deserved or even expected? Are we being called, to be a Philemon? To love your brother or sister a new, to show a radicaly kindness in Jesus.
And lastly, there is Onesimus.
He is a slave running for his life. Imagine his journey from his home – ancient Greece – to somewhere in Rome. Looking over his shoulder all time. No idea what the future might hold. Knowing that he owes a debt he’ll never repay. Not in control of his fate. A sense that his options are limited to none. And somewhere along his journey he meets a Christian, and he finds himself face to face with something he never could have imagined. The possibility of grace. He’s the receiver not of judgement or cruelty, which according to the law, he deserved. He’s the receiver of forgiveness and grace.
Onesimus is someone we can remember who received radical kindness when it seemed completely impossible. And that’s is helpful for us because he reminds us that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has a power we can’t imagine or predict. All the regular stuff is transformed.
It’s incredible how close slavery is to our memory, isn’t it?. Esp. on this continent. How people like Onesimus’ fled North from the states, seeking safe haven in this country, just a few hundred years ago. As they came North, the slaves of the south sang songs, you might remember. Songs of trust in a God who could somehow turn this upside down. Churn things up. Bring a freedom and a justice where there was only bondage and death. One of the songs slaves on this continent sang, was called “Wade in the Water”. Like many of the songs, it hid instructions on how best to evade bounty hunters and law enforcement that chased after slaves fleeing North. Wade in the water, refers to going through the edge of streams and rivers to make it difficult for the blood hounds to track them. The song goes on, naming the pilgrimage of the Israelites across the Jordan, naming the level and rough ground you have to cross, saying what to do if one slave arrived North before the other. But the refrain throughout is this – Wade, wade in the water; God’s going to trouble the waters. God’s going to trouble the waters. And the gospel of Jesus does exactly that. Churns everything up. Forgives where there shouldn’t be forgiveness. Hopes where that’s not ok. Gives kindness out, radically. A place where God does amazing things.
There’s a legend about Onesimus that I like to believe. The legend is that Paul does send him back to Greece, where his master Philemon greets him, receives him. Onesimus gets his freedom. Becomes a Christian leader in Greece. Eventually becomes bishop of Ephesus, a city of a quarter million. A mega city, then.
I think that’s helpful, because Onesimus, whose name means, useful, reminds us that God has a use for us. Right here and right now. In our lives. In our homes. In this community. God, the living God, has a use for us. We’re invited like Paul, to be advocates for those without a voice; we’re invited like Philemon, to offer radical kindness and forgiveness in our daily lives, to be known, to be famous, for love; and we’re invited to live like Onesimus, to trust in the kindess and compassion of God in Jesus Christ.
And like Paul writes to Philemon so long ago,
I repeat here
for every, day in this year ahead.
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
be with your spirit.”