Sermon from North Presbyterian Church
Today’s Epistle, St. Paul’s letter to Philemon, is one of the smallest books of the Bible. In it, we hear Paul asking a big favor from his friend Philemon.
The back story is this: Philemon was a wealthy convert to Christianity who was personally mentored by Paul. As was common in those days, he owned slaves. One slave, named Onesimus, escaped from his master and went to live in another city, where he too came into contact with St. Paul and converted to Christianity. Onesimus was zealous in his faith and active in the ministry of the Church, especially as Paul himself was in prison.
This development put Paul in a predicament. On the one hand, he had a fugitive slave in his company. Roman imperial law clearly dictated that such a person should be returned to his master to face whatever punishment the master deemed appropriate. Because Christians were frequently accused of trying to overthrow the government and undermine the established social order, Paul was keen to demonstrate to the authorities that the Church posed no threat to society and was composed of decent, law-abiding citizens, even though religious conviction prevented them from bowing down in worship to Caesar.
On the other hand, Paul was a firm believer that baptism was ‘the great equalizer’ of humankind. Distinctions of race, class, and gender meant nothing to Paul once a person was baptized into the Church. As he himself famously wrote, “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” (Galatians 3:28). If this was true, as Paul believed it was, then Philemon no longer had any rightful claim of ownership over Onesimus.
This was Paul’s dilemma: “Do I obey the law and return Onesimus to his master, thereby implying that the Christian faith endorses the institution of slavery, or do I allow Onesimus to remain with me as a free man, thereby undermining Roman law and lending credence to the rumors that the Christian Church is out to overthrow society?”
In the end, after what must have been an intense period of prayer and reflection, in obedience to the letter of the law, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. However, instead of sending him back empty-handed, Paul also sent the brief note that we read today.
In it, Paul acknowledges and obeys the authority of civil law, even as he acknowledges its deficiencies. Thinking as a pastor, Paul goes beyond Roman law, appealing to a higher authority in the heart of Philemon.
Paul says, “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 preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”
He goes on to explain, “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother”.
Because both men are now baptized Christians, the nature of their relationship has changed. They are no longer simply master and slave under the hierarchy of Roman law, but brother and brother in the household of God.
The rulers of this world exert their will on their subjects from without, by the power of force. Christ, on the other hand, enacts his will from within, by the power of love. God works the divine will into our lives through gentle persuasion over time.
This seems odd to us, who are accustomed to the willful way of the world, where it is often said that “might makes right.” We may be tempted to ask, “How can good triumph over evil unless it wields the power of the sword?”
We might as well ask, “How can the gentleness of water overcome the firmness of solid rock?” It might seem impossible, but the Grand Canyon stands as a permanent testimony to the contrary. Given time and persistence, water is able to round off the sharp edges and smooth out the rough places. Bit by bit, the rock gives way to the will of the river and a thing of unsurpassable beauty is created. It is no different when God’s grace works in human hearts.
Jesus put this gentle grace to work most fully on Good Friday, when he gave himself over to the will of the powers of the world. They unleashed the full force of their rage and violence upon the body of Christ. And even though he could have easily beaten them all with legions of angels, he chose instead to pray for his executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
In a supreme act of mercy, Jesus absorbed their violence into himself and died. When he rose again on the third day, his resurrection revealed to his Church, once and for all, that the power of his love is greater than the world’s love of power. Thus, the river of grace continues washing over the hard rock of sin and wears it away until all that is left is beauty.
St. Paul understood this. He understood that Philemon and Onesimus, as baptized members of the Body of Christ, share together in the life of the Triune God. They sit in communion with each other around the table of Christ, where there are no more masters and slaves, but only brothers and sisters.
Understanding this truth, Paul appealed to Philemon’s conscience on the basis of love. He worked by gentleness, rather than force. Rather than legislating gospel norms by fiat, he planted a seed in Philemon’s heart and ours, by extension.
We do not know how effective Paul’s appeal was in this particular situation (the text of the New Testament does not tell us), but we do know the effect his words had on subsequent generations of Christians.
Christian abolitionists, working to eradicate the institution of slavery in 19th century America, found in this piece of Scripture the spiritual principle on which their ministry would be based: that masters and slaves become brothers and sisters in Christ. Over a millennium and a half after it was first planted, St. Paul’s seed finally bore fruit in the hearts of these workers for justice.
As the Church in the world today, it is critical that we bear this truth in mind. I have been deeply troubled as I listen to the violent rhetoric of political campaigns on both sides of the aisle in this election year. Opponents are quick to hurl accusations of treason at one another, calling for revolution. One pastor I know has lamented that so many Americans seem to be “voting with their middle finger” this year.
Even more troubling to me is how this extreme style of rhetoric has wormed its way into our collective psyche, so that even our private conversations and relationships in our congregations, neighborhoods, and homes take on this “all or nothing” character that seeks to eliminate the competition, rather than negotiate and compromise for the greater good of the whole. I cringe every time I see a post on the internet begin with words like, “This may not be politically correct, but I’m going to speak my mind and say what no one else has the guts to say!” Such talk has the appearance of bravado, but is actually nothing more than a thin veil over the ugly face of fear, ignorance, and hate.
As Christians, this is not how we are called to live together in the world. The kingdom of God does not come to earth by the power of the sword. Jesus Christ showed us the way: God’s kingdom comes by the power of mercy, healing, reconciliation, and hospitality that unites people of different races, genders, and social classes in one family. The coming of God’s kingdom starts small, appears weak, and grows slowly. As Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches” (Matthew 13:31-32).
This way of working for transformation seems like foolishness to the powers of this world. The world relies on force to exert its will on human beings, but God’s will works gradually and gently, by the power of mercy, transforming hearts from the inside out.
Scripture assures us that right will win out over wrong in the end, but it will not happen all at once. In the meantime, we are called to be patient, to bear with one another in love, to make good use of the tools of mercy, kindness, healing, and hospitality, even for our enemies. This is not mere political correctness; it is the Gospel upon which we place our hope.
It may be small, it may seem weak, it may even lead to our own crucifixion, but Christ’s resurrection is our token that the Gospel will be victorious before the end. May the gentle waters of grace continually wash over us, rounding off our sharp edges and smoothing out our roughness, until our hardness of heart gives way and all that is left is beauty.