a sermon on Paul’s letter to Philemon
It’s hard to be angry with a friend. Well, actually, let me a bit clearer: being angry with a friend is hard! It’s not that our friends and family—those we care about and who care about us, regardless of the relationship—don’t make us angry; it’s more that when we do get angry at them, it’s hard to figure out what to do with it.
I learned all this the hard way, as I suspect many of you have, too. Once or twice or maybe even three times—no more of course!—I made the mistake of actually expressing the anger I was feeling toward a friend, which made me feel better but just made my friend angry at me. It usually just became a vicious cycle that ended only when we took a long time to talk about it or one of us just gave up entirely on the relationship. So over time, I’ve learned that there are ways that I can express my anger and frustration with my friends in small and gentle ways, appealing to their better nature from my own better nature so that we can be honest with one another while also showing grace and generosity as we deal with our flaws together.
Paul’s letter to Philemon that we heard this morning is one of those strange places where we see this kind of honesty and gracious confrontation. Philemon is a very personal letter, unusual in the New Testament because it is not just written from one person to a community but written from one person to another person. While Paul certainly mentioned others, Apphia and Archippus and “the church in [Philemon’s] house,” they were just the carbon copies on this note. Paul was writing first and foremost to Philemon himself, sending a very personal and passionate appeal that we have the privilege to eavesdrop on nearly two thousand years later!
It couldn’t have been an easy letter for Paul to write. He clearly respected Philemon a great deal. Philemon was an important figure in the life of the early church in his community—he was the host of their gatherings, after all!—and he was wise and wealthy. But Paul was just as much an important figure in Philemon’s life. He had been the one to present the gospel to him, and Paul’s continuing leadership in the church was clearly important to Philemon even though Paul was now in prison. Beyond this relationship, though, their lives collided beyond the church when Onesimus arrived on the scene. Onesimus had been Philemon’s slave, and for whatever reason he had left him and become a friend and companion and servant to Paul.
In the Roman world, slavery was a pretty common institution, and Onesimus was certainly not the only early Christian who was a slave. While nowadays almost all Christians condemn slavery outright, the leaders of the early church refused to do so, and it took far too long for our forebears in the faith to step up and condemn this horrific institution in its many forms, so we still must seek God’s forgiveness of our continuing complicity in this great injustice. The slavery practiced in these Roman times was much like what is likely familiar to many of us from our own nation’s history. While the dehumanizing practices of chattel slavery in the Americas took millions of women, men, and children from Africa and forcibly transplanted them to North and South America without their consent, Roman slavery was not built on these ideas of racial superiority and importation of labor but rather on the power relationship between the master and the slave. The master had ultimate, final, and unquestioned control over the slave’s whole life. In a technical sense, slaves remained human beings, but they were ultimately property. While slaves might work in fields as varied as agriculture, household service, artisinal crafts, and even medicine, historian Paul Veyne notes, “personal ties were highly unequal, and it was this inequality that was common to all slaves… Whether powerful or wretched, all slaves were spoken to in the tone and terms used in speaking to children and inferior beings.” (A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, p. 58) Ultimately, the institution of slavery in Roman times and in all times since makes it clear that slaves are first and foremost property, and their relationships to their masters are rooted in the ultimate power of masters to buy and sell them.
So when Paul writes to Philemon here suggesting that he release his slave Onesimus, Paul is challenging his friend to take up a very different way. Paul doesn’t attack the institution of slavery here or elsewhere—it would take another 1800 years for most Christians to insist that it is not appropriate for one human being to claim to own another, and even now some who share our faith aren’t fully on board with the implications of this! Instead of attacking this institution, Paul confronts his friend directly and asks him to do what might have actually been harder: he asks Philemon to release Onesimus so that Onesimus can continue to assist Paul in his life and ministry. But Paul doesn’t just leave it there. He not only tells Philemon that he should release Onesimus but goes on to insist that Philemon should show Onesimus the same welcome that he would show Paul, that he should offer him the humanity, respect, and love that befit a brother in Christ, not an item of property.
Paul’s brutal and direct honesty and deep ethical appeal here could not have been easy to make. He, a poor prisoner of the Roman empire, was writing to someone who had great power and wealth, yet he had the gumption to suggest that Philemon swallow his pride and treat a disobedient runaway slave as a full-fledged relation in Christ, not just in some world yet to come but in the here and now. Paul insisted that the power his friend had over another of his friends was inappropriate and had no place in their lives as followers of Jesus Christ, and he challenged to Philemon to change things so that they would all have a deeper experience of God’s grace.
We don’t know how Philemon responded. There’s no record of whether he freed Onesimus or not. We don’t know if he threw a fit and never spoke to Paul again or if he welcomed his friend’s advice and found a new and deeper relationship with his former slave based on their common faith. Whatever the outcome of this initial appeal, Paul’s challenge extends across the ages into our own time. While we do not claim to own slaves who need to be freed, I suspect we do have a few relationships where the power dynamic needs some adjustment. There are most likely some places in our lives where we could stand to be more generous to those who are in need. There are certainly opportunities for us to give up the power and privilege that we have so that others can experience the fullness of God’s grace. And there are almost certainly times and places when we say that we are sisters and brothers in Christ and yet don’t take the deep and real consequences of those words seriously.
In these places and in others, we are called to say the difficult words and initiate the difficult conversations, to be honest with our friends when their words make us angry or their actions don’t embody the faith we know they have, to speak up when no one else is saying what everyone knows someone is thinking, to step up and insist that we all are responsible for caring for the least of these among us, even to demand that our nation and our world live out a new different way that doesn’t presume that more violence will bring us peace. Yet we can’t rush in like a bulldozer with these challenges—even Paul’s challenge to Philemon was rooted in their deep relationship and grounded in the faith that they shared. Like those places where we need to express our frustration with our friends, we are usually more likely to be heard if we approach these conversations with grace and generosity, not letting grace mean that others get a free pass but standing up with gentle yet firm insistence that justice for the least of these must prevail.
So when we become frustrated with our friends or our world, when we long for injustice to be righted and hope restored, when we look for a new way of life to take hold here and now, may we share words of justice and hope with our friends and our world, speaking out of our care and concern for one another, offering a friendly challenge to respond to injustice, and seeking a deeper peace in our lives and our world until Christ comes to make all things new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.